The Collings Chronicle
The history & lineage of Bill Collings
The story of Bill Collings’ innate and intuitive ability to craft things began long ago. In 1878, his grandfather’s uncle, Alexander Winton, migrated to the United States from Scotland. He was responsible for many of the early developments in the evolution of the automobile, and many patents that led to putting a nation on wheels. He also built the first racing cars in America. Winton, known as a "trigger-tempered Scot," (hmmm) graduated from making bicycles to building automobiles, which were originally called “quadricycles”. In 1896, he completed a one-cylinder model with bicycle-style wheels.
In 1897, Winton's Chief Engineer invited Henry Ford, who was working for Thomas Edison’s company, to come to Cleveland for an interview. Winton was not overly impressed with Mr. Ford and decided not to hire him. Mr. Ford returned to Detroit to continue working on his own second quadricycle. In early 1898, a Winton became the first American-built auto to be sold commercially in the United States after the buyer saw an ad in The Scientific American. Winton was one of the first to enter cross-country tours, as well as, speed and endurance contests, setting a whole series of records. There is documentation of legendary races between Winton and Ford.
Among Winton’s innovations were that he was the first to use a steering wheel instead of a tiller, he put the engine in front of the driver instead of under the seat and he developed the first practical storage battery. The space under the seat, where the original engines were located, had been compartments for carrying hunting dogs in horse-drawn carriages and were equipped with louvers for ventilation. He is perhaps best known now for the effect he had on others. James W. Packard, a maker of electrical products for General Motors, visited Winton's office in Cleveland to offer a few suggestions for improving Winton's car. Winton did not appreciate the comments and said: "If you don't like the car, why don't you build your own?" So, Packard did.
Other contemporaries, including Ransom Olds, raced Winton on the sand between Ormond Beach and Daytona Beach, Florida in front of racing enthusiasts and customers including members of the Vanderbilt and Rockefeller families and Alexander Graham Bell. Ken Burns documented the first transcontinental automobile trip, from San Francisco to New York City in 1903, in a documentary called “Horatio’s Ride”. It was named after the driver, Horatio Jackson, but the star was the Winton automobile he drove…., and the pit bull, “Bud”, he picked up along the way. During WW1, and for the next couple of decades, Winton’s business evolved into building diesel engines for the Navy and locomotive engines for General Motors.
Winton’s nephew, Bill’s grandfather, Dr. William R. Collings, also had an incredible mind for engineering. After nearly thirty years with Dow Chemical, in 1943 he joined the newly merged Corning Glass Company and Dow Chemical Company, which was called the Dow-Corning Corporation. There, he served as General Manager, Vice President, Board member, President and as an Honorary Chairman of the Board until 1967. Much of Dr. Collings’ work revolved around the development of silicone products. Such products enabled aircraft to remain at 35,000 feet for a full eight hours, making it possible to deliver planes to North Africa and England by air instead of ship convoy. Other research led to silicone adhesives, water repellants, cleaners, computer chip materials and a myriad of both war-time and post-war products.
Bill Collings' story
In the early 1970s, Bill Collings, deciding that college was not for him, went to work for an elderly gentleman who ran a machine shop in Cleveland, OH. It was here that Bill’s engineering DNA kicked in and he developed an obsession for creating “things” with very close tolerances. He had been very mechanical in his teens and was always fascinated by cars and motorcycles. His passion for metal work is still alive and well but, while at the machine shop, he also began to work with wood and to appreciate the beauty and variety of things that could be done with it. Growing up in the 1950s, music was a constant for post-war America and there is really no way to measure the influence of music on the next two decades of American youth. Bill was certainly no exception. With folk music, as well as Elvis and other radio constants as mentors, Bill began to experiment with musical instruments. Shaping a banjo neck on a lathe and building a guitar out of a box were early trials. By the mid-70s, Bill built his first guitar. This passion became his obsession for the next forty years. This guitar, serial number 20,000 is the culmination of that obsession.
After fifteen years of repairing instruments and building guitars, plus a banjo or two on his own, Bill hired a couple of helpers in 1989. The first was Kurt Mottweiler and quickly thereafter came Bruce VanWart. Kurt soon moved on to design and build wooden cameras, among other beautiful things, but Bruce stayed and, twenty four years later as the longest Collings employee, did much of the work on this guitar. Bruce’s family has been in the wood business in Massachusetts for well over one hundred years and Bruce has been involved in woodworking from an early age, including building boats, before he moved to Texas. He has been the “eyes and hands” that have chosen materials and voiced parts for the majority of those twenty four years.
Summer of 2014, and Collings # 20,000
Serial number 20,000 is more than just another Collings guitar. We have built very few “45 style” guitars in our history, and this one is made from certified, pre-convention Brazilian rosewood and Eastern Red (Adirondack) spruce. It has a neck of Honduran mahogany, the fingerboard and bridge are made of African ebony and the nut and saddle are made of bone. For this guitar, Bill also built his first guitar case. Stylized and sturdy, it is inspired by vintage cases from the 1920s and 1930s. We have always tried to pay homage to tradition, while also continuously trying to make improvements. This guitar represents a milestone for Collings Guitars and will long stand as an emblem of our constant mission to build the best guitars possible. There is really no other company that does what we do exactly, which is to consistently build the highest quality instruments in a production environment. It is a challenging mission at the very least. This challenge, of combing art and industry, has been an ambition of Bill Collings all along. Even the artwork on the label in our instruments, composed of guitars and logs flowing downstream from a mill, represents that ambition.
Forty years later, it often feels like Bill Collings is only getting started. Collings craftsmanship is respected by professional and amateur musicians alike…anyone on the quest for quality. Some of these include artists: Keith Richards, Lyle Lovett, Pete Townshend, Emmylou Harris, Andy Summers, David Crosby, Chris Hillman, Joni Mitchell, Don Felder, John Sebastian, Lou Reed, John Fogerty, Tim O'Brien, Pete Huttlinger, Kenny Smith, Brian May, Joan Baez, John Prine, Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap, and Steven Spielberg to name a few. You owe it to yourself to try one.
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