Motor racing heraldry

When Damon Hill began racing at the end of 1983, it was entirely appropriate that he wore the blue and white helmet colours of his distinguished father. Coats of arms are passed from father to son and helmet livery is a form of heraldry. Both have a common root: the identification of an individual whose face is covered by a helmet and visor, and both have passed beyond simple utility to embrace emotive connotations.

Helmet livery is a relatively new art. Prewar, there was no demand for it — drivers frequently went bare-headed or wore cloth hats and, besides, there was a far greater diversity of car shapes to aid identification. As helmets became mandatory, most drivers opted for a single colour, usually the colour the manufacturers supplied. In the Vanwall team, for example, Brooks used a brown helmet, while Moss and Lewis-Evans both wore white ones, so Moss’ car sported a white nose band to distinguish it from Lewis-Evans, a solution not easily possible in these days of sponsors’ liveries. Mike Hawthorn cut a dash with an invariable dark helmet with a white peak, while Alberto Ascari, for superstitious reasons, always wore pale blue — and was killed on the only occasion he drove a racing car without his “lucky” helmet.

Blue is still the most popular colour among drivers, though few will admit to being superstitious. One former GP driver told me: “I’m not superstitious, I just felt happier wearing blue, in the same way I felt happier driving a car bearing the number seven.” Most drivers are far too cool-headed tube superstitious, they are just “happier” if they have a particular talisman, a particular colour or number. The number thirteen rarely appears on the sides of cars but the reason for that is, of course, that the number is usually not issued. It’s nothing to do with superstition.

Green is traditionally an “unlucky” colour and it must be mere coincidence that it is the colour least likely to be seen on a driver’s helmet. When Lotus went to Indianapolis in 1953, the car caused consternation, not just because it looked good but because it was painted green! The Lotus was the first green car ever to appear at the track. When Brian Henton lost the 1979 European F2 championship on the last lap of the last race of the series, one of the first things he said on returning to the pits was that he was never again going to wear a green helmet — and he never again did so. The following year he appeared with the same helmet design, but in blue, and he won the F2 Championship handsomely. Brian is ready to admit to being superstitious — and who can say he’s wrong?

In the sixties, helmet livery became increasingly important as the drivers became less visible. For Jackie Stewart, for example, the band of clan tartan around his helmet was not only a means of identification, it was a personal statement, part and parcel of his professional approach of presenting himself. It was, if you like, part of his corporate image, as indispensable as a company’s trade mark. When Stirling M. drove a Brabham at Brands Hatch in 1983′ it never occurred to him to do other than drive it in his pale blue overalls, white helmet and goggles, by which every enthusiast instantly recognises him.

Two men have become pre-eminent it the rather esoteric field of helmet painting’ “Sid” in Brazil and Doug Eyre. Between them, they have sprayed the hats worn by many of the world’s leading drivers. Sid s trademark is an air-brushed mosaic effect, something which is also part of Doug’s repertoire. The two men have never met, though each is known to admire the others work. It’s a strange occupation, the sort to beat the panel on “What’s My Line?” Yet it’s one of those apparent peripheries of motor racing which, in the end, tell you a lot about the sport since its essence is the conversion of subtle undercurrents into a tangible form.

Doug Eyre was trained as a commercial artist, specialising in advertising and display. He then went on to become a technical illustrator with the aircraft industry producing those “artist” impressions’ and “exploded” drawings before setting up his own concern. An early contract, which involved painting 10 ft high beer bottles on the side of a fleet of trucks, led to a request to paint the trucks and racing cars of the Roy Winklemane F2 team. This led, in turn, to a cornmittent from the fabricator, Maurice Gomm, which led roan approach from John Wyer to have a Ford GT40 drawn on the side of the JW Automotive transporter. Team McLaren was the next customer and for eight years, Eyre produced liveries, letterheads and logos for McLaren. In the meantime he became involved with Graham Hill, first with his Jaegermeister-sponsored F2 Brabham, later with the Embassy-Hill F1 team. When Walter Wolf began GP racing with the WR1, Eyre it was who produced the distinctive flowing paint job.

Certain cars catch the imagination because they first catch the eye and much of the credit for that rests with the livery designer. Could you imagine a puce Ferrari? It doesn’t bear thinking about. If you close your eyes and think of a Jaguar D type, you will surely picture it in bottle green or Ecurie Ecosse blue. A D type Jaguar finished in the livery of a cigarette or beer company would not be incongruous, it would be offensive.

In much the same way, going through Doug Eyre’s records of helmet designs, one is struck by the incredibly high proportion of designs which are instantly recognised. For years we have taken this form of identification for granted, the logo has become as familiar, recognisable, and as ignored, as a person’s nose or walk. Helmets are only part of Doug’s work, which covers a wide spectrum of commercial art: brochure, illustrations, stickers, logos, van Painting, motorcycle liveries, cartoons and caricatures and so on, but helmet painting is the interesting aspect, because it is so intimate.

With his growing involvement in motor racing, on which he had always been keen, Doug became aware, in the mid-’70s, of a need for a helmet service. Drivers from abroad who had come to Britain, had tried to find local sign-writers to reproduce examples of their headgear. It was rare when they found everything to their satisfaction. It was generally the case that the artwork was good and the lettering poor (over 90% of helmets carry lettering) — or vice versa. Or the finish was good and the artwork nor — and the reverse.

Drivers get very attached to their helmets and a reproduction which doesn’t match the original is liable to upset them. In much the same way, Doug recently had to produce three helmets to satisfy one driver. The driver had approved the shade of blue presented in roughs but, on the helmet, it did not exactly match what he had in his mind’s eye.

Having seen a need for his services, Doug, with typical thoroughness, spent a year experimenting with materials. He obtained a supply of shells from a manufacturer and tried out various finishes. In order to prove his results, he subjected them to various tests, like firing air gun pellets at them, to simulate the effect of stones thrown up by a car’s tyres, or putting them in a weir and gauging the pounding they took, for his clients include off-shore power boat racers, canoeists, skiers and the like, as well as racing drivers. He even tried protecting them with the sort of tape which is used on helicopter rotor blades, but found it had a tendency to discolour. After discussions with paint manufacturers, which are continued, he finally settled on polyurethane paints and, while accepting that these are by no means the ultimate solution, this revelation is one of the few trade secrets he is prepared to divulge. So closely does he guard his techniques that nobody outside of his family is allowed to know how his helmets are produced.

There is a safety film, shown on television, which has a young motorcyclist going into his local bike shop with his helmet on which he has proudly painted his name, “Kevin”. He is told that he has made the helmet unsafe. “There are two basic helmet materials, glass fibre and polycarbonate. If you paint a polycarbonate helmet, the solvent changes the chemical structure of the material and makes it dangerous.

“Safety is the paramount consideration. I will not touch anything a manufacturer has put on one, even if it only appears to be trimming. Whatever it is, it’s there for a purpose. I recall a famous driver at Indy having a hole drilled into the side of his hat so he could take a drink while racing. Immediately, the whole structure was weakened. I believe the man’s life was worth more than a drink.

“The one time I broke my rule about not touching the structure of a helmet was when someone brought me one he’d painted himself with the question “What do you think of that?” It was a top-of-the-range helmet from a leading manufacturer, and it looked fine. In painting it, however, he’d allowed some of the paint to get inside, through one of the vents which many helmets have. Paint contains solvents which melt polystyrene, and polystyrene is used as the main shock absorbent within the shell. This shock absorbent is perhaps the most important part of a modern helmet. The paint had risen up underneath the absorbing layer and rendered it useless. I pulled it out to show him. That helmet was lethal.”

Doug is frequently asked to refurbish helmets at the end of a season, after they have been pock-marked by flying stones. As an example, he produced one belonging to Calvin Fish. “I go over it with a strong magnifying glass before starting work. Under my art work is the manufacturer’s finish, beneath that the filler and then the main, working, structure. If I find that the filler has been penetrated, I won’t touch it. In exactly the same way, I will hardly ever repaint a helmet which has first been painted by someone else. I have to know exactly what materials were used on the original.

“Incidentally, when Calvin first came to me, he was in karting. It’s one of the pleasures of the job to be associated with a youngster in junior racing and to be with him as he develops and progresses. Of course, many of the star drivers have their helmets supplied free, and ready painted, by the manufacturers, but often they arc to my original design.

About half the drivers who approach Doug for a helmet have some design in mind. Sometimes they have an idea, which is made concrete through the help of his sketch pad, sometimes they bring a book of sketches. “The other half have no definite idea, so we talk it through together. I will ask a lot of questions in order to find out more about them, so we can fit a design to a personality. Some will suit something simple, some something flamboyant. One F1 driver for example, came to me and asked for a helmet in fluorescent paint. After one race he was back because he did not feel comfortable with it, it didn’t after all, match the image he had of himself. We finally settled on a simple, rather sober, design in blue, with his name on the side.

“This point about image is important. A driver may start off being quite happy with a plain helmet, then he progresses and wants something to make a statement about himself. Sometimes someone will request a copy of Rosberg’s helmet, or Tambay’s. Actually, they don’t really mean that. What they mean is that they have decided the time has come to make their own statement. They’ve looked through the magazines and one design has caught their eyes. So we talk it through and arrive at a design which captures the elements which first attracted them, but which is not a copy.”

“I refuse to copy any driver’s helmet unless it is for a collector and he has the driver’s permission. It offends me to see a current driver wearing a helmet which is a copy of Peter Revson’s.”

I put to him a hypothetical situation. I would like to commission a new design, which will set me back about £150 (repeats cost around £100). I intend to go historic sports car racing and would like a dramatic design. My favoured colours are green (this boy’s not superstitious, touch wood) and various shades of brown, perhaps off-set by hard white. “As soon as you say ‘historic, immediately think of the word ‘dignified’. So, given your colour choices, we might start with contrasting shades of green which might blend into each other with, perhaps, a darker background design woven in. I would then prepare three or four colour sketches, any more would tend to confuse rather than illuminate. I’d first try to discover if there was any association in your background, perhaps a family crest worked from crested spoons and signer rings), a business logo or national emblem as in the case of McLaren for whom produced the ‘speedy kiwi’.

“If I became excited by a particular design, that would be edged your way for, with the others held in reserve. If you didn’t like anything I showed you, we would either sketch our ideas or else I might show you my book of photographs until you found something on the lines of what you wanted.”

But what if I came up with a suggestion which was aesthetically offensive? “We’d talk it through until we reached a mutually satisfactory solution. Once someone asked me to paint a helmet which looked like a female breast. That was a job I turned down for my work carries my name. Then, a rather hippy American asked me to do a design in the colours of a junior rass, which turned out to be a garish Hawaiian fish. The trouble was that, from a distance, the irregular lines made it look like a poor job. Eventually I did agree to do it, but made sure that it had the best finish you’ve ever seen.

“I get all sorts of ideas thrown at me, including, once, the end of a tie in company colours. On that occasion, when I sent the sketches, I included a cartoon showing the board of directors, each with his tie hacked off, examining a pile of tie ends. They liked that and I got the job. Sometimes, too, I am requested to incorporate lucky talismans. One power-boat racer had two bookmaker’s tickets painted on his helmet. He was not a gambler but had twice in his life placed large bets on horses. One lost, and cost hint a lot of money; the other won, and gained him a lot of money. The two tickets represent, for him; the two faces of luck.

“Sometimes, too, I have requests for a complete change of car and helmet livery. A driver may be going through a rough patch and is convinced that a change of design will bring a change of luck.

“People get very serious about it, and take a lot of trouble to get everything exactly right. One of my favourite jobs was for Edward Nelson, a former driver who now rides bikes for fun. He had ‘his’ and ‘hers’ helmets for himself and his wife. On the ‘his’ helmet was his side of the family crest and, on the ‘hers’, Mrs Nelson’s. He had the BRDC badge at the back, while she had the emblem of the Dog House Club. While I was preparing the helmets, Mrs Nelson gave birth to a daughter whom they called ‘Daisy’ and he rang me up to request a daisy be incorporated into the design. It’s nice when people are that serious.

“Of all the designs I’ve done, though, my current favourite is the one I did for Tommy Byrne in 1983. It appears to be a plain white helmet over which there are a pair of hi-fi headphones.”

Between them, Doug and Sid attract only a small percentage of all the people in motor sport, though a huge percentage of those who make good. Most people still get their helmets done by the chap round the corner who paints their cars and, from a distance, the difference may not show. One thing which Doug can offer is continuity of service and the ability to reproduce exactly an original design.

Doug Eyre’s art is, at first glance, a narrow one. After all, helmets all conform to a similar shape and the design parameters are constant. “The secret is harmony, harmony of line and colour. Each curve or pattern has to complement the rest. Then it must show up well in photographs, be they monochrome or colour. It has to be clear at speed and sharp enough to be easily identifiable. Sometimes, too, you have to incorporate a sponsor’s name for a season, and this must be done in such a way that it neither spoils the original concept nor sells short the sponsor who, after all, is paying for it.”

On the other hand, several times a week, Doug has to come up with an original idea. He has the challenge of conceiving part of a driver’s image, matching an abstract design to a given personality and producing a unique expression. It is that part of the job which can cause it to be properly called “an art”. It is that part which keeps the man going. Once the final design has been settled on, then he uses his experience and training to translate it from a flat piece of paper to the curves of a helmet, which are often irregular or compound. There he uses eye-experience as he prepares the shell, making fine adjustments to the masking material so the final product keeps the spirit of the sketches.

Of course, you don’t have to be a racing driver to have a bespoke helmet. Once a racing enthusiast, and keen motorcyclist, had a pair of helmets painted. They were particularly nice jobs and, as soon as he had collected them, he headed towards Brands Hatch to watch a meeting. There he locked them onto his bike only to find, on his return, that someone had cut them off.

Shortly afterwards a policeman apprehended two youths larking around in an East End of London graveyard. What caught his eye was the fact that each was wearing an exquisite helmet, with no straps. Their arrest led to the recovery of another 40 helmets and 10 motorcycles.

In a small way, it was a vindication of Doug Eyre’s art. After all, he would have failed if his work, tailored to individuals and extraordinarily executed, had not attracted the policeman’s attention. — M.L.