50 Years of Motorcycle Gear
I received my first piece of motorcycle gear for Christmas in 1966, and I’ve owned this or that for half a century now. Gear has evolved immensely.
My 1964 Christmas present Bell 500 helmet was the finest helmet available at the time. It was not intended for me to use on a motorcycle, oddly enough. I’d been pestering my parents for a motorcycle on a daily basis since 1962, when I had my first ride on a motorcycle, provided by a friend of my older brother.
I got off the bike (keep in mind that I was only the passenger, and still had yet to actually control a bike) and just knew that this was what I was supposed to do. The pair of mechanical engineers I referred to as my parents did not agree with my epiphany, and so began five years of research, reading everything I could find about motorcycles.
The Bell 500 was an open face helmet in gleaming white, and I was in love. I did not drive around town in a car wearing it, but I was sorely tempted. It received about 15 coats of wax, and was glorious.
By 1966 nothing had changed, but I did have a good friend who was an experienced and capable kart racer. I assisted him at a race or two, if I may stretch the definition of “assist,” and also had a chance to try out his kart in a big and empty parking lot. We concocted a plan to form a two kart race team for the summer of 1965. This made sense to my parents, who saw this as a healthier outlet for their obsessed son than an actual motorcycle.
Alas, a couple of months later my friend decided to retire from kart racing and spend the summer entering water ski tournaments.
In the spring of 1967 my mother was diagnosed with the cancer that would kill her in six months. My parents’ lives were thrown upside down in a day. All of their plans for the near future were destroyed. People plan – God laughs. This brought a change of philosophy. When I brought up the purchase of a motorcycle, again, the response was, “Sure.”
In August of 1967 I purchased, for $400, a barely used 1965 Yamaha YDS-3, a 250cc two-stroke twin bike. Someone had turned left in front of the owner, almost causing his demise, and he was so frightened he chose to sell the bike.
Rider instruction? Hah! Did not exist. The man handed me the keys and I “learned” how to ride, on the street, on the way home. I killed the engine at every stop light and stop sign, and could see my father in the rear view mirror, laughing in his car as he followed me home. Rather dark humor, but there was very little traffic then.
There was also very little motorcycle gear available at the time. I usually wore a pair of hiking boots, jeans, and some sort of a jacket – often a ski parka. But I did have a great helmet!
I added a clear “bubble shield”, and on days that were at all chilly I wrapped a bandana around my head and up over my nose. This is what Formula 1 race drivers did at the time, before the advent of full face helmets, so I thought I looked quite cool. Most probably thought I just looked weird. Some things never change….
For gloves it was ski gloves on really cold days. In the summer I wore white handball gloves, which were very thin leather than would be useless in a crash, but I chose white for a practical reason. A Yamaha YDS 3 did not have turn signals, so it was easier for a car behind me at night to see my hand signals.
A year or so later I ordered, with palpitations of excitement, a real motorcycle jacket. Sort of. This came out of the Webco catalog. Webco was a large distributor of all sorts of motorcycle things, and their catalog warmed many a Minnesota night. The jacket I chose was black Naugahyde with a “Mandarin” collar, and white stripes sewn onto each sleeve. I added a black stripe made of electrical tape to the center of my helmet so it all matched. So now I looked just like a real racer, sort of, if you squeezed your eyes a lot. And tried real hard.
Back in those days road racers all wore simple black leathers. There were no colors, sponsor logos, or anything else. Combined with this were tall black leather boots that came up almost to the knees. Pretty much the only way to tell them apart was by simple additions to their helmets. This was before the colorful, complex, and personalized helmet paint schemes most of them wear today.
In 1968 I added a very early Vetter fairing to the bike. These were not the enormous touring fairings that Craig Vetter invented next – the ones that made him a fortune. Mine was the 43rd one he sold, if I recall, and cost $140. It was essentially a road racing fairing with an extended windshield. When I mounted it the brace on the front fender hit the fairing so – off with the front fender. I had a big ego boost one day when I was out on the street giving the bike an 8th coat of wax, and a fellow on a big and red BSA stopped to ask if I was entered in the road race that weekend.
When I moved to the Northwest in June of 1969 I brought all of my possessions in a two axle U-Haul, much of the space taken up by my Yamaha. I had a bike that looked fast (it was not) and motorcycle gear that consisted of a helmet and a jacket and whatever else was on hand.
The first thing I did was to strip the bike down, including the removal of the fairing, clean and wax everything, and remove the baffles from the mufflers. A torch burned off the crud that would build up. Then I took it out for a “test ride,” wearing the helmet, gloves, a short sleeve shirt, shorts, and penny loafers. Pause here to congratulate yourself on guessing what comes next.
Of course I crashed. The only serious incident I’ve endured in 50 years. All my own fault, a combo of testosterone and ego and fantasy talent. I spent the rest of the summer with my arm in a sling while the surgically repaired shoulder healed. I sold the remains of the bike, and the fairing, to the guy who lived next door.
In the fall I purchased an almost new Honda 450 Street Scrambler, but my gear remained the same. For Christmas I decided to ride to San Francisco to visit my brother and his wife, ignoring the advice of a friend who said “You cannot do this. You will die in the mountains.” As it turned out he was almost correct, as I missed by 30 minutes a blizzard that closed I-90. It was so cold that I stopped every 50 miles or less for hot cocoa to abate the hypothermia symptoms. In Oregon is rained so hard that my cheap rain pants failed. I purchased some fishing waders at a truck stop, after pouring water out of my boots.
In 1970 I took off for Minnesota with the same gear, or lack of it. My riding jacket was a blue ski parka, which would have exploded in a flurry of feathers in a crash. I did not crash. Heat was dealt with by pushing the sleeves up to my elbows. A ride to Florida took place in 1971 – same gear.
Somewhere in there I wanted to purchase a jacket that I could wear on the motorcycle or any other time. It was black, and did not work very well for either use. A motorcycle jacket that buttons up and has fabric cuffs – what was I thinking? It was long enough in the back that I had to hunch up so I was not sitting on the lower end of it. Bad purchase. Also lacking in anything resembling safety considerations.
Married in 1972, I took a brief hiatus from motorcycles for an adventure with the rolling restoration of a 1958 Corvette. I returned to motorcycles in 1976 with the purchase of a beater of a Honda 450 CL as a commuter bike.
Of course I needed new gear for this. I purchased a Bell Star helmet in orange, one of the first full face helmets. The visor was thin plastic, and would have been destroyed by a flying rock. This was, again, the best helmet available at the time.
For my 30th birthday in 1977 we purchased my first “real” motorcycle jacket. This was a brown jacket by Bates – one of the premier leather goods suppliers of the day. It looked great and worked well, but did not have any crash padding or other safety features – they had not been thought of yet.
I ordered some real motorcycle boots from the Frank Thomas Company in England. This involved mailing them tracings of both of my feet, and the boots were made to an exact fit. The exchange rate was very favorable at the time, and I think they cost me $86. Fantastic boots in black, rising almost to my knees, and of course I wore them on the outside to show them off. I hated the cleats they on the heels, which made an embarrassing noise when shopping in a store. I was relieved when the heels wore down and I could have them replaced with plain rubber ones.
These did offer some real safety, and I wore them for 23 years! Eventually I gave them to a friend who adored them, and I think she still has them.
I also purchased leather riding pants for cheap. These had no padding at all, as did almost all of them back then.
My helmet was upgraded to a Shoei in black, and by the late 1970’s helmets were really beginning to evolve. A Lexan visor for one, which I appreciated one day when a rock that flew up from somewhere hit me square in the middle of the visor. With my earlier Bell Star the results would have been disastrous – the Shoei suffered no damage at all.
For my 40th birthday we went to a custom leather shop on Aurora North in Seattle and had a “serious” motorcycle jacket made. Thick gray leather, with serious zippers, and padding at the shoulders. It seemed to weigh about 50 pounds, but was a vast improvement.
By this time you could also purchase motorcycle gloves designed for the purpose, and I usually have three pair with me. One for cold, one for warm, and one for rain.
In 2000 I left teaching for the job I invented at Cycle Barn, and once again gear evolved with me. Cycle Barn obtained a new riding jacket for me in black with dark crimson Cycle Barn script on the back and my name on the front. As much protection as my last jacket, which I gave to a brother-in-law, and much lighter. I also purchased a set of Shoei boots, which were totally and completely waterproof, (what a concept!) and offered protective plates at toe and ankle.
In a fit of enthusiasm, and because it was a great deal, I purchased a Muzzy Raptor, a real honest to goodness limited production exotic super bike. Alas, the riding position was so radical I could not see out of the Shoei, so I switched to a new top of the line Arai, which had a higher viewing port. Each year the top helmets would add more layers of fiberglass, and then Kevlar began to creep in, and now carbon fiber. Each generation is quieter, more comfy, and offers better protection.
I thought I needed better boots to go with the Muzzy, so I purchased some Aria road racing boots. Extremely safe, but totally uncomfortable off the bike. Since my job involved riding to events and standing and walking around with customers or meeting them, these boots were not a great idea.
In 2006 Cycle Barn was expanding, and new logos and decals and overall company “branding” were the thing. The company designed for me and ordered a complete custom set of Vanson leathers, the last word in gear. The fitting for the pants consisted of 47 different measurements! In blue and black, with white signage, this was really spectacular. It was also a real incentive to not gain weight. Imagine going to the company and saying “I can’t wear the $2000 leathers you paid for because I got too fat!”
The Vanson pants had padding in the hips, and felt knee coverings for the attachment of knee pads used by road racers. I added the pads because the pants looked incomplete without them, even though I have never “put a knee down.” I had the fun in the fall of 2013 to attend a motorcycle show in Orlando and spend time with the woman who made my suit, which she remembered. I later sold the jacket, as I did not work for Cycle Barn any longer and the owner told me to keep the gear, but I still wear the pants.
It’s a long story, but in 2006 I was able to attend a Moto GP race in China as the guest of Fieldsheer, then a leading gear supplier. When I got back I decided to purchase their gear whenever possible. Seemed only fair. I purchased a set of riding pants to be worn over jeans on my commute. Padded, warm, and waterproof – oh that such things existed when I started!
I also purchased a lovely snuggly warm Fieldsheer jacket for cold weather use, in the lurid neon yellow-green I like. Still have it.
In 2010 I moved from Cycle Barn to Ride West, and was given an $800 BMW riding jacket. This had the useful addition of a zippered pouch on the back for carrying maps or whatever. It also had a zip-out lining and crash padding here and there. Alas, the zipper was crap, but was replaced under warranty with the heavy duty ilk it should have been born with.
One design “feature” I hated was the rain adaptation. The jacket was designed to be worn with the sleeves over your gloves. In the rain, the moisture was to penetrate the outer layer and then run out over your wrists. The problem was that in the rain that jacket gained several pounds of weight. When the rain stopped you now had wind hitting a wet jacket, and you would air condition yourself into hypothermia.
As Ride West was a large retailer of Rev’It products, I purchased a riding jacket meant for medium to warm days, with the Fieldsheer for cold weather. The Rev’It is brilliant. It has so many zippers and vents that you cannot open them all and be comfortable unless the temperature is over 90 degrees. Amazing product. Zip out lining, safety padding on shoulders and elbows and down the back, multiple pockets – it is so many iterations of design beyond what was available in 1966!
Today, when I go out for a ride I am wearing almost $2,500 worth of gear, which is interesting when you think that my first motorcycle cost $400. A set of Rev’It boots with BMW riding socks inside. Vanson leather pants, and either the Fieldsheer or the Rev’It jacket, with or without a further lining from the Vanson jacket. One of about 6 pair of gloves, and the latest editions of the Arai helmet, this one an RX-Q.
It is easy to forget today, as we complain about the cost of all this gear, than at least it is available. There is simply no comparison to what was on offer 50 years ago. I have had the good fortune to always have pretty much the best stuff available, either because I sacrificed financially to purchase it, or because it was provided as a perk of my job, but even the lesser and less expensive gear available today is so far beyond what once was. It’s silly not to garb yourself in the best stuff you can afford.
At one time Bell helmets had the slogan “If you have a $10 head, buy a $10 helmet.” That provides an idea of the costs back then, but the concept still applies today. Now it applies to everything – helmet, jacket, gloves, boots, pants, and on and on. How much do you want to sacrifice if an accident occurs?
The only constant over time is the definition of the most important piece of motorcycle gear you own. And that would be – yourself.
You need to keep yourself in good shape, with frequent cleaning, exercise, and checks for operational capability. You need to make sure your gear is functioning at the highest level, which means adequate sleep, food, and hydration. You need to shun alcohol and drugs, and I go so far as to ban intrusions into my helmet such as radio and phone connectivity, GPS, and so forth. “When the helmet drops the bullshit stops,” is a quote attributed to me (in Wikipedia no less!) which I may or may not have authored.
I may not be able to ride for a further 50 years, but it does make a good goal.
Copyright 2016 David Preston