What do you do if you ride a cool retro muscle bike like a Yamaha XS11 and you want the extra security of a full-face helmet that looks good with a 38-year-old motorcycle? There wasn’t much on the market four years ago, when industrial designer Chad Hodge was still in design school at University of Cincinnati. So he made his own. “I went to get a new helmet and there wasn’t a retro-styled helmet that would go with the ’70s Japanese muscle bikes,” the 28-year-old Kentuckian told me. “There were only 3/4-helmets available, but I think that’s crazy to wear those.” So do we! In fact, Hodge reported that “after a buddy got his face saved by his full face, I don’t wear anything but.” Good man.
Hodge didn’t need to re-invent the wheel—he only had to go back to photos of the old Bell Star, the first mass-produced full-face helmet. Hodge used it as inspiration, appreciating its “pure, spherical form.” The resulting design (and Chad’s senior thesis) appeared on the Bubble Visor blog in 2010, predating other retro full-face designs like the Biltwell Gringo or the $1,250 (!) Ruby Castel.
And that’s what it takes to get hired by Bell Helmets to work as an industrial designer. Bell took on Hodge and started production of the Bullitt with few changes. I asked Bell to get one to test, and am impressed with this helmet.
The Bullitt looks old, but the materials and engineering are pretty modern. The shell is composite and the liner is multi-density EPS foam. The comfort liner is microsuede and there are even speaker pockets if you want to defile the sleek looks with a Bluetooth headset.
What’s amazing is how compact it is—it’s noticeably smaller than my other lids and the chinbar is close in to my mouth. But it’s not uncomfortable (though the snaps for the removable comfort liner dug into my forehead) and the huge opening offers unparalleled peripheral and downward vision.
On the bike, it’s a pretty good helmet, especially for vintage riding. It’s noisier and draftier than a modern sport-touring helmet, probably the same as period helmets would have been, nicely recreating that vintage experience. The visor offers excellent optics (I tested the flat clear) and Bell’s anti-fog treatment works as well as anything short of an insert like the Pinlock or Fog City. It’s also pretty light, about the same as the Shoei RF1200 I’m testing, at 3 pounds 5 ounces. You’re not sacrificing much utility for a lot of style.
But I was concerned about safety. The chinbar is skinny and very close to your face, so am I taking extra risks wearing it? Chad pointed out the Bullitt meets ECE as well as DOT standards (although he didn’t say if it met the standards with or without chinbar) and there is EPS foam in the chinbar—it’s not just decoration. Is it as protective as a high-spec racing helmet? Probably not. Better than a 3/4 helmet you bought at a garage sale? Almost certainly, by a very large margin.
What’s interesting about the Bullitt is the customizability and the lengths Chad and Bell went to keep the look retro. The shell comes in 5 colors—there are more schemes on the way, including limited-edition graphics and artist series—and you can choose several different faceshields, including yellow-tint, smoke or iridium in flat or bubble. You can also remove the faceshield and ride with goggles or shades—the sideplates mount flush (well, flush-ish) with the shell when you remove the shield. The cool snaps above the vision port are actually little mesh air intakes, and the faceshield secures with a magnet, minimizing external hardware and keeping the look as clean as possible. I also like the chrome edging (Chad said the smooth shape needed something to make it pop) and leather trim. The Bullitt is $399, but that’s cheaper than the original Star, adjusting for inflation, and the fit, finish and feel justify the price.
So why call it the Bullitt? Do you really have to ask? The 1968 Steve McQueen movie is a classic, even if it is best known for its car chase scene (though there is a brief sequence where Bud Ekins, dressed like a crazed hippy, lays a vintage Triumph down to avoid a head-on collision with the bad guys), but Chad says, “Hey, it’s Steve McQueen, and that’s one of his better-known movies. I know it’s almost cliché, but he did race, he did Baja and all that stuff.”
All that stuff indeed! Not to worry, Chad—I get it. I think enough vintage riders—or even riders who just want something simple, elegant and cool will get it too. Chad says he’s working on more designs for Bell, including more retro projects as well as modern helmets. Stay tuned.
Gabe Ets-Hokin is the Editor of CityBike Magazine, and a frequent contributor to MotorcycleDaily.com