Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Hardshell Helmets: A History Through Advertising

In my list of Top 10 Bicycling Inventions posted back in January, I listed at number 10 the introduction of effective bicycle helmets. Like a lot of people, I credited the Bell Biker as the first really effective bike-specific helmet, though looking back through old Bicycling and Bike World magazines from the 1970s, I found that may not be quite true. Still, looking through the old advertisements got me thinking that others might be interested in what I found. So here's a little history, told through the advertisements of the day which should give a decent idea of what was available, and when.

This ad for the "new" MSR helmet
 appeared in the Summer of 1974.
Up until the 1970s, the only headgear worn by cyclists, if any, was either a cycling cap, or maybe a leather strap helmet or "hairnet" as some called them. Sometimes it was the leather helmet over the cycling cap. The leather helmets were light, and cool (as in well-ventilated, though I suppose they looked pretty cool, too) but they really didn't offer much protection from anything more than the lightest impact. People looking for more serious head protection sometimes turned to things like hockey helmets, or kayaking helmets, either of which may have been an improvement over the leather hairnet, but really not ideal for the job.

An MSR helmet ad from 1978 promises
a free replacement for a busted helmet
in exchange for the user's story.
As mentioned, I had been thinking of the Bell as the first bicycling-specific helmet, but looking through the old magazines, I found ads for the MSR (Mountain Safety Research) bicycle helmet at least as early as the summer of 1974, which makes it earlier by at least several months than the Bell. Based on their mountaineering helmets, the bicycle helmet had what they billed as a "penetration-resistant" Lexan hard shell, with a 5/8-in. thick "headband" of expanded polystyrene foam (EPS). The crown of the helmet had a web of "suspension straps" inside, not unlike those found in construction hard hats. It had a row of holes, maybe 3/4-in. diameter across the front to provide some ventilation. I'm assuming that the ventilation holes were probably the main difference between the cycling helmet and the mountain helmet -- or perhaps it was the EPS headband?

When it comes to reducing the force of a head impact, it's been shown that stiff, crushable EPS is really the best material there is, and it is the basis of almost all modern helmets. The band of EPS in the MSR helmet probably provided decent protection from blows to the front, back, or sides of the helmet, though the suspension straps across the crown would not have been as good at reducing the force of impact on the top. I saw the results from a helmet test in the later '70s confirming that assessment. But the MSR helmet was sold right through the end of the decade and even into the early 80s with only minor changes. Through the 1970s their ads proclaimed "MSR helmets have saved over 60 heads. Let yours be the next one!" Over the years, the number of saved heads would grow, so by 1980, they were proclaiming 120 saved. Where did they get the numbers? The company had a policy, listed in their advertising, that they would replace a busted helmet, free of charge, in exchange for the broken helmet and the user's story. Clever, and effective.

This is one of the earliest ads I could find for the original Bell
bicycle helmet, in late 1974. Notice how they want to build
up anticipation with the line "Not For Sale . . . Yet!" 
The first mention I could find of the Bell bicycle helmet was in the fall of '74 in Bike World. "Not For Sale . . . Yet!" the ad read -- as a teaser to generate interest. A few months later, the ads would declare that the anticipated helmets were available for purchase, direct from Bell (with a little order form to be clipped out of the magazine) so I'm guessing the first Bell Bikers were probably hitting the streets at the beginning of 1975.

The Bell Biker may have been beaten to the market by the MSR, but it was a better helmet. Fully lined throughout with thicker EPS foam, and with more and larger vents, Bell really set the standard for head protection for the next 10 years. And while the MSR may have been marketed as a bicycle-specific helmet, it probably wasn't all that different from their mountaineering helmets, while the Bell was designed from scratch for cyclists. By the mid 1980s, most good bicycle helmets would follow at least the structure if not the look of the Bell. The Biker would evolve a little over the years, a Biker II was produced, and a more deluxe, updated version called the Tourlite (with a built-in tinted visor) would come out in the early 80s.

From Bicycling magazine, early 1975 - now declaring that the
Bell helmet was available for purchase.

This ad for the Skid Lid II appeared in Bike World
in late 1975. Being dubbed "Skid Lid II," I'd assume
 there was a "Skid Lid I" but I couldn't find one earlier than this.
Later in 1975, ads started appearing for the Skid Lid II. Was there a Skid Lid I? If there was, I couldn't find it advertised anywhere. The Skid Lid was billed as a quality bicycle-specific helmet, but other than having a partial-coverage shell, it was really no better than the leather hairnets. It had a polycarbonate "hard" shell (that was still fairly flexible) which was open at the top. There was no EPS, but rather a "low rebound foam" -- more like foam rubber padding that was not nearly as good at absorbing serious blows. With its open top design, the makers touted its ventilation, light weight, and comfort, despite the fact that it would leave a rider completely unprotected in a serious header. The Skid Lids performed miserably in most (maybe all) independent helmet performance tests, so when groups like Snell and ANSI started creating their helmet standards in that decade, it was pretty clear early on that the Skid Lid wouldn't get their certification, but they were still being advertised and sold in the early 80s.

As helmet buyers became more aware of the helmet lab tests, and magazines started publishing the results of those tests, the ads for Skid Lids got downright defensive:

Skid Lid ads from Bicycling, 4/83 and 9/83. Notice the text on the left: "How much is known about head injury? Not Enough. Modern science has yet to solve all the mysteries of this menace. Until it does so, the perfect helmet cannot be built." It goes on to talk about Skid Lid's dedication to head protection then concludes with "We will leave the use of invalid tests in defense of traditional designs to others." In other words, we don't care about independent scientific tests, and neither should you. The one on the right says "Cycling puts special demands on a helmet that laboratory test methods cannot duplicate." Skid Lids faded away within the next year or two.
From Bicycling, 3/79


In 1979, Pro-tec entered the bicycle market with a helmet that seemed to have a lot in common with football helmets, minus the face mask. It was a full-coverage design that had a thick liner of a rebounding type of foam that would make it suitable for sustaining multiple minor impacts -- probably making it better suited to activities like skateboarding than cycling. Not surprisingly, a lot of skateboard helmets still have a design that is somewhat reminiscent of the Pro-tec, but made with stiffer EPS.

Available in limited numbers as early as '77, the Bailen
Bike Bucket first starts appearing in the national
bike magazines in 1979. This ad was from Bike World.

Ads for the Bailen Bike Bucket also started appearing '79. But the helmet was apparently available in limited quantities as early as 1977. I found mention of it (but no pictures) in the August '77 issue of Bike World. Created by Dr. Hal Bailen, a sports medicine specialist from Sausalito, California, the Bailen helmet was the result of his studies on bicycle head injuries in the earlier part of the decade. The Bike Bucket had a layer of EPS foam, and a unique suspension system that made it a one-size-fits-all proposition. Notably, it had absolutely no holes or vents, as Bailen felt that ventilation would come from air moving between the scalp and the suspended helmet liner -- that, and he believed the holes would weaken the helmet. The helmet was made and sold at least through the first half of the 1980s. I could find ads for a slightly updated version with a built-in visor as late as 1986.

From Bicycling, Sept/Oct. 1983.
The first "real" bicycle helmet I ever bought was the Bell V-1 Pro. It was supposed to look something like a leather hairnet, and was billed as one of the lightest hardshell helmets available at the time. The earliest ad I could find for it was in the fall of 1983, though it may have got its start a few years earlier. In a 1980 ad for Bell helmets, featuring a Bell Biker that had been cut in half to reveal its nearly 1-in. thick layer of EPS foam, there was a small inset photo of a helmet they called the "Prime."

The Prime - circa 1980.
The Prime basically looked like the V-1, except that the space between the "ribs" was closed, not open. Funny thing about that helmet, though, is that other than this one advertisement, I've never actually seen one. Searching through sales ads of the time, from retailers like Bike Warehouse (which would become Nashbar) and Bikecology, I can find listings and prices for the Biker, but no mention of the Prime. Regardless, the V-1 Pro became very popular and spawned several imitators or copies, including one from Avenir that looked almost identical.
From Inside Cycling
July 1987.

This full-page ad for the Giro was from the
Nov. '87 issue of Bicycling
The next big thing to hit bicycle helmets would have to be the introduction of "shell-less" helmets, beginning with the Giro Prolight. Working on the theory that the critical component of the helmet was the EPS foam, the Giro dispensed with the hard shell and just used more foam, wrapped in a cosmetic covering of lycra -- otherwise the helmet didn't look much different from a styrofoam beer cooler. Helmets suddenly got a lot lighter, and everybody soon followed with their own versions of the beer cooler helmets. Wikipedia lists the introduction date for the Giro as 1985. So does the Gear Junkie blog. But researching it myself, the earliest mention I can find of the original Giro didn't come until the October 1986 issue of Bicycling. No picture. No ad. Just a mention of the helmet in a paragraph near the back of the magazine, alerting readers to watch for it in upcoming issues. Pictures and previews followed later, and the Dec. '86 issue of Bicycling had a rider wearing the Prolight pictured on the cover - but again, no advertisements for it within. The first advertisements that I can find for the Giro don't appear until 1987. That lines up with my own memory of them as well, as I bought one myself, probably in the summer of '87. And as I recall, I had to drive quite a ways to find a shop that had them, as no shops in my area were carrying them yet. But by the end of 1987, pictures of riders wearing the Giro helmets were appearing in all the bicycle magazines. Many copies and imitators were released within a year or two.

I don't think this is the first ad for the Pro-tec
Mirage - but it's a favorite of mine. 
With the quick spread of the new designs, reports started coming out that the lycra-covered foam helmets might be protecting riders against impact effectively enough, but that the foam might not "slide" well in a skidding situation -- it could perhaps "snag" and cause neck injuries. The other issue raised was that, without the hard shell to keep it together, the foam helmets could break up on impact. The Pro-tec Mirage of 1988 dealt with the latter issue by embedding a plastic mesh-like reinforcement inside the EPS foam -- not unlike the rebar or steel mesh inside reinforced concrete. Apart from the internal reinforcement, the helmet had a lycra cover and looked a lot like the Giro. Other makers soon adopted something similar.

The solution to the other problem, that of the sliding resistance, came at the end of the decade in the form of an extra thin plastic shell. Not so much a "hard shell" as a "micro-shell." The first example I can find is the Bell Ovation. I found them listed in the Performance Bike catalogs from 1988. The first micro-shells were typically glued or taped to the EPS foam, but by 1990 or so, some helmet makers were molding the EPS directly into the micro-shell, making them stronger. Most modern helmets today are made in similar fashion.

With the craze for aerodynamics, which may be credited to Greg LeMond's 1989 Tour de France win wearing a teardrop-shaped Giro, helmets have gone more and more to wind-tunnel designs, with elongated shapes and wing-like fins. The result is that road riding helmets, especially, are supposed to look like they're going fast even when they're standing still. Granted, I love that a good helmet now weighs in the neighborhood of 9 ounces, or about half a pound -- but the look of most new helmets really leaves me cold. Not only that, but some sources show that helmets with ridges, points, and projections are not as effective as a smooth, rounded shape at protecting against neck injuries. It gets back to that "sliding resistance" issue. There's some info about that at the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute website.

I've heard from people who still ride wearing Bell Bikers from the 70s or early 80s. I don't actually recommend using helmets that old, because I believe that the claims of EPS foam degrading over time are more than just planned-obsolescence marketing cooked up to make us all buy new helmets. But looking back at them, I have a renewed appreciation for the simple shape of the old Biker. If the folks over at Bell (which is now owned by BRG Sports, the same company that also owns Giro) are reading this - how about recreating the Biker - in modern materials and methods, maybe with slightly larger vents? Traditional looks, but a lot lighter. It would probably be a hit -- at least with us retrogrouches.

15 comments:

  1. Love the vintage ads, especially the 1983 one that looks like an advertisement for Atari Battlezone.

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    1. It's interesting to see how much "slicker" ads got over time. A lot of those earlier ones were obviously made with minimal advertising budgets -- they look like ads you might see in a little club newsletter that gets printed on a photocopier for maybe 50 people.

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  2. I think I got my first Bell helmet in 1976--after I got hit by a car.
    Did not need it before then.

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    1. I was lucky enough to be wearing my first real helmet - the V1 Pro - when I had my most serious accident. Did a full out over-the-bars header, head first into the pavement. If I'd been wearing a Skid Lid, with its open top, the result would probably have been much more serious. As I recall, the helmet actually looked pretty good, but I replaced it as recommended - with another V1 Pro.

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  3. Thanks for an interesting walk back through time. I am old enough to remember those early helmets. All the "serious" riders laughed at anyone that wore one. I routinely see a guy on my rides who is wearing the early Bell helmet. And, I agree, that thing can't possibly be much protection in a crash.

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  4. I don't think there is any evidence the Biker isn't as good as it always was. As the saying goes, you can tell an MIT prof by the Bell Biker helmet he rides away from campus wearing. Engineer types probably know more about this stuff than we do, and they wear them when they can get them. Modern helmets are more wish than real. All the Bell has to do is outperform them. No contest.

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    1. My only concern with using a Bell Biker today is that the foam may have lost some of its effectiveness over time. Any helmet of that model on the road today has got to be at least 30 years old. The manufacturers talk a lot about the breakdown of the foam over the years -- and while that could just be something they say to get people to buy new helmets, I have a feeling there may actually be something to it.

      I agree that the design and construction is probably as good as - or better than today's helmets -- that thick shell almost certainly did some good.

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  5. My girlfriend at the time bought me the V1-Pro as a gift right after I bought my pink '85 Mt. Fuji Ltd. Having always ridden bare-headed during the 24 years since I received my first bike, a Schwinn American, I hated wearing a helmet and so never did. The V1-Pro was kept in its original plastic bag within its original box and was moved from closet to closet for well over 20 years.

    When I returned to cycling a couple of years ago, my wife put her foot down and wouldn't let me go out on the road without a helmet. I tried a couple of different ones and finally landed on a Bell that offered great protection at a reasonable price and didn't look too silly when I was out on my Cannondale T2000. But after digging through our closets and rediscovered the V1-Pro, I decided that I had finally found a helmet that I could wear while riding the Wicked Fat Chance I had purchased new in Santa Rosa back in '89 without looking totally Fred. I'm sure that its foam is not as structurally sound as it was when it was new, but then again, I don't ride quite as hard as I did 30 years ago, and the V1-Pro's massive structure is certainly better than nothing.

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  6. good post, pictures would be nice though. I wish I had kept some of my bike gear from the 70's & 80's.

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    1. Did the pictures not show up for you? No idea why - there are lots of photos and scans from the old ads.

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    2. The picture I wanted to see was David M. on his Wicked Fat Chance wearing the V1.

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    3. Ohhh! I misunderstood. Yes - that would be good.

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  7. Okay, so it took me a year to see this article and respond....
    My first helmet, probably around '82, was a Bell Prime (Pronounced preem) from the local bike shop. It was nothing like the later V-1 Pro, despite outward appearances. The inner polystyrene was the density of a beer cooler (not the higher density found in the V-1) and the ventilation system was air channels created by the fitting foam. It had a VERY heavy plastic shell and was heavier than a Biker. I also think I remember the V-1 Pro having buckles on the straps, whereas the Prime had D rings.

    There's a very good reason you didn't see them. The Biker was a better helmet, even though you looked like a total Fred wearing it.

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    1. You're the first I've encountered who even remembers having seen one of these in person, much less owned one. My first helmet was the V1. I even have one now, but the foam "fit pads" have disintegrated completely. But if I can find some replacements, I might use it for a "vintage bike ride" someday - or if I ever do Eroica.

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  8. I owned a Bailen for 24 hours in 1981. On the ride home it about cooked my brains; shoulda known all that "designed for flow, no need for holes" talk was so much bunk.

    Next day I exchanged it for an MSR, which I'm still wearing. (After a twenty-year hiatus, while looking for something new that I like.)

    Wish there were still MSRs on the market; I put thousands of miles on mine, and still love it. Smooth, professional lines; looks like something made for grown-ups. Also not a great fan of that Woody Woodpecker look most road helmets have now.

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