Stuttgart. What do a leather cap, a canister of petrol and scented tree ornament have in common? They are three of “33 Extras” on display at the permanent exhibition at the Mercedes-Benz Museum that draw visitors’ attention to fascinating details in the history of mobility and bring automotive culture to life. One of these stories is about the tight-fitting leather cap worn by racing drivers and sporty, ambitious private individuals a century ago.
3/33: The leather cap
1 – Innovation: Although the leather cap may seem a bit bizarre today, back in the early 20th century it was an outwardly distinctive indicator of the high pace of innovation in automotive engineering and to the boldness of the drivers. After all, the extraordinary development of the automobile also translates into increasingly high top speeds. The Benz Patent Motor Car from 1886 reached a maximum speed of 16 km/h. Just a few years later, in 1901, the Mercedes 35 PS hit formidable 75 km/h, at which point the leather cap had long become a necessary item of protection gear. And in 1909, Victor Hémery broke the 200 km/h barrier for the first time in Europe in a Benz 200 PS record car (known as the “Blitzen Benz”) on the Brooklands motor racing circuit.
2 – Modernity: Not only the automobile, but also the aeroplane shaped the mobility of the modern age in the early 20th century. The tight-fitting leather caps worn by drivers for protection against wind and weather was also inspired by the pilots of the day.
3 – System solution: The leather cap was a well-designed item: the version with button-up ear protection was widely used for either taking in more ambient noise or dampening it as required ─ such was the case with the leather cap from the “33 Extras” on display at the Mercedes-Benz Museum in “Legend 7: Races and Records”. Leather caps were almost always worn together with rubber-strapped goggles to protect the eyes.
4 – Openness: The popularity of the cap mirrored the history of the automobile body. After all, up until the 1920s, open-style vehicles were very widespread. After this point, however, closed-style bodies became the new standard for vehicles. The leather cap was therefore something of a replacement for a protective vehicle body in the early days of motoring, while safety goggles served as the alternative to a windscreen.
5 – Style: The leather cap was primarily worn to protect drivers from the elements. It also quickly evolved into a stylish accessory for enthusiasts, however, that distinguished sports and “gentlemen” drivers alike.
6 – Evolution: The leather cap accompanied the first few decades of motorsport. Up until the late 1930s, it was worn by racing drivers – some drivers preferred its cotton counterpart, however. It goes without saying that no leather cap was able to prevent severe head injuries in the event of an accident. This gave rise to the helmet, which became commonplace in motorsport as of the 1950s.
7 – Safety: Continuous improvements were made to the design of the helmet. Racing drivers initially donned half-shell helmets that still featured leather or cotton on the sides to protect the ears. This design was then followed by the “jet helmet”, which fully covered the ears. The full-visor helmet, which completely encased the head, ultimately became the default standard and boasted an optimised fit, sophisticated airflow management for the driver and a built-in radio connection.
8 – Integration: In the late 1990s, engineers increasingly integrated the helmet into the overall aerodynamics of racing cars and it was actually seen as being a component of the vehicle. 2003 saw the introduction of the “head and neck safety” (HANS) system, which interconnects the helmet and vehicle using the seat belt. This setup protects the upper part of the spine from severe injuries in an accident.
9 – Comfort: Numerous innovations in open-style passenger cars from Mercedes-Benz have also followed in the footsteps of the legendary leather cap. Roadsters and cabriolets bearing the famous star can be equipped with a draught stop, AIRSCARF or AIRCAP system, which offers all the benefits of driving an open vehicle while also providing high levels of comfort, regardless of the wind and temperature.
10 – Classic: The leather cap lives on in the classic automotive arena with its fascinating events. The accessory does, after all, go hand in hand with the outfits worn by drivers of early historic automobiles. Then there are, of course, the bold and daring ones who also switch off all systems when it’s cold outside and motor around like people did many decades ago: with an open roof and the all-important leather cap.