The Head Standard was Howard Head's first successful ski design, and arguably the first modern downhill ski. The Standard used composite construction, with a plywood core sandwiched between aluminum outer skins, steel edges tapering into the core, and a hard plastic base, sidewalls and topsheet. The only major change in ski design since the Standard is the use of a fibreglass torsion box in place of the aluminum layers.
The Standard was flexible in length and stiff in torsion, which allowed it to be easily turned while still holding a good edge. This combination was so impressive that it became known as "The Cheater" for the way it allowed beginners to turn like pros. The Standard, and models that followed it, were so successful that half the downhill skis in the US in the 1960s were Heads.
A number of metal skis were introduced over the years, among them the 1942 All Magnesium, a post-war run of 1,000 Metalite aluminum skis from Chance Vought, the stainless steel Chris Ski, the aluminum Alu-60 (later known as the TEY True-Flex), the Dow Metal Air Ski, and the Gomme from the UK.
All of these designs had numerous problems. In cold snow, ice would freeze to the bottom metal layer and made them very difficult to move. The same was true for wood skis, but these could hold wax that solved the problem. When applied to metal skis, the wax quickly rubbed off. Additionally, metal designs tended to be very springy, and were notorious for vibrating when running on ice. And a strong flex or collision could leave them permanently bent and unskiable. Skiers soon came to dismiss them as "tin cans."
In 1939, Howard Head took a job as a riveter at the Glenn L. Martin Company in Baltimore. Head worked his way up through the company during the war, eventually becoming a draftsman. Martin was a pioneer in the use of a plastic honeycomb material sandwiched between two thin sheets of aluminum to build the monocoque fuselage of the B-26 Marauder.
In 1947, Head skied at Mount Mansfield, better known today as part of Stowe Mountain Resort. He was immediately frustrated by the weight of his rented hickory skis, which he felt were archaic in an era of modern lightweight materials. On the train back to Baltimore, he was thinking of building a ski using Martin's aluminum/plastic sandwich. He was so excited about the prospect that he sketched the concept and showed it to his carriage mate. When he returned to work, he spent some time comparing the strength of Martin's laminates to the strength of hickory that he found in an engineering textbook. The answer was encouraging, "It looked like I could build a ski with the strength of wood, but with half the weight."
Investing $6,000 of poker winnings, Head rented the corner of an electrical shop and started work on a composite ski. The main portion of the ski was built of the standard laminate, but this left the edges of honeycomb exposed. For protection, he capped the sides with thin sheets of plywood. The ski was laid up in pieces and covered with a thermosetting shoemaker's glue. The glue required pressure and heat to bond, which normally required large moulds to provide the pressure. Head came up with the idea of placing the skis in a heavy rubber bag, pumping out the air to produce a vacuum to provide pressure, and then immersing the entire assembly in a barrel of boiling crankcase oil.
By December 1947, Head had completed six pairs of prototype skis. He arrived at Mansfield on 27 December and showed them to the instructors. The instructors tried flexing the skis, and five of the ski pairs immediately fell apart. Most left for the day, but Neil Robinson kept his pair to try. He returned to Head and said that in the few minutes he was able to keep on top of them, he "felt something." Head used the remaining pair and managed to make it only a short way before this pair failed as well.[N 1]
Head returned to Baltimore, and on 2 January 1948, quit his job at Martin to work on the ski design full-time. He applied a full stress test to a pair of commercial hickory skis, and found that the real strength of the wood was two times the number found in every engineering text. Head had designed his ski to match the strength of a wooden ski, but based on incorrect numbers, so his version was not nearly strong enough.
Head found that the plastic core was simply too weak to provide the strength needed to match the hickory skis. He replaced it with a sheet of marine plywood of much greater strength. Over the next year, he and a number of moonlighting Martin engineers made 40 pairs of skis, shipping them to Robinson and Don Traynor at Mansfield for testing. When they failed, which they all did, the area of failure was strengthened and another pair was built.
By Christmas 1949 a set of ten greatly improved versions were ready to be tested. Head gave pairs to Steve Knowlton and Clif Taylor, formerly of the 10th Mountain Division and now instructors at Aspen Ski School. They found they skied well in the powder at the top of the hill, but as they descended hit harder snow they simply wouldn't dig in and became impossible to turn. At the bottom, where it was warmer, the snow stuck to the skis and stopped dead, forcing them to walk them down the hill. Unimpressed, Knowlton suggested the shiny ski's best use was as a mirror in the local outhouse. Taylor stayed long enough to tell Head that the ski needed real edges, and some way for the bottoms to hold wax.
The solution to the turning problem had already long been used in the ski industry, the used of spring steel edges. Normally these were thin strips held onto the ski using small screws, but this was not suitable for the laminated design. Head designed a version with a flange that extended sideways about 1/5 of the way into the base of the ski. The edges were laid up and bonded into the base as the ski was being glued together. The new version not only fixed the problem of soft edges, but was found to greatly improve the overall performance of the ski as well.
To solve the problem with sticking snow, Head adapted another solution being widely introduced in the industry. TEY, creators of the earlier True-Flex design, faced the same sticking problems and had started selling a tape-on plastic sheet that could be used with any ski and eliminated the need for waxing. Head took this one step further, using a thicker phenolic plastic sheet and bonding it to the ski along with the other layers.
By this point it was late in the spring of 1950, and Head took the prototypes to the only place left in the east with good snow, Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Head knew that Taylor would be coming east, and arranged to meet him with a pair of the prototypes. Taylor skied them for five days on all types of snow. Then Head asked him to really run them out at high speed, and they worked flawlessly. Head later noted "When I saw Clif coming at me, that fast and that surely, I knew deep inside that I had it."
The new design was introduced in the winter of 1950-51. Head shipped pairs of skis on consignment all across the US, and took to the hills himself, selling them out of the back of his station wagon. By the end of the year, 300 pairs of the $85 skis were sold. One last problem needed to be solved; the mirror-like topsheet was distracting in the sun, so a thin sheet of black plastic was added to the top. The result was the Head Standard, which would remain largely unchanged for over a decade.
On the slopes, skiers found they could turn the ski far easier than wooden designs. Head later noted that "...lightness is not what makes a ski better. In trying to build a lighter ski, I accidentally created a ski that was stiffer in torsion, one that would turn and track more easily. That was the magic difference." The Standard was three times as stiff torsionally as wooden skis, which allowed the edge to be driven into the snow much more strongly. The effect was so pronounced that they became known as "The Cheater" because it made beginners look like pros. News of their ease of skiing spread quickly, and over the next winter 1,100 pairs were sold, improving to 2,200 for 1952-53. This was in spite of them selling for $75 to $85, roughly twice the price of high-end wooden designs.
In 1956 Head developed the first damping system for skis, inserting a neoprene layer under the top aluminum sheet. This had reduced chattering at high speeds as well as enabling the ski to "snake" over bumps. In 1961 they introduced this improvement in the Head Competition' line. In 1963 Joos Minsch won the downhill at Innsbruck on a pair. The next year Jean Saubert skied them to two medals at the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck. Two years later a third of all skiers in the top 10 of every major race were on Competitions, winning a total of 18 gold medals, 15 silver and 15 bronze.
Several new models based on the basic Standard model followed. These included the Vector, Master and others. In 1967 the last major introduction in the line was the Head 360, an intermediate based on the Competition design. It would go on to be one of the best selling skis in history. Several versions were spun off from the 360 line, including the 720 and 180.
In 1966 the Head Ski Company had more than 500 employees and was grossing $25 million a year on the sale of nearly 300,000 pairs of skis in 17 countries, by far the largest manufacturer of skis in the world. Sales continued to improve throughout the 1950s and 60s, until at one point 50% of all skis in the US were Heads. The competition was quick to introduce similar models of their own, but Head continued development and maintained a leadership position throughout.
However, it was during this period that the fibreglass torsion box design started to become popular, and improved rapidly. Head hated the concept and refused to consider studying it, claiming "Fiberglass is a flash in the pan. It will be gone tomorrow." But this attitude changed when Jean-Claude Killy continued winning races on the Dynamic VR-17, one of the first successful "torsion box" racing skis. Head responded by hiring Killy and his ski technician to help them tune a new fibreglass design of their own. The resulting Killy 800 almost killed the company when the plastic used on the new bright-red topsheet started cracking in dry climates. Worse, tuned by Killy the ski turned out to be far too stiff for the intermediate skier it was sold to. The product was improved and became the basis for Head ski designs in the 1970s.
Head was also infamous for interfering in day-to-day operations of the company. In 1968 a management team was brought in to run the company, leaving Head as the chairman. Head preferred to be a hands-on manager, and after being pushed from the ski operations he lost interest and turned his attention to tennis. He started development of an aluminum tennis racquet, but in 1969 he sold the entire company to AMF for $16 million. Taking up tennis in earnest, his trainer quit in frustration and told Head to keep practicing with a ball throwing machine. The machine broke constantly, so Head tore it apart and re-designed it. Approaching the company with some improvements, instead he purchased Prince Sports outright. Continuing development of the aluminum racquet, Head invented the modern oversized design that revolutionized the industry.
- Only Lund suggests Head made it onto his own skis, Leuthner stops with Robinson's attempt.
- Lund puts the date at 1941, Lund pg. 32
- Lund, pg. 32
- Lund, pg. 33
- "HOWARD HEAD - The Patron Saint Of Average Athletes", Ski Press Magazine
- Sath Masia, "Almost Hits, Mostly Misses", Ski Heritage, March 2005, pg. 35