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LANGE PLASTICS COMPANY
LANGE PLASTICS COMPANY. Robert B. LANGE flew Lockheed P-38 Lightning airplanes for the United States Army Air Forces before leaving to earn a degree at Harvard University, where he studied economics and engineering. It was during this time that he took up skiing. Like many other beginner skiers of the era, he was dismayed at the lack of innovation in manufacturing the sport's equipment.
Lange's size 9-1/2 triple-E wide feet demanded custom boots, which he ordered from Peter Limmer. These were not stiff enough for his liking, so Lange attempted to fix this by cutting strips of fiberglass left over from covering his boat, and gluing them to his boots using polyester resin. This 1948 attempt is the earliest recorded attempt at a plastic-reinforced boot.
After graduating in 1949 he joined his LANGE'S INSURANCE AGENCY, the family insurance business in Dubuque. (1) This lasted only for a short time. Originally, Lange began his business from his garage in 1954. He manufactured parts for advertising signs and displays. (2) He opened Hawkeye Plastics Corporation in the basement of the old Brunswick Radio Company factory, which had gone bankrupt during the GREAT DEPRESSION.
Lange's first important contract came from the Eska Toy Company to manufacture bodies for toy automobiles offered by General Motors as premiums with its Chevrolet Corvette sports car. Later contracts included the manufacture of freezer door liners for the Amana Company and "chip and dip" trays for the Red Dot Potato Chip Company. This product and the manner in which it was sponsored won second place in competition among premium promotions. (3)
Lange continued to experiment with improvements to ski boots, buying numerous pairs to cut them up and see if they could be re-enforced to make them stronger. Lange was not the only designer to attempt this, and several boots soaked in epoxy or other glues were available in the 1950s. None of these offered any great improvement, and lacing them up was even more difficult than before. Lange had built several models with epoxy or polyester by 1958, later claiming to have skied a successful all-plastic boot in 1957. (4)
Fiberglass simply did not have the right combination of features for an all-plastic boot. As part of the Corvette contract, Lange's Hawkeye Plastics had sub-contracted the seats to another local plastics company, run by David Luensmann. Luensmann had made the seats for the cars by vacuum-molding Royalite, an ABS plastic from Uniroyal. When Lange's Hawkeye went out of business, enough of this material was left over to experiment with boot designs, and Lange asked Luensmann to try it. (5)
Luensmann used strips of the material in a heat press to melt them into a single shell. He handed the results to Lange the next year, in the summer of 1961. After trying them that winter, Lange asked Luensmann to join him in a new company dedicated to making plastic boots. For mass production, the two built a vacuum press to shape the cuffs from larger sections of Royalite. This produced an extremely stiff boot suitable only for the most powerful racers. Attempting to solve the problem, they molded the boot in two separate parts joining them through rivets on either side at the level of the ankle. This allowed the boot to retain all the lateral stiffness of the original design, while allowing the forward flex to be better controlled. (6)
The new design, in blue and white, was released in limited numbers in 1962. Several people tried them out and reported a number of minor design issues, especially the problems lacing them up which often required two people. Levered buckles were an obvious solution, first invented by Hans Martin and introduced to the market in 1955 on the Henke Speedfit. However, Henke held the patent on the concept; Lange was reluctant to pay for a license.
By the winter of 1963 the manufacturers of these first synthetic boots accept by skiers had managed to fill only a small number of their orders and and even smaller number were in use. (7) These few boots suffered a number of mechanical failures that were traced to the poor performance of ABS plastic in low temperatures. (8)
In late 1962 DuPont provided a solution, a new pourable polyurethane plastic known as Adiprene. This material was much less affected by the cold, but had the important disadvantage that it could not be vacuum-molded, as it needed to be used in liquid form. It had to be heated and poured into a mold and then allowed to cool and set. This made it much more time consuming to use in production, but the advantages were too great to ignore. The company spent most of 1963 trying to solve the production problems, ignoring the growing list of orders for the older ABS models. (9)
In 1964 Lange began manufacturing ski boots in a factory that later became part of FLEXSTEEL INDUSTRIES, INC. (10)
In the end, no production of the new design was undertaken that year, leading to friction with his sales partners. In 1965 Lange finally added Henke-like buckles to his boots when that company gave up the patent. Not only did the buckle make it easy to close even the stiffest boots, the plastic spread the load across the entire cuff, applying even pressure to the foot. Leather designs tended to distort where the buckles attached, leading to tight spots on the foot and eventually damaging the leather. (11)
It was not until 1965 they had built a new molding machine known as "Mickey Mouse" that could inject the Adiprene to speed production. This system was only partially functional, and only 600 pairs of boots were produced that year. It was not until early 1966 that full production was able to start and 1,000 pairs had been completed. By the end of the year the number stood at 6,000, doubling in 1967 to 12,000, and again in 1968 to 25,000. (12)
By this time, Rosemount Engineering had introduced their own all-synthetic boot. Unlike the Lange, the Rosemount design was made of rigid fiberglass and split open in two parts to put it on. Like Lange, they were only able to produce small numbers of boots, about 900 pair, for the 1965/66 season. Many sources make the claim that Rosemount was first to introduce a plastic boot commercially, but it appears that both were available in limited numbers at the same time. In any event, Lange's earlier Royalite models clearly pre-date any of the Rosemount examples. (13)
The 1968s Lady Lange Competite was the first women's-specific race boot, the companion to the Comp model. It differed from the Comp in that it used a single large flap over the front of the boot, a design note that did not continue on future models. (14)
Production was not the only issue; the new design also needed a test market to popularize it. Lange approached the United States ski team hoping to have them test the new design. However, they were being supplied by Heirling, and were not interested. (15)
In January 1966, Lange called Dave Jacob, who was at that time coaching the Canadian ski team. Lange asked if Jacob would be willing to try the new boots with the Canadian team. Jacob agreed and several team members tried them out, but he noted that "they were really bad boots." Lange paid Jacob's way to Dubuque to help implement his suggestions. (16)
In June 1966 five pairs of boots incorporating these changes were shipped to Mount Hood, where the Canadian team was training. Gerry Rinaldi, Rod Hebron and Nancy Greene tried them on and approved. Soon after, Greene won the Golden Rose Race on the new boots. Lange then flew to the 1966 World Championships in Portillo, Chile and handed out examples to anyone willing to test them. He carried around a tape recorder, asking for any suggestions on how to improve the design. When Hebron and Suzy Chaffee showed dramatic improvement during the races, the new boot became an object of serious consideration. Curiosity changed to must-have when Greene started winning races in 1967 on the newly-formed World Cup circuit, and eventually took the gold medal. (17)
Five medals were won on Lange boots at the 1968 Winter Olympics, making them the most-winning brand of the competition. At the Olympics, Lange signed a deal with Dynamic to produce their line for the North American market. The company went public in 1969, and used the proceeds to purchase land in Broomfield, Colorado, building a 40,000 square foot boot factory, a 42,000 square foot ski factory, and a 20,000 square foot warehouse. The Dubuque operation was moved to Colorado in 1971. (18) The new factories dramatically improved production, and over the 1969 season alone the company shipped 100,000 pairs of boots. (19)
1969 was the breakthrough year for the company. Three models were on the market to serve different performance levels, the Standard for recreational skiing, the Pro for more demanding use, and the Comp for downhill racing. There was only one competitor, Rosemont, but their product was based on fiberglass and used a side-opening system that was clearly inferior to Lange's boots and could only compete on the low-end, in spite of a high-end price. By the end of the season, Lange was being sold at hundreds of stores across the country at prices no one else could beat. (20)
To reach new markets, plans for a new boot factory in Montebelluna, Italy started, along with another in Montreal to produce ice skates using similar concepts and materials. This plant was later expanded to sell ski boots to Europe as well, avoiding import tariffs on US products. At the 1970 World Cup meet at Val Gardena, Billy Kidd won four gold medals on Lange boots and Lange-built Dynamic skis, and Lange or Dynamic took medals in every event, men and women's. (21)
In February 1970, the Grand Theater featured "Lange Night" as a salute to the company that produced much of the ski equipment used in the film Downhill Racer starring Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, and Camilla Sparv. Although the company had moved its headquarters to Bloomfield, Colorado, in November 1969, to be in the midst of the ski country, much of the manufacturing had been done in the company's plant in the Brunswick Industrial Park. (22)
Alden Hanson of Dow Chemical contacted Lange in 1970 to tell them about a new material the company had invented. The new plastic retained a putty-like texture in any weather. Hanson's son had used it to make boots with a layer of the material sandwiched between a normal leather boot and a hard fiberglass shell. The material was a natural fit with Lange's plastic boots, fitting between the liner and shell. (23)
When Lange staff tried it, they unanimously supported it. The timing proved difficult. There were 200,000 pairs of boots planned for the 1970–1971 season. If they were going to use the newly-christened "Lange-flo" it would have to go into production before there was time for extensive testing. Lange decided to go ahead, putting it in all of their boots for the next model year. (24)
The boots were launched with a provocative advertising campaign of a woman wearing the new boots and a cat-suit with the same boot buckles holding it closed, in place of a zipper or buttons. The only wording simply stated "soft inside". This was the first of a series of provocative ads now referred to simply as "the Lange girls". (25)
Although the Lange-flo worked, the vinyl liner that held it proved to crack after hard use and let the Lange-flo squeeze into the boot. The solution was to place the Lange-flo in a separate plastic bag outside the liner, but as the liners were sown into the boot, this required a recall to re-fit them. About 20,000 of the 200,000 boots shipped that season returned to the factory. In their attempt to deal with the problem in a timely fashion, new staff were added and theft became a problem. Bad record keeping and lost tags led to many boots being shipped to the wrong people. Many simply never received their boots. (26)
At about the same time, Dynamic started protesting its agreement with Lange, while cash was needed to start the Canadian plant and introduce the new skate design. Emergency loans kept the company going through 1971, when they reported a $1.5 million loss, largely due to the warranty work due to Lange-flo. The next year Hanson introduced their rear-entry design, the first real competitor. Lange shares continued to drop in value. (27)
In 1972 the Lange Company tentatively agreed to a merger with the Garcia Corporation, a manufacturer of sports equipment. (28)
In 1973 another round of funding failed, and Lange sold the company to Garcia Company, owners of the Mitchell Reel fishing tackle company and tennis brands that was building a ski portfolio. Lange signed on as a consultant to Garcia, but left the company in July 1974. (29)
The Lange ski boot continues to be a leader in 2012 despite the fact that the manufacturer has been sold several times. In August 2008, Quiksilver announced that it would be selling the Rossignol group to Chartreuse & Mont Blanc, a wholly owned shell company formed by Macquarie Group of Australia. Lange remains part of this unit. (30)
The 1957 Dubuque City Directory listed 3200 Jackson.
The 1962 and 1964 Dubuque City Directory listed 339 W. 7th Apt. 9
1. Advertisement. The Telegraph-Herald, August 7, 1949, p. 16
2. "Young Firm Prospering," The Telegraph-Herald, August 31, 1958, p. 32
4. Lange Plastics Company--Wikipedia
7. "Lange Company Tentatively Agreeds to Merge with Garcia Corporation," Telegraph Herald, March 5, 1972, p. 33
10. "Lange Brothers File for Bankruptcy," Telegraph Herald, December 1, 1976, p. 29
18. "Lange Company Tentatively..."
28. "Lange Company Tentatively..."