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Joy Ride: The Great Motorcycle Helmet

Posted 19.05.16  - Culture

The British might be known for conservatism, but when it comes to making the most of the blank canvas of a motorcycling helmet, our star riders have never been afraid to let their true colours shine through.

The late, great John Cooper - one of the most admired racers of the 1950s and 60s - probably started it all by painting a pair of giant, surprised-looking eyes on to his pudding-basin crash helmet, while six-time motorcycle world champion Geoff Duke, who was born in St Helens, proudly sported the red rose of Lancashire on the front of his.

The arrival of 'full face' skid lids during the 1970s gave broader scope for design, with Barry Sheene choosing Donald Duck as his signature decoration and Phil Read adopting a racy, chequer band around the base of his. Later, Carl Fogarty became known for competing in a blue and red helmet with a shark design on the back and a line of four number ones to mark each of his World Superbike Championship titles.

Von Dutch's aluminium 'pudding bowl' was engraved with the names of 24 motorcycle marques and took him 30 years to complete. It fetched £15,384 at auction.

But many still believe the 'open' style to be cooler (especially when worn with shades or a pair of classic aviator goggles), and the modern-day appeal of motorcycling as a lifestyle statement has seen the return of what is sometimes known as the 'jet' design.

The effortlessly stylish David Beckham certainly pulls it off in the artfully bashed-up, matte-black effort he often favours - and which he wore for a recent whisky commercial - while gender-bending artist and enthusiastic biker Grayson Perry prefers a somewhat less mean-looking finish to his open-face 'bone dome': for him, the order of the day is a pistachio background with a cupcake border.

It's not just the Brits who can carry off a stylish lid, though. Take a look at any image of the late 'King of Cool' Steve McQueen aboard a motorcycle, and (on the occasions when he is actually wearing one) his helmets invariably boast a memorable design.

He often wore a black open-face, highlighted by subtle gold-pin lining, but his most famous lid was the one he wore to compete for America in the 1964 International Six Days Trial. McQueen commissioned his friend, legendary customiser and pinstripe artist Kenny 'Von Dutch' Howard, to create a design for the whole team to wear - the result being a vibrant blue background with three thick white stripes, each bordered in red.

Von Dutch's greatest example of helmet art, however, was undoubtedly the aluminium 'pudding bowl' that he meticulously engraved with the names of 24 of his favourite motorcycle marques. The helmet, which took him 30 years to complete, fetched £15,384 when it came under the hammer at auction house Bonhams in 2008.


Top image shows the African Anarchy helmet, bottom image shows the London To New York helmet; both exclusively designed for Turnbull & Asser SS16 by Davida.

Simon de Burton - Writer for Esquire and How To Spend It

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