Flashback Friday – Hairnets to EPS: Cycling Helmets from the ’80s

Ah, the ’80s, an era that gave us hairstyles as varied as teased bangs, the rocker mullet, the side ponytail, and the always classic Flock of Seagulls.  But all this reminiscing about hair brings us around to our subject of helmets, and, as you can read in this Bicycling magazine article,the bicycle helmet saw its fair share of changes in the decade of the ’80s as well.  Looking back through the pages of our catalog archives, you can trace that evolution as it progressed from the humble leather “hairnet” to the high-tech (for it’s day) original Giro Prolight.  Sadly no mullets made an appearance on our models.

Featuring the iconic Bell Biker

Here in one of our earliest catalogs, from 1983, you can see the full assortment of hard shell bike helmets available.  The Bell Biker, top left, was the very first bicycle helmet made of expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam bonded to a hard plastic shell.  One major drawback with the Bell Biker, other than the size and weight, was that the overhang from the shell was so big that you could barely see when you were down in the drops.  Our personal favorite from this era was the Brancale Sport helmet, top right, but only because it looks like the one worn by Belov in American Flyers!

“Breakaway Bob” in action

But for the racing enthusiast of the day, hard shell helmets were still too heavy and poorly ventilated.  The leather “hairnet” style helmet still ruled the peloton, as ably demonstrated in this vintage photo of “Breakaway” Bob, one of the distributors in our bike division.  Basically thin strips of foam wrapped in leather, these lightweight helmets provided relatively little impact protection.

From leather hairnets to hardshells, all on one page

Here in a 1985 catalog you can see our assortment of padded leather helmets, including the Kucharik Super Leather Racing helmet that it looks like Bob may have been sporting in his vintage photo!  But alongside these models, in the top right corner, is the innovative Bell V-1 Pro helmet, the first plastic helmet designed specifically for bicycle racing (although it still weighed in at nearly 400g, or the better part of a pound).  Also on this page we make a reference to the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), as they had just introduced the ANSI Z80.4 standard, the first widely adopted bike helmet standard in the United States.  Finally there was real testing and standardization in helmet design; all of the hard-shell helmets we sold back then met these standards, and of course every helmet we sell today does too (although the standards have been updated over the years)!

Early aero models

Moving on the helmet spread from 1987, we see a  few big steps forward in helmet design.  Not only did we start to see aerodynamic design with the Bell Stratos, at the top of the page (which is undeniably cool in a Star Wars/Tron sort of way), but there was also innovation from an unlikely source, the humble Lil Bell Shell (in the middle of the page).  This children’s helmet featured an innovative no-shell design; the entirety of the helmet was lightweight EPS foam, eschewing the heavy plastic shell of earlier helmet designs.

The original Giro Prolight

Which leads directly into the next big step in helmet evolution, the Giro Prolight.  First designed in 1986, this very first Giro helmet mated up the lightweight EPS shell of the Lil Bell Shell with a vented design, all covered in breatheable lycra fabric (to help protect the helmet, and hold all the parts together if you crashed).  Immediately popular, even with the racing set, the Prolight ushered in a new era of lighter weight, more comfortable helmet designs.

Interchangeable covers to suit your style on our Aero helmets

In this 2 page spread from 1988, we featured our very own lightweight EPS helmet with interchangeable covers, the Performance Aero helmet (at our trademark value-pricing, of course).  This helmet had large directional air vents and a weight of only 215g (comparable to modern helmets), but the big drawback with this style of helmet was that the EPS foam was still vulnerable to dings and cracks from less than catastrophic impacts.

The Bell Ovation was the first microshell style helmet (top right)

We also featured the innovative Bell Ovation helmet (top right), the first helmet to feature the “Microshell” design that we see in modern helmets, wherein a thin composite shell was bonded to the foam liner. This shell provided a balance between light weight, durability and comfort, and has been the basis of modern helmet design ever since.  Also much like modern helmets, the Ovation featured an aerodynamic design and an adjustable retention system (just not nearly as refined as what we’ve come to expect today).  But if you look closely at this page, you’ll see that we noted that the venerable Bell V-1 helmet was still the most popular cycling helmet around.  As the ’80s were drawing to a close, old designs were still going strong, but the tide was turning towards helmet features and design that we would recognize today.

A modern lightweight racing helmet – our Scattante Razzo

Looking back to the ’80s, it’s clear that modern helmets have come a long way since then.  But there’s only one way to take advantage of all of these advances. . . by wearing one!  It certainly seems obvious, but there’s no more important piece of safety equipment that you can wear, every time you go for a ride, than your helmet.  There are plenty of styles and prices available, so there’s no excuse not to wear one every single time you go for a ride.  Take it from someone who recently smashed his helmet in a bad crash but came out relatively unscathed – you never choose when you crash, so never neglect this most basic safety precaution!  Trust us, your head (and your hair) will thank you.

9 thoughts on “Flashback Friday – Hairnets to EPS: Cycling Helmets from the ’80s

  1. I had a Kool Kap helmet from the late 70’s early 80’s it had a unique design and was the first helmet with a sun visor and a clip on mirror.

  2. I owned a Bell V1 Pro helmet. It had a visor. I believe the visor was gray. Why don’t I read anything in here about having a visor? I just purchased one from E-bay on Sunday. in new condition. The seller told me the helmet has no visor in the box. Maybe this helmet was made later then mine.

  3. The Blue Bell Stratos (purchased from Performance) saved my life. On 22 August 1988, I was struck head on by a teen driving the wrong way down a bike lane. She was traveling an estimated 72 kph (45 mph). I was struck head on, thrown on the hood. My right knee broke the windshield, breaking my up right femur and flipped over the car, landing HELMET first. I have been given 28 years of life by the helmet that, by today’s standard was quite heavy. If I hadn’t died, I would have, at the least, had a severe head injury. I didn’t wear it 100% of the time in those days, but was fortunate to have it on that day.

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