The History of Motorcycle Armor & How It Works
Motorcycle armor is a fundamental part of riding, but it hasn’t always been as protective as it is today. While motorcycle gear is almost as old as motorcycling itself, the CE Level 1 and 2 armor we’ve come to expect in our riding apparel has, of course, not always been available. Motorcyclists from the 40s and 50s wore the iconic and ever-fashionable leather jackets and boots, but, before that, riders opted for even less protection. Over the last 125 years, safety precautions and technological innovations have inspired the evolution of motorcycle gear, and its continuing journey reflects the adventurous spirit of the motorcycle community itself.
The History of Motorcycle Armor
Even though we think of 1950’s Marlon Brando in his iconic leather jacket when we think of vintage cycle culture, motorcycle-specific style came about several decades earlier. When the first motorcycles hit the streets in 1902, riders often wore military or equestrian-inspired clothing like skull caps, horse riding boots, and tweed jackets.
This style of clothing, however, wasn’t protective enough for riders of the 1930s, when motorcycles became faster and people began racing them. Faster bikes meant more dangerous crashes, which called for more protective gear like thicker skull caps and aircraft goggles. When war dispatch riders were required to wear tin or cork helmets in the 1940s, the general public followed suit and helmets became a staple for most riders.
Although Marlon Brando’s famous jacket from The Wild One was made by Schott NYC for Harley Davidson in 1928, the film’s 1953 premiere skyrocketed the style’s popularity among motorcycle enthusiasts and other people alike.
The cafe racer subculture emerging in the 1960s and 1970s inspired some of the most dramatic innovations in motorcycle gear yet: bikes began being modified to reach speeds over 100 MPH, and bigger crashes caused more serious injuries (and even death, in many cases). Motorcycle racers began to wear leather gloves and sometimes full-body leather suits to protect themselves from abrasion during accidents. Specialist gear manufacturers, like the Italian brand Dainese, started to appear. All types of riders across the world began wearing specialized gear, and Dainese began thinking of even better ways to innovate protective gear for motorcyclists.
In 1979, the team of designers at Dainese took inspiration from the protective shell of the lobster. They began manufacturing strong but lightweight protective back gear made from interlocking layers of plastic (which mirrored a lobster’s back) reinforced by impact foam. But this type of gear didn’t appeal to most riders: people viewed wearing extra “armor” to ride as a sign of weakness.
Dainese, however, required riders sponsored by his company to wear his protective back armor. This requirement would change the way that other riders viewed wearing armor for good when famous Dainese-sponsored rider Freddie Spencer (aka Fast Freddie) wore his protective back gear at the motorcycling World Championship in South Africa in 1985. During one of his practice sessions, Freddie’s back wheel exploded and sent him flying off his bike. He landed hard on his back onto a tarmac curb, but walked away unharmed. It was later found that a few of the plastic shells on his back had cracked but that his back remained uninjured.
After Freddie’s accident in 1985, the development of protective armor for motorcycling saw a dramatic increase and new materials like hardshell plastics, aerospace grade aluminum, and hardshell plastics began being used in protective gear. Materials like TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane), D30 (a rubbery plastic that stiffens on impact), and Poron (a non-Newtonian impact foam that was lightweight but durable) were patented and used by big brands like Alpinestars and KLIM during the mid 1990s and 2000s.
Today, impact foams, Kevlar and other aramids (heat-resistant, strong fibers), and tons of other fabrics and materials are constantly being discovered and innovated to provide the most lightweight and safest motorcycle gear imaginable. If the last 40+ years of innovation is any indication of the future of motorcycle gear, it’s hard to imagine what will be possible in the next 40.
How Does Today’s Motorcycle Gear Work?
Much of today’s highly advanced motorcycle gear works very well to prevent injury and death. Gear like our Tripleflex Upper Body Armor paired with our Armored Riding Hoodie work to protect you by absorbing and dissipating impact force so that the least amount of force is applied to your body in the event of an accident.
Good riding jackets are designed to reduce abrasion to the skin as well, with a comfortable inner lining of Kevlar®. Materials like aramid and Kevlar® (which we use in all of our riding apparel, like our Armored Slim Cargo Riding Pants) protect your body from road rash. The ultrastrong and heat-resistant aramid fibers protect you from abrasion or scraping during an accident, and can reduce serious injuries that require a long recovery.
High-quality and well-fitting gear can often protect you from the impact of an accident or abrasion from impact. Thanks to the incredible innovations in gear and armor apparel over the last century, riding a motorcycle is safer than ever. We can’t wait to see what kind of progress is made in the motorcycling world within the next coming years, but, as always, please remember to wear your helmet and the protective gear that’s right for you.