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The History Of Bell Helmets

The journey toward safe motorcycle helmets began with a racecar builder. Roy Richter had seen many racing accidents in his time, and he was determined to do what he could to prevent them. He was also a determined businessman and a creative inventor. Combining his talents, he would succeed in ways he could not have imagined possible.

Lowbrow-Customs---The-History-of-Bell-Helmets---Header-Image A Gary Nixon Ad for Bell in 1968
Roy Richter - Founder of Bell Helmets. Roy Richter - Founder of Bell Helmets.

As a race car driver, Roy Richter had some success in the 1930s on the local circuits. Yet he found his talents lay in improving racecars rather than driving them. His cars started winning. As they achieved one victorious championship after another, he built a reputation for himself. As World War II ended, he needed a new direction. To find it, he sold his own car to buy the auto parts business where he had once worked as a teenager. It cost him $1,000, all the money he had.

Bell Auto Parts was a suburban Los Angeles store, and it was soon to become the headquarters of Richter’s racecar enterprises. As a driver, Richter had known triumph and defeat, but he had never known what pain really was until, in 1946, Richter’s friend died in a racing accident. This turned his attention to safety on the racetrack. He began studying racing once more. This time, he focused on the Bonneville National Speed Trials. For thirty years, his Bonneville tent sold spare parts and provided shade for drivers.

The original helmets were designed to help these death-defying drivers. The 500, as Richter labeled it, was his first helmet. Today’s motorcycle riders might be surprised to discover that it didn’t have a face mask. They might recognize its fiberglass shell, but the material quality was quite different then from what it is today. This open-face motorcycle helmet design was soon improved upon with the introduction of a non-resilient polystyrene liner. Bell Helmets had to move out of the garage and into its own facility with a full-time staff to handle the orders.

The Original Bell Auto Parts Store bought by Roy Richter in 1945 The Original Bell Auto Parts Store bought by Roy Richter in 1945. First opened by George Wight in 1923.

The 500-TX, an early Bell helmet, earned the Excellence of Design Award from the Museum of Modern Art. The MoMa, one of New York City’s most prestigious art museums, still has four vintage helmets on display. Clearly the Bell helmets were cutting-edge from the very beginning. Enthusiasts can find them in other museums too. The Bell 500 takes its place alongside original Harley Davidson choppers and other vintage motorcycles.

The 500 became a must-have for police officers around the country. Bell had its hands full with orders for law enforcement agencies as well as individual race car drivers and motorcycle enthusiasts. Safety had caught on, and it was well-served by the Bell helmets. Some 800 police departments could thank Bell for preventing motorcycle officer injuries.

Lowbrow Customs - The history of Bell Helmets Evel-Knievel-1967 -famous-Caesars-Palace-jump Evel Knievel's jump at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, NV 1967. If you didn't know, it ended terribly with over 40 bones broken in the crash landing.

The US Ski Team also became a client. The helmets were vital to skier safety as they flew down mountains or raced up a ski ramp. Stunt drivers also adopted them. In fact, Evil Knievel credited a Bell helmet with saving his life after a failed jump in Las Vegas. Motorcycle racing adopted them. Famous racers earned their wins with a Bell helmet as their only nod to safety.

Once again, the company’s success caused them to move. This time Bell Helmets left its hometown and moved nearby to Long Beach, CA. In 1968, Richter introduced the first full-face motorcycle helmet. Racer Dan Gurney introduced the Moto Star to the world in a historic ride at the Indianapolis 500. This helmet would go on to save even more lives. In 1971, Richter followed that up with an off-road version of the full-face helmet, and in the mid 1970's debuted the Bell Moto 3

A vintage advertisement - "Bell Helmets at your local Triumph Dealer's" They retailed for only $37 dollars back then. A vintage advertisement - "Bell Helmets at your local Triumph Dealer's" The 500-TX retailed for only $37 dollars back then and was AMA approved.

The Bell industry moved again in 1976. This time it relocated to Norwalk, California. This move enabled Bell to create one of the most sophisticated test labs in the country. The 180,000-square foot facility oversaw new innovations in material compounds and helmet design.

Lowbrow Customs - The History Of Bell Helmets -racing_carlsbad_turn_4_1969 Bell Helmets worn by Motorcycle Racers in 1969. (Right to left ) #85 - Ken Smith, #111 - Steve McLaughlin, and #77 - Dain Gingerelli.

Richter’s many achievements were recognized by the Speed Equipment Manufacturers Association. In 1975, he was inducted into the SEMA Hall of Fame. Before he retired in 1980, he oversaw the production of the first effective bicycle helmet. Throughout his career, Richter never wavered in his intentions to bring safety to racing sports.

Innovations at Bell have continued with the introduction of more and more cutting edge -materials. The polystyrene liner and the full-face helmet were just indicators of what was to come. Bell innovators have developed ventilation systems to keep drivers cool. They have developed fog free shields, allowing drivers to enjoy clear vision. Each aspect has been the focus of intense scrutiny, leading to more comforting interiors, moisture-wicking materials, and better chin pads.

Jacky Ickx wearing his iconic Formula 1 twin window helmet - 1970's Jacky Ickx wearing an iconic Formula 1 twin window helmet - 1970's

Bell engineers work hard to create helmets that can meet the tough standards applied by everyone from government regulators to Formula One Racing. In fact, Bell Racing engineers have a research and development program that enlists the aid of Formula One drivers and other professionals. This ensures that the newest innovations are aimed at racing’s biggest safety problems.

Today Bell markets helmets for all types of racing sports. It retains its focus on creating the best protection for everything from regular road travel to land speed racing. This requires that same attention to safety that was Richter’s focus at the beginning of his career. Yet today's Bell engineers must also focus on aerodynamics and the use of lightweight, yet tough materials.

The current Bell Custom 500 Helmet is a modern offering that pays homage to the original open-face Bell motorcycle helmet christened the 500 by Richter back in the early 1950's. The fiberglass shell features a high-quality, custom-quilted liner and padded chin strap with a D-ring closure. Simple and to-the-point offering modern protective technology while keeping the pared-down  style and design of the original.

In late 2016 Bell announced release of an updated version of the Bell Moto 3, complete with modern materials and meeting the much more rigorous safety standards of today. This DOT-approved helmet is ideal for the motorcycle enthusiast who is looking for a vintage-style helmet but doesn't want to compromise safety. The Moto 3 features a lightweight fiberglass composite shell and EPS lined chinbar with ample venting. The liner is removable, washable terrycloth (or leather on certain artist series helmets) and it accepts a 5-snap visor, furthering the classic aesthetic.

The Bell Bullitt has a vintage look that harkens back to that first Bell helmet of 1954. Of course, this one has full-face protection, but there is much to remind onlookers of that original award-winning style. The composite fiberglass shell is offered in three shell and EPS sizes, helping users get a personalized fit. That’s something that Richter could only dream of with the original design. Recognizing the value of comfort, the Bullitt has contoured cheek pads and front chin vents. The padded chin strap has a magnefusion magnetic keeper to hold it in place. The micro suede interior can be removed and washed. One can imagine Roy Richter making all of these changes as new materials and processes became available. The one thing that Richter couldn’t foresee was probably the inclusion of speaker pockets for today’s smart phones and other devices.

Bell Bullitt Inspired by the bell Start Helmet. Photo of Andy Cox. Bell Bullitt Inspired by the bell Star Helmet. Photo of Andy Cox.

The Bullit Custom 500 is also based on Richter’s original design. This composite fiberglass shell has a quilted micro suede liner inside the multi-density EPS liner. The padded chin strap has a d-ring closure. There’s even an integrated 5-snap pattern for aftermarket shields and visors. The Bullit Carbon offers the latest in lightweight fiber construction. This is a thoroughly modern helmet with the vintage good looks of the original. The RSD Baggers edition adds a flat dark smoke shield. These new Bells offer the exceptional fit that’s expected of this leading brand.

Like the original full-face Star, the latest Bell Star is also making headlines. The Star is made from TriMatrix, a composite shell that expands the boundaries of effective head protection. This is combined with the X-Static XT2 silver liner. The Race Star wears a 3K carbon shell. This new Star has removable magnetic cheekpads, a flex impact liner, and a Virus Cool Jade Power mesh liner.

The most affordable Bell is also based on the Star. The Qualifier’s budget price doesn’t stop it from offering the latest amenities. Adjustable cheek pads, a washable liner, a ventilation system, and a wind collar help keep riders comfortable.

If Roy Richter could see the Bell helmets today, he would be impressed with how many leaps his products have made over the years. From eyewear compatibility to comfort, these helmets have never been so inviting. Most importantly, structural and material improvements have increased safety protections for racecar drivers and motorcyclists alike.

Bell Bullitt worn by many, this rider captured wearing The Matte Black version at The Gypsy Run 2015 Bell Bullitts are worn and favorited by the massive motorcycle explosion of enthusiasts today, this rider captured wearing The Matte Black version at The Gypsy Run 2015.
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