In the first of our series on products that changed the cycling world, we head back to 1975, when Bell produced the first EPS-based helmet
Almost anywhere you ride today – Bell owners are giving one-another the familiar “OK” sign, signifying their common interest in safety,’ read the Bell Biker’s original advert.
‘It took the human species a million years of development before we could make thumb and forefinger meet naturally for the “OK” signal – it makes good sense to help protect the control centre that allows us to do this.’
While removing a hand from the controls to acknowledge another rider’s appreciation for safety could prove counter-productive, the reasoning behind the Biker helmet was sound.
‘Bell’s founder, Roy Richter, had a lot of friends who raced automobiles and a few of his friends died in crashes,’ says Bell’s director of helmet product creation, Hilgard Muller. ‘He knew that he wasn’t going to get them to stop racing, so he came up with his first [motorsport] helmet. Initially it was
just a shell, but that evolved into a fibreglass shell with an expanded polystyrene [EPS] liner. That was 1957 and the helmet was called the 500-TX. He was the first person to use EPS in a helmet. So when cycling’s popularity grew, the Biker was a natural evolution from our motorsport DNA.’
When it debuted in 1975 the Biker cost $30 (approximately $200 in today’s money) weighed 468g and was revolutionary. Not only did Bell use the latest materials – an EPS liner inside a Lexan shell (a type of plastic used in US policemen’s body armour), but the company set the scene for today’s helmet safety regulations, developing its own crash tests to determine the level of safety the Biker could provide. An independent Consumer Product report that came with the Biker’s packaging read: ‘Bell has devised an intricate testing system to simulate and record a crash situation. In tests we witnessed, the Bell Helmet at one metre and six foot drops recorded 90G and 150G respectively. Experts in the field agree it takes… 400Gs [to] cause serious head damage.’
In other words, the Biker offered unrivalled levels of protection compared with the leather ‘hairnets’ and plastic or fibreglass shelled helmets of the day. And its secret was the EPS.
‘Expanded polystyrene is amazing in its ability to absorb energy, and for how light it is,’ says Muller. ‘It’s made from little polystyrene beads that get injected into a cavity and are then subjected to pressure, steam and heat to expand and bond the beads. While the way we process EPS for today’s helmets has evolved, the material itself hasn’t changed much since the original Biker. It’s almost unbeatable, and that’s why helmet manufacturers still use it today.’
In Bell’s own words, the 1970s was the time to ‘Protect your thinker’, and the industry has followed suit ever since.