Top 10 classic helmets

Iconic slices of history

HELMETS have been an integral part of motorcycling for decades and charting their development reflects the changing technology and fashion over the years nearly as well as the development of the motorcycle itself.

But unlike bikes, which benefit from a thriving classic scene and are remembered and sustained by fans all over the world, old helmets are generally consigned to the bin.

It’s understandable; they have a limited useful life and while there might be fun to be had from revisiting the past and wrangling with an uncooperative classic bike, there’s no joy in knowing that the thing protecting your bonce is past its use-by date and has long since been superseded by more effective technology. But just like bell-bottoms or Global Hypercolor T-shirts, a glimpse of an old helmet design can instantly conjure images of the era that it stems from.

Beyond that, some are landmarks of their own, being linked to particular racer, or to technological developments that either influenced an entire generation or remain evolutionary dead ends that forever freeze the designs using them in time.

You’re sure to have your own favourites, but here – in no particular order - are our top 10 helmets of the past.

10. Bell 500TX

If any helmet can lay claim to being the father of all modern lids it’s the Bell 500TX. Launched back in 1957, it was the first helmet to carry Snell certification – in a time when the idea of certification itself was still a novelty (although in the UK the BSI Kitemark had been introduced on motorcycle helmets in 1953). It also introduced the idea of expanded polystyrene liners, as used in helmets to this day. You can still buy a modern interpretation of the 500TX, too.

9. Bell Star

A dozen years after the 500TX, Bell introduced the Star – the world’s first full-face helmet, worn by both motorcyclists and car racers. While it set the template for almost every helmet that followed, the Star did have its flaws – not least the fact that on the first versions the tiny, vision-limiting visor opening featured fixed glazing. Not one for claustrophobes. The later Star 120 widened the aperture to increase visibility and soon flip-up visors replaced the permanent one. Again, there’s a retro replica – the Bell Star Classic – available now (although it’s meant for car racers rather than bikes) while the Bell Bullitt offers a Star-inspired retro look for riders.

8. Bell XF-GP

If the original Bell Star was criticised for limited vision, the one-year-only XF-GP was even worse with its two individual eye holes. But you have to admit that it looked cool, even if you could barely see out of it. Tiny numbers were made, aimed at drag racers on both two and four wheels, in 1975 only, and these days an XF-GP is a collectible ornament that will probably cost thousands.

7. Bell Motostar

Let's stick with Bell while we’re on a roll and mention the Moto Star, the first full-face motocross lid. Introduced in the early 70s as a development of the Star 120, it’s the sort of iconic shape that would be the ideal accompaniment to a Ducati Scrambler, particularly once fitted with a pop-on plastic peak.

6. Simpson Bandit

Whether you’re the Stig or a throwback to that brief era when everyone wanted a GSX-R7/11 streetfighter, a Simpson Bandit is the only helmet that would be worthy of consideration. That distinctive visor shape and thrusting chin make it instantly recognisable, even if that classic Bandit was never actually certified (or legal) for UK road use.

5. Griffin Clubman

Whatever happened to Griffin? Back in the 70s there was nothing cooler. These were expensive bits of kit, and looked it thanks to the chrome rim around the visor opening and those mesh-filled air vents drilled into the visor itself. Add a peaked visor as well as the Perspex one for the full look. Incredibly, Bob Heath still sells visors for Clubmans, so presumably some people are still wearing them.

4. Arai RX-7

It's been nearly 20 years since the RX-7 first appeared back in 1996, and the firm has just launched its latest version, the RX-7V. It’s still up there as one of the most desirable lids on the market, and when the design was new it was the helmet of choice for racers (and journalists) which meant you barely ever saw a magazine cover that didn’t feature one.

3. Shoei RF-102V

The RF-102 was introduced in 1983 but it’s the 1984 ‘V’ version that makes the list. Why? Because it lays claim to be the first full-face helmet to have a proper ventilation system. Sure, people had been drilling holes in their visors for years, but this was a system that actually routed air around the head and could be opened or closed with little tabs on the forehead. Pioneering stuff.

2. BMW System 2

Made for BMW by Schuberth, the System 1 was a pioneer thanks to its flip-up design, but the idea really got into its stride in the late 80s with the System 2, the designers of which were clearly given a very clean sheet of paper. As well as a flip-up face piece, it gained a clip-on tinted sun shield in the top of the visor, an optional peak and even an electrically-heated main visor implanted with tiny heating elements to de-mist it. Oh, and the shell was dimpled, a bit like a golf ball (although not as radically as Schuberth’s 1984 ‘Speed’ helmet), to improve aerodynamics and reduce noise. Some of the ideas have caught on, others haven’t, but you’ve got to appreciate the effort.

1. GPA SJ Twin Lock

The System 2 might have been an innovator but for outright off-the-wall thinking it’s hard to look past the GPS SJ, which is surely the only modern(ish) helmet to have gone without a chin strap. Instead, the lower rim of the lid was split into two sections, front and rear, and both hinged down instead. You’d swing them down, put the helmet on and then click them into place, locking the lid onto your head both front and back. The idea was to improve safety by making a lid that would be less likely to come off by accident but that could also be removed in the event of an accident (there was a quick-release system) without having to pull too hard at it. While it was briefly in vogue, and used by riders like Christian Sarron and Patrick Pons as well as a host of F1 drivers in the early 80s, it was never BSI certified and later lost favour in racing, too. Of course, the apparent lack of adjustability, with no strap to tighten, presumably meant that it either fitted or it didn’t (if you ever used one, tell us below how well it worked…)

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