The first riders I ever saw on motorbikes wore no headgear, but I secretly wanted a helmet. Helmets were pretty rare on the street at that time, and most people whizzed about without much thought about it. The people that wore helmets were going seriously fast all the time, or were racers, and that is why I wanted one. They were pudding bowls with leather straps, and probably less effective then, than some of today’s $20 helmets. In hindsight, I wanted one for the same reason that kids want to wear the same athletic shoes as an NBA star, or use the same clubs as Tiger Woods. The gear would make you as good as your idol, if not you could at least look the part, and perhaps set hearts a flutter at the food and refueling stop.
The first rides I took on a motorcycle did not involve any headgear. They were rides across fields on trail bikes where perhaps it was thought that the grass and soft earth would serve just as well. More accurately, it was because no one had a helmet to lend, because no one had a helmet. Motorcycling was dangerous outlaw stuff and if you weren’t man enough, then you should try singing or something. Of course there were thousands of Honda 50s and 90s, but they were utilitarian work vehicles, and didn’t travel fast enough to warrant any gear at all. The few crashes we heard about on these were either fatal where a helmet would have made no difference, or bumps and bruises. This did cause some to repurpose US football helmets, but they just looked strange on a step-through.
I could understand much later why my parents had strong objections to anything on two wheels. But I had a friend whose older brother had a bike. It was a Triumph that had been de-badged, and he had brought it back from England. He wore one of those leather strap pudding bowl helmets, and goggles. He was clearly an ambassador for the café racer movement. Even going very slowly, he appeared to be a daredevil of speed, and you always got the sense that he had just done the ton. I had no bike of my own, but I needed one of those helmets……and the goggles.
I also had an uncle……and he had a CB500, which at the time was a large and powerful bike. He also had a helmet. It was a Fulmer ¾ helmet with no face shield, and it was gold metal flake like the bike. I marveled at the metal flake paint on that helmet and the padding inside. Surely this was what was keeping stunt heroes alive, and look what they were doing !! My uncle was in an elite group. Combined with a denim jacket and jeans, it said “I go very fast and I am super cool”. And he did, and he was. I needed that helmet.
However, dark glasses were the only required headgear as I began to zoom around on bikes, and it was a few years before I actually wore a helmet at all. It was the same hand-me-down 3/4 gold flake job, and it stayed at a friend’s house since my two-wheeled adventures were top secret. It was a little banged up, and had an STP sticker on it, but otherwise in good shape. You would think I got my wish. The problem was the reason I got the helmet. It was because my uncle had graduated to a CB750 (a monstrous and gargantuan beast), and to a…wait for it… full face helmet. It was a white Bell helmet which did not match the (Gold again) bike. But this was the stuff of astronauts and land speed record holders! Surely he was breaking the sound barrier on the 750 with this new aerodynamic aid. It made the ¾ helmet seem out-of-date and ….well….slow. In order to be very fast and super cool, I needed one of those.
Decades later, I am shopping for a helmet online, and there are full face helmets for more than the cost of my first 2 bikes combined. Some have laminar lips, and vents that make your head almost cooler than no helmet, and stunning graphics. Some are the same actual helmet that the world Moto GP champion is wearing on the track right now !!! Valentino Rossi is very fast and super cool. I don’t match the speed that Rossi travels on his pit bike, but I need one of those helmets.
Today, remarkably safe and comfortable helmets are plentiful and cheap in the US. I take no position on the personal and political arguments around wearing a helmet. Motorcycling itself has risks, and I don’t presume to tell anyone else how much risk to take. I personally now ride with a helmet 100% of the time, despite my early days. However, it does seem like a certain type of helmet goes with a certain type of bike. A full face helmet on my R50/2 just feels wrong to me, despite the very sensible safety arguments. A pudding bowl on a modern sportbike seems wrong as well. It seems to me that if you want to be very fast (in your own mind) and super cool (in your own mind), there has always been, and still is, a helmet that you need.