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Racing: What We Wore

Phil Hill, in period clothing.(Written for AutoWeek’s 50th anniversary in 2008)

As much as race cars have changed in the past 50 years what drivers wear to race them has changed as dramatically.

And that means everything from outerwear to underwear, shoes to headgear. Most obvious: the absence in those days of corporate logos on every inch of fabric particularly high on the chest where TV cameras caught them in tight-shot interviews.  No TV then. No sponsors. So cars weren’t painted to match cigarette packets or energy-drink cans but wore traditional national colors — the Queen’s green, Italian red, German silver etc.

The fabric was different too in that pre-Nomex era just about the time AutoWeek nee Competition Press first saw the dark of print. Yes, fire blazed in our secret minds and not infrequently in our experience when ordinary slosh-slosh gas tanks easily split in race-course crashes. (By the way, race courses were “courses” or “circuits”; only ovals were called “tracks”)

Fire and even crashes were notable more in their not being mentioned; the elephant in the room. Still somehow the wisdom of not wearing nylon socks, or indeed anything synthetic got around; that stuff would melt on your skin and make matters more gruesome. Cotton was the fabric of choice whether manifested in chino pants or polo shirts — LaCoste was popular. Phil Hill favored stripes. If photos are witness I drove at least one race in a Porsche 550 wearing short shorts and a tank top — but cotton I’m certain.

Stirling Moss in early racing suit.This was before the soon-to-be ubiquitous pale blue cotton driving suits, some in coverall mode but most in almost ballooning lightweight pants and long-sleeved shirts with a tab fastening at the neck. On the pockets was a discreet “Dunlop” or “Avon” in darker blue embroidery. Some member-drivers added a BRDC (British Racing Drivers Club) patch to the chest.

Mike Hawthorn, in his racing uniform ... and bow tie.Mike Hawthorn, a dandy dresser, adopted the Dunlop pants and maybe the shirt but he kept his bow tie on even at speed. His racing jacket was a dark green and waist-length, a style made popular by General Eisenhower. In the pits Mike swapped that for a tweed sports coat. Tweed cap, too. Natty. But in that era, without the pressure of sponsors who pay well for the pox of patches, drivers didn’t parade around in their work clothes. Unlike today’s bedecked NASCAR drivers who wear their driving suits to fast-food joints, parts supply houses and backyard barbecues. (Oh, OK, that’s just in commercials.)

Anyway the 1950s were as representative of diversity as a bar scene in a Star Wars movie.  A lot of individuality was expressed in this world of transition. After all engines were migrating from front to rear; races were moving from real roads to airports with hay-bales and thence to purpose-built road courses. And drivers were wearing what their closets offered until the sky-blue of the Dunlop suits prevailed.

Shoes were at first nothing special — I often wore red Keds because they matched the polka dots I pasted on my helmet. Loafers were common and gradually ankle-high purpose-made leather boots appeared. Anything that would hold its shape in the performance of that rev-matching rolling motion between brake and throttle known as heel-and-toe. (Though perhaps better called toe-and-outer-edge-of-foot.)

Yes, there were foot-operated clutches. And the hand came off the steering wheel to select a gear. That hand, by the way, was probably clad in a knit-back, leather-palmed glove. Maybe the finger part ended at the first knuckle for the finest of touch. The wheel was most certainly the diameter of a giant pizza pan and the rim the thickness of a Magic Marker.

When I drive vintage race cars now I shake my head; such long throws from gear to gear; such a skinny wheel to express a preference for a path. The brakes merely suggested stopping. And that’s in a Porsche 550RS, state-of-the-art then.  I prefer today’s fist-filling rim on the wheel the size of a single-serving pizza. And brakes that actually brake the way we believed those old ones did.

Modern Nomex.But back to drivers’ garb. Sometime just before the flame-resistant wonder of Nomex union suits came along and well before the three-ply Nomex became the standard for the billboard coveralls, we did acknowledge that Prometheus had delivered fire to humankind. Retarding the rate at which his gift could burn our clothing or blister our skin became a quest. Rules followed. No more open-backed gloves or skin gaps at the ankles. And the SCCA decreed that race participants must soak outer garments in a boric-acid and borax solution that, it was claimed, would protect us against at least a fast flash of fire.

We mixed up this gummy stuff, dipped and wrung and hung the dripping suits up to dry. When dry, and cracker-stiff, we could stand them in a corner. The dried treated suits were free-standing sculptural forms. We made jokes about having LeMans starts in which we jumped into the suits then ran across the track. The suits were crushable enough to get into. And they rustled as you walked. When they took on enough sweat after a few hours in a wheeled sauna they stuck to you and were webbed with wavy white lines like different tidal levels on a beach. So launder and re-dip. Ah, the glamour of it all.

Now helmets. Post war, old-timers still wore their RAF-ish leather flying helmets until more solid headgear was decreed in 1952. Thus began the evolution to today’s bulbous Easter eggs with knight-like visors that both conceal and reveal a driver’s identity; in F1 cars a helmet is all that’s distinguishable. 

The crash hat of choice in the 1950s was a handsome, lightweight product with a simple bill in front and a dip at the nape of the neck. These came from Herbert Johnson in England. A web of leather held the shell clear of the head; canvas covered the ears and a leather chin strap secured it all.  The helmet was elegant even after hard use.

I recall pulling something thread-like from along the bill of a worn Herbert Johnson. Thread-like indeed, it was thread. The helmets were laid up in layers over a form, rather like papier mache, using strips of shellac-soaked linen. The result was a strong shell, burnished chestnut in color. 

Common knowledge has held that Herbert Johnsons were really polo helmets. They may well have seen a few chukkers, but the original was actually designed in the 1930s for Lt Col “Goldie” Gardner, best remembered for his attack on speed records in an MG.

Tony Brooks in period helmet.My photographs from a half century ago show Herbert Johnson helmets on Phil Hill, Fangio, Stirling Moss, Peter Collins, Mike Hawthorn — the whole panoply. And most of the helmets were in that rich shellac-and-linen brown. Some were painted white. Mike Hawthorn’s was navy blue with a visor made white by the rain shield fitted over it. Mike wore the rain shield always, wet weather or dry.

The preferred goggles, maybe because Fangio wore them, fit the Herbert Johnson perfectly. The helmet had a leather loop in back to hold the elastic strap. The goggles positioned over each eye two flat planes of glass (flat to avoid distortion) that were joined by a vertical metal strip at eye center. The glass was a special sort that crumbled rather than shattered when hit. When a rock whacked one eye of my goggles at Lime Rock in the Formula Libre race I just blinked the little pills of glass away. Lost my stereo vision though.

Safety was becoming an issue. After an American driver, William “Pete” Snell, died of head injuries sustained in a racing crash in 1956 the Snell Memorial Foundation was created in 1957 to establish standards and tests for helmets.

Helmet safety was considered even before that. New harder shells were introduced and grew to cover the ears. I remember when Dan Gurney first got such a hat; it was black. The Herbert Johnson shell was deemed unsafe though Stirling Moss was fiercely loyal to the headgear he preferred. He held a shattered Herbert Johnson, threads dangling: “That’s the purpose of the thing, you know; to absorb energy by breaking.”

The energy of a crash was little understood then. I bought a new helmet lined with foam rubber, but then tests determined such stuff would actually bounce your brain around and do more damage than good. The next linings, a different sort of foam, absorbed impact energy by denting and distorting and not ping-ponging it around.

In those days helmets were largely devoid of decoration. The crown of Graham Hill’s black helmet was spaced with white vertical lines, a design honoring his rowing club. I created a mini stir by sticking red Dennison polka-dots on my helmets. Innes Ireland favored a white helmet with a painted checkered band. As did Jean Behra whose “casque” (he was French) may well be the most famous of all.

Behra, a stocky motorcycle champion, was a tigerish competitor on four wheels, too. His face and body bore evidence of his zeal. He’d lost a tiny snip of his nose coming off a bike and an entire ear in a Tourist Trophy sports car race. Three other drivers died during that race. (It was a perilous time.) Jean was himself to die when his Porsche whipped backwards up the steep banking of the Avus circuit and smashed into a WWII concrete bunker.

When Detroiters Don Stewart and Tom Swantek in 1958 started a newspaper called Competition Press, the Twice-Monthly Journal of Motorsports an artist friend of theirs was inspired by Jean Behra’s helmet. He designed the logo for the new publication.

When Competition Press segued into AutoWeek the stylized casque of Jean Behra continued. At times it was dropped only to return when readers objected. A respect for history prevailed. 

Speaking of prevailing, only Behra’s checkered casque and I are still around from the drop of the green in 1958. A teensy version of that design still ends every article in AutoWeek a.k.a. A/W.

11/27/10 • 04:47 PM • Miscellany • (2) Comments


geat news i have been trying to get this info for weeks

Posted by Chris Hobbs on 08/16/11 at 10:33 AM

HI, Love your article. my dad did race car derby driving in the 50’s and I have been looking for a pair of that era of goggles the drivers wore. But unfortunatly I can’t find any. My dad still has his helmet, his was white and it looks like it had plenty of use. He race at the old pontiac m59 speedway, in white lake, mi.He also has a check for 1.25 cents, he received for a rain out.Thanks, Sheila W.

Posted by Sheila on 10/26/12 at 10:55 AM


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