Motorcycle History: 50 Years of Full-Face Motorcycle Crash Helmets

Motorcycle History -

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bell-star-1963

Each week RideApart looks back to highlight key milestones in motorcycling history from innovations to significant model introductions to racing successes and, of course, some of the disastrous things we’d rather forget. This week it’s the 50th anniversary of full-face motorcycle crash helmets.

One of the major milestones in motorcycle safety is probably sitting on your head every time you get on your bike. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the production and sale in 1963 of the first ever full-face motorcycle helmet, designed and developed here in the U.S. by Bell Helmets.

Back then motorcyclists (as well as drag, car and boat racers) were faced with limited choice in safety headgear. All that was on offer were either three quarter open faced or half helmets with varying degrees of protection and safety. Some car and bike racers were even using helmets made out of leather or cork.

According to Bell, it was actually motorcyclists that pushed for a better helmet design and as a result, its engineers went back to the drawing board and came up with the first full-face motorcycle helmet that the company christened the Bell Star.

It had a rigid outer shell constructed from stain weave fiberglass cloth as was used in the aircraft industry. The direction of the weave was crucial to ensure maximum strength across the helmet’s surface and it was bonded with a high impact polyester resin that was then coated with a scuff-resistant epoxy coating. Inside there was a conventional EPS liner, not that dissimilar to type you find on today’s helmets. In the 1960s Bell made a point of marketing the fact that the liners used in all of its crash helmets were made from the same material used by the U.S. military in its HGU 2/P flight helmet and by NASA in astronaut helmets.

The Santa Cruz- based company began selling the Bell Star in February 1963 and described the helmet in its catalog as being revolutionary, with maximum face protection, better visibility and breathing for the wearer than a conventional helmet and that it would not fog up. You didn’t get a flip up visor like we know today, but a shatterproof plastic lens that had to be popped out of its rubber moldings.

At $59.50 it was pretty pricey too and the most expensive Bell helmet in the company’s five-strong line-up. But like all Bell helmets at the time (and today), the Star met the crash criteria set up by independent safety organization the Snell Foundation. The requirement, 50 years ago, for a helmet to receive the Snell safety approval was that it passed a simulated crash test without serious damage to the helmet or potentially the wearer’s head. The impact test involved withstanding a 120 ft.-lb. hit, or the equivalent of a 16 lb weight traveling at 16 mph and hitting the helmet.

The Bell Star quickly found a big following among motorcycle enthusiasts, including top bike racers, as well many of the world’s leading race car drivers. All of today’s high tech crash helmets are light years away from the original 1963 Bell Star in terms of design, construction and the materials used to make them. But every single one of today’s full-face crash helmets can trace its heritage back to the iconic Bell Star.

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  • http://www.codyk.net/ Cody Kitaura

    Now I can finally ride through fire!

  • runnermatt

    Since we are on the topic of helmets I have a question. What is the difference between the SNELL rating and the ECE rating. I know RideApart prefers the ECE rating over the SNELL. I’ve heard ECE helmet tend to be lighter because SNELL requires a thicker shell on the helmets. Is this true? It would probably make a pretty good write up. I know I am curious about the differences.

    • Scheffy

      Look up the article called Blowing the Lid Off that was published in Motorcyclist back in 2005. Oldie but a goodie. Explains the differences and also details how these things are tested, or were at the time.
      The article itself is credited with forcing certain certification bodies (all eyes awkwardly pan to the Snell guys in the room…) to rethink and revamp their standards to something a little more realistic, i.e., Snell 2010. Caused quite a stir at the time, allegedly causing the mag to lose big money in helmet ad revenue and the writer to get canned due to advertising budget politics.

      • KeithB

        Read the article, Snell’s reply and a great follow up from Wes.
        The author of the original article that criticizes Snell was “fired” due to pressure from advertisers.
        Imagine…money driving editorial content!
        Gosh…that NEVER happens….

    • http://RideApart.com/ Wes Siler

      Good question, we need an article explaining the differences soon. ECE is hard to grasp because it’s all EU legislation speak. Snell is purposefully murky.

      In the meantime, this article should shed some light: http://jalopnik.com/5582380/how-the-truth-about-motorcycle-helmets-got-a-journalist-fired

      • runnermatt

        Thanks Wes,

        I’m a little more educated now. I also remembered that I hate Source Interlink Media for killing my favorite magazine, Sport Compact Car.

  • eddi

    I have very fond memories of my first Bell helmet. In 1978 it saved my life, no doubt about it. Left hook style accident, I went flying over top of the car and bounced across the intersection. The back and side of the helmet looked like they had been power sanded. Me, well I’m writing this comment. Enough said.

    • Tim Watson

      Great story! Thanks for posting.

  • Piglet2010

    I use my (current generation) Bell Star to protect my melon. Nice lid, except that the chin-strap magnet cover needs to be sewn instead of glued on, and white is not a good color for a lid liner.

  • http://ericrshelton.com/ Eric R. Shelton

    Gort!

    Okay, classic sci-fi movie geekdom aside, this is a pretty cool article. Thanks for posting it!