U.S. The Fastest Production Ford,There's only one B-24 Liberator left running
and Rob Collings has it
By WILLIAM JEANES
(Photos © 2003 Eugenia Uhl)
Imagine that you are a handsome, hazel-eyed, 28-year-old single male, six feet tall with a beautiful Swedish girlfriend. What’s more, you can drive any one of six dozen classic and racing cars anytime you want. Could life get any better than that?
Well, yes, but only if you are Rob Collings. Because you would also have driven endurance races at Daytona and Sebring, and you would be a licensed pilot who soloed in a Stearman biplane at age 16. And got your Citation jet certificate at 17.
It doesn’t stop there.
Young Mr. Collings also has access to a number of aircraft, mostly ex-military planes. Some are based at the Collings Foundation’s own grass air-strip in Stow, Massachusetts. Others are based elsewhere in the United States, but he gets to fly most of those as well.
“I’ve had the flying bug for as long as I’m able to remember,” Collings says. A graduate of Babson College, Collings has more seat time than just about anyone—1800 hours—in what can be called the last of the fastest Fords. That would be a four- engine World War II bomber called the B-24 Liberator, vast numbers of which were built 61 years ago at Ford’s aircraft factory in Willow Run, Michigan. For good measure, Collings has 900 hours in B-17s.
The Liberator and all the other planes and automobiles are owned by the Collings Foundation, a 501-C3 educational foundation chartered by Collings’ parents in 1979 with money earned in the electronics industry. The organization (collingsfoundation.org) is dedicated to the presentation of living history, and its early efforts took the form of public reenactments of such bygone activities as ice cuttings and sleigh rides.
In 1975 the Collings began to acquire automobiles with the goal of assembling representative cars from each important automotive era. The foundation defined these periods as the Brass Era, the Roaring ’20s and the Classic Era. To that, they added Indianapolis 500 cars, road racing cars and, most unusual, those quintessential American creations, midgets and sprint cars. The eight pre-World War II sprint cars range from a 1932 Crager-Ford to a Dreyer-Ford and a Riley Four Port from 1937. There are eight midgets from the 1930s and the 1950s.
The seven Indy cars include a 1972 Gurney Eagle and a 1980 Penske PC-9 with the distinction of having been taken to victory lane by both Rick Mears and Mario Andretti. In different races, of course.
For the celebrity-minded, there’s an unrestored 1940 Cadillac V16 limousine that mobster Al Capone ordered up in 1939 following his island holiday at Alcatraz. The foundation roster lists five trucks and farm vehicles, one of them a Peerless steam tractor. Four pieces of military transport—among them a World War I Ford Model T ambulance and a World War II Ford Jeep—and four horse-drawn conveyances round out the collection. A sleigh from the early 20th century and three carriages from the 1800s constitute the latter group.
The 14-car Brass Era collection contains not one but two Stanley Steamers, a 1914 Stutz Bearcat, a 1913 Mercer Raceabout, an unrestored 1906 Pope Waverly Electric Carriage and a 1903 Curved Dash Oldsmobile.
Of all the groups in the Collings collection, however, its Classic Era assemblage rates highest on the drool meter. This includes 13 cars ranging from a 1927 Rolls-Royce built in Springfield, Massachusetts, to a 1937 Cord Model 812 Phaeton. In between are such beauties as a 1928 Chrysler Model 72 roadster and the 1932 Duesenberg SJ dual-cowl Phaeton in which Fred Duesenberg had the wreck that ended his life. For nitpickers, this car was originally a Model J, but has been updated to SJ specifications.
Here endeth the text on cars. The time has come to discuss the fastest Ford.
When one tries to quantify the impact Ford Motor Co. made on 20th century America, it would be wrong to limit that judgment to cars and trucks. Ford built planes as well, among them the Ford Tri-motor of the 1920s and 1930s. In the mid-1920s Henry Ford even experimented with a one-person aerial runabout intended to be a Model T of the skies. It wasn’t. Only three were built, one of which killed a test pilot.
In the 1930s, as the world drew ever closer to a second world war, governments on both sides of the Atlantic began to seek designs for long-range bombers. More than 60 years after these bombers flew in World War II, the best-known American designs are the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-25 Mitchell. The twin-engine B-25 etched itself in American memory because of Brig. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle’s 1942 carrier-launch- ed raid on Tokyo. Taking nothing away from its outstanding war record, the Boeing-designed B-17 remains top-of-mind largely because of the 1944 documentary, The Memphis Belle, and such movies as Twelve O’Clock High, Command Decision, The War Lover and the 1990 feature film, Memphis Belle. All of these movies dealt with the Eighth Air Force, which was based in England during the war.
All but ignored is the B-24 Liberator, arguably the mightiest Allied bomber of the war.
In 1940, Consolidated Aircraft of San Diego, which designed the B-24, envisioned building one per month. Even armchair militarists can see that this output would not have qualified as a drop in the needed sea of bombers. Enter Ford Motor Co.
Ford management saw a giant aircraft plant that would build bombers in the same manner as the company built automobiles, essentially an assembly line using prepared subassemblies as opposed to the Consolidated system that would have produced a series of one-offs. By using modern methods, Ford believed it could build more than 500 B-24s per month.
Ford manufactured airplanes, principally the Tri-motor, from 1925 to 1933, but it had never built mass-produced aircraft. That changed with the new 2.5- million-square-foot Willow Run plant west of Detroit. Produc-tion of subassemblies for use by other Consolidated factories began in early 1942, and the first completely Ford-built B-24 flew in September.
According to Ford’s Charles Sorenson in My Forty Years with Ford, Willow Run produced some 2184 B-24s in 1943. Ford’s goal of building one per hour seemed remote. Even so, at the beginning of 1944, Ford built far more B-24s than did any of the five other plants assigned to the task. In 1944 Ford came into its own, building 4611 Liberators. At times, a B-24 rolled out onto the adjacent airport every 55 minutes.
The B-24 Liberator could not climb as high as a B-17, but it outdid the workhorse of European bombing runs in almost every other way. It carried a larger payload faster and farther than the Flying Fortress, and it was safer. A pilot or crew- man in a B-24 did not stand quite the statistical chance of being killed or wounded as a B-17 airman.
B-24 production outdid the B-17 18,500 to 12,000, and the Liberator dropped more tons of bombs—and sank more submarines—than any other World War II aircraft. Parked beside the graceful B-17, however, the B-24 looks ungainly, and like it or not, aesthetics count where the public’s affection is concerned.
The Collings Foundation’s B-24J Liberator was built by Consolidated’s plant in Texas rather than at Willow Run, but it has the distinction of being the only fully restored and flying Liberator in the world. This seems sad in view of the B-24 having flown in virtually every theater of the war, most notably in the Pacific, where its 3000-mile cruising range made it a useful weapon. Its virtual disappearance seems even sadder when one considers that more than 8600 Liberators were built at Willow Run, and nearly 10,000 in other locations. Though not historically correct, the two steering wheels each bear the Ford oval and the words “Built by Ford.”
Collings has made appearances at airports throughout North America with the foundation’s B-24 and companion B-17. These warbirds fly as the “Wings of Freedom Tour” and give the rapidly disappearing World War II veteran population what is often a last look at the bombers that helped to subdue the Axis powers. The foundation charges $8 for a walk-through and $400 for a 30-minute flight in one of the bombers.
“The planes also give veterans’ families a look at what dad or granddad did in the war,” says Collings. Veterans often will not talk about their combat experiences, he says, but the planes frequently trigger reactions.
“One bomber crewman, who’d had a stroke that left him just about unable to speak, started to talk clearly after he had crawled into the plane and into his old crew position,” Collings confides. “The planes also create a reaction among surviving family members, something on the order of, ‘I had no idea that he did that.’”
All told, the Collings Foundation owns and maintains 20 military aircraft, ranging from a 1909 Bleriot to an F4D Phantom from the Vietnam era. Only two of these are static displays; the rest fly. The foundation also restores planes, and over the past 11 years has restored more aircraft than the Smithsonian Institu-tion’s vaunted Garber Facility.
Collings has a choice of Fords to drive: the Model T ambulance, a 1913 and a 1924 Model T, the Ford-powered sprint cars, the midgets with Ford engines, and Michael Andretti’s Lola-Ford from the 1995 CART circuit.
“But I’ll take the B-24 every time,” says Collings.
And with four 1200-horsepower Pratt & Whitney engines and a top speed of 291 mph, who can blame him?
My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.
My next Ford.....