Doodles on the board
Back at Martin's once again, peculiar doodles began cluttering Head's drawing boards. He made some preliminary stress analyses of hickory and aluminum alloy. Then the doodles started to take shape. "It looked like I could build a ski with the strength of wood but with half the weight," Head says. "The ski was becoming an obsession."
That August, in a rented corner of an electrical appliance shop on Cathedral Street in Baltimore, Howard Head built his first ski. He drew out his safe-deposit box and counted his winnings—$6,000—which he invested in equipment. The basic structural idea for his lightweight ski was a fusion of wood, plastic and aluminum. To bond all three together he needed pressure and heat. To get pressure, Head dropped his ski mold into a huge rubber bag and pumped out all the air; natural air pressure outside the bag gave him what he needed. Then he dumped the bag, with the mold inside it, into an iron box filled with oil heated to 350�. "Ingenious, perhaps, but it was tough work," he says. Nevertheless, by Christmas he had finished six pairs of skis, each one made with two light layers of aluminum bonded to side-walls of ?-inch plywood, with a center filling of honeycomb plastic.
With a box of these shiny new skis under his arm, Howard Head went off to Stowe. Head glowed as Sepp Ruschp, then manager of the Mt. Mansfield Hotel Co., ran his fingers over the glistening tops; he swelled as Bud Phillips, a ski instructor, examined the smooth, hard running surface. Then Kerr Sparks, another of Ruschp's instructors, picked up a ski and flexed it to test its camber. It broke. "They broke them all," Head recalls mournfully. "All six pairs. And each time one of them broke, something inside me snapped with it."
Head went back to the drawing board dragging his broken skis behind him. Throughout that winter and spring he refined, reinforced and changed the design in more than a dozen ways. Each time, the new product came back from the testing ground bent, buckled or simply snapped in two. Finally, when the last snow had melted that year, Head had built a ski that could not be broken.
It took two more agonizing winters to design a running surface that would not freeze and cake with snow and to incorporate steel edges for enduring bite on packed snow and ice. Then, one fine spring day in 1950, with April sun splashing on the snow of Tuckerman's Ravine, a ski instructor named Clif Taylor came flying over the lip of the headwall, did a fishtail on the fall line and swept into a long, graceful curve, swooshing to a stop before the man who had created the skis he wore. "They're great, Mr. Head. Just great!" Taylor said. Head explains, "I couldn't get up on the lip with him. I wasn't a good enough skier. But when I saw him coming at me, at that speed, I knew deep inside that I had it, though I still couldn't believe this wouldn't lead to just one more setback."
It didn't. Head had "it" indeed, but even he didn't realize at that time what a marvel he had built: skis so easy to turn they soon earned the nickname of "cheaters"; so durable they carry an unconditional year's guarantee against any kind of breakage; so all-round good they have become as common as stretch pants on skiing slopes the world over.
The primary reason for the superiority of the Head ski can be stated in one phrase: torsional rigidity. The combination of a 13-ply laminated wood filler sandwiched between rugged layers of aluminum alloy and plastic (see diagram) has produced a ski three times harder to twist than the average wood ski. This means that when you bend into a turn there is no antagonistic twisting along the length of the ski; Heads glide through a turn with but a fraction of the effort required of wooden models. In addition, because metal reacts faster than wood, the liveliness of Heads makes them turn up and rise to the surface in deep powder, rather than diving, as stiff skis tend to do. Finally, because Heads are packed with maximum muscles per pound of weight, they resist warp and breakage better than any ski before them, and thus demand less yearly maintenance.
Even though he had created an almost perfect recreational ski, Head still had one more mountain to climb. He discovered that the very qualities that made his skis so favorable for the weekend skier were making the experts avoid them. Heads turned too easily for the 35-to 70-mile-an-hour speeds of a downhill run; their liveliness made them flap and chatter on hard snow and on washboard contours; their bottoms were rugged—but who cared when they cost a man the 10ths of a second separating champion from also-ran? He needed a ski for the inner circle, although he still stubbornly claims "90% of the people skiing are better off with my Standards. Most of the ones who go for harder, faster skis are just status-seekers."
There were numerous failures. Then, one happy day in the winter of 1959, Head took a pair of skis called the Vector out to Aspen and strapped them onto the feet of a superb Austrian racer named Toni Spiss, who schussed halfway down Ajax Mountain and told Head to quit worrying. The Vectors were fast enough and stable enough for anybody.