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Needing pressure and heat to fuse the materials together, Head concocted a process that would have made Rube Goldberg proud. To achieve the necessary pressure of 15 pounds per square inch, he put the ski mold into a huge rubber bag and then pumped the air out through a tube attached to an old refrigerator compressor that was hooked up backward to produce suction. For heat, he welded together an iron, coffin-like tank, filled it with motor oil drained from automobile crankcases and, using two Sears, Roebuck camp burners, cooked up a smelly 350° brew. Then he dumped the rubber bag with the ski mold inside into the tank of boiling oil and sat back like Julia Child waiting for her potato puffs to brown.
Six weeks later, out of the stench and smoke, Head produced his first six pairs of skis and raced off to Stowe to have them tested by the pros. To gauge the skis' camber, an instructor stuck the end of one into the snow and flexed it. It broke. So, eventually, did all six pairs. "Each time one of them broke," says Head, "something inside me snapped with it."
Instead of hanging up his rubber bag, Head quit Martin the day after New Year's 1948, took $6,000 in poker winnings he had stashed under his bed and went to work in earnest. Each week he would send a new and improved pair of skis to Neil Robinson, a ski instructor in Bromley, Vt., for testing, and each week Robinson would send them back broken. "If I had known then that it would take 40 versions before the ski was any good, I might have given it up," says Head. "But, fortunately, you get trapped into thinking the next design will be it."
Head wrestled with his obsession through three agonizing winters. The refinements were several: steel edges for necessary bite, a plywood core for added strength and a plastic running surface for smoother, ice-free runs. One crisp day in 1950, Head stood in the bowl of Tuckerman's Ravine in New Hampshire and watched instructor Clif Taylor come skimming over the lip of the headwall, do a fishtail on the fall line and sweep into a long, graceful curve, swooshing to a stop in front of the beaming inventor. "They're great, Mr. Head, just great," Taylor exclaimed. At that moment, Head says, "I knew deep inside I had it."
What Head had wrought was an aluminum ski that was stronger, livelier and, most important, three times more resistant to twisting than the average wooden ski. That last quality, the torsional rigidity of Head skis, allowed them to carve through turns with a fraction of the effort required by wooden models. Nevertheless, when Head began haunting the slopes in search of instructors who would sell his skis, he met with resistance. The "cheaters," as the skis with the "built-in turns" were dubbed, were too radical and, at $85, a pair, too expensive, said the pros, some of whom took to ducking behind trees to avoid confronting Head. But when one instructor in Sun Valley, Idaho quickly sold 40 pairs out of his bedroom, his colleagues came rushing out of the woods and the avalanche was on.
By the end of the 1950s some 200,000 Head skis were in use, and the only mountain left to climb was the one commanded by the lofty downhill racers. The qualities that made the Heads terrific recreational skis, their liveliness and the ease with which they turned, made them difficult to control at high speeds. A layer of vulcanized rubber embedded in the aluminum skin of the ski corrected that, and Head was off to the races, most conspicuously at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck. The majority of the U.S. and Swiss teams were mounted on Head skis, including Billy Kidd, who won the silver medal in the men's slalom. And two years later a pair of Americans set a world speed record—106.5 mph—on Head racing skis.
For Head it was a long exhilarating run with more than a few unforeseen bumps. By 1966, with 500 employees and a plant in Timonium, Md. that was grossing $25 million a year on sales of 300,000 skis in 17 countries, the Head Ski Co. was the largest manufacturer of quality recreational skis in the world. Yet the company continued to experience acute and costly growing pains that in large part were a result of Head's belated discovery that "I was an inept manager, a terrible people's man. If something went wrong, my instincts told me to fix it myself, whether it meant rewriting ads or greasing machines. Eventually I ran out of gas, and the company began to suffer."
A new management team was brought in in 1967, and the company prospered. But for Head, the chairman of the board but no longer in day-to-day control, the sense of adventure was gone. He says, "There comes a time when somebody like me has two choices: he can sell or get swallowed up by the bigness of his own creation." In 1969 AMF purchased the company for $16 million, and at 55 Head retired with his wife, Joan, to their Norman-style house in the wooded Roland Park section of Baltimore.
Head, whose tastes when sedentary run to chess, bridge, poetry, Plato's Dialogues and the Brandenburg Concertos, decided that for physical recreation he would take up tennis. As befits a retired millionaire, he built a sunken court out back under the oaks and took $5,000 worth of lessons. "Nothing helped," he says. "I was still a crummy player. Finally one of my frustrated instructors suggested I get a ball machine to practice with. I suspect he was trying to tell me something." Perhaps he was: the name of the machine was Prince.
Barely had it arrived when Mr. Fix-it felt compelled to do a little exploratory surgery in its rotor mechanism. Head's diagnosis: "It was an ingenious piece of design, but so full of bugs it was almost useless." Head called Prince Manufacturing, Inc., an embryonic firm in Princeton, N.J. Could he offer a few suggestions? He could and did, in person, driving up from Baltimore in his Cadillac. A few more trips and by the fall of 1971 Head owned 25% of the company's stock and had the titles of chief design engineer and chairman of the board.