Given the way that prices on just about everything keep going up, it’s hard to believe there really is such a thing as an “undervalued” airplane. But such a thing does exist, especially when you look back at the older classics.
There are several reasons the marketplace has decided a given airplane isn’t worth as much as its seemingly similar brethren. Part of this is based on fact, some on hearsay and even more on the unquantifiable, sometimes irrational, “logic” that seems to permeate aviation. For a nuts-and-bolts type of community, emotion often plays a surprisingly large role in the decision-making process. Factors that influence an older airplane’s value follow:
It’s Not A Recognizable Brand. If there’s a “Cessna” or “Piper” in an airplane’s name, it usually, but not always, removes it from the undervalued category. A name brand practically guarantees popularity.
It’s Got An Unpopular Airframe Structure. There’s nothing like fabric or wood in a structure to bring down its perceived value in the modern marketplace. Take, for example, the Bellanca Viking. It can blow the doors off most of its competition, but its fabric and wood features combine with a lack of name recognition to keep its market value at 65% to 75% that of a comparable Bonanza.
It Has A “Reputation.” Some airplanes have a questionable reputation for either handling or mechanical quirks (it’s almost always undeserved). Real or not, however, it keeps the values down.
These kinds of value-limiting factors affect the entire airplane population, old and new, but in the field of postwar classics, there are some definite sleepers that are great, low-cost, entry-level planes. Some you know well, and some you may have never heard of. Still, each represents a good value for the money spent, as long as you pay attention to certain basic details and make the right decisions.
Good Airframe Fabric. If it’s a fabric airplane and the fabric is questionable, pass on it. Unless the asking price is really low and you’re going to do the work yourself, it won’t work out financially. The material to recover something like a Champ costs around $2,200; if you hire someone else to do the work, it’s going to cost $15,000 to $19,000, and that’s often more than the value of the airplane.
A Low- To Mid-Time Engine. The engine should be in the first half of its life, and, more importantly, should have been flown regularly over the last 10 years. Give preference to a regularly flown, higher-time engine over a lower-time engine that’s been sitting around for a few years. This is especially true for Lycomings, which love to rust the rear cam lobe if not flown. Thirty-five hours a year should be about minimum, depending on local humidity. Overhaul costs can run from a low of $9,000 (for a locally done 65 hp Continental) up to $25,000 (for a six-cylinder Lycoming).
Low Airframe Corrosion. Older airplanes, are bound to have a little corrosion or rust, but go through the airplane with mirrors and poke into every nook and cranny to make sure it’s only cosmetic and doesn’t affect structural integrity. Each airplane type has areas of concern that are unique to that type. Contact the type club for that airplane and develop a type-specific inspection list to guide you and the A&P (who’s familiar with the airplane) while conducting the prepurchase inspection.
Buy An Already-Rebuilt Airplane, If Possible. Let someone else take the dollar-hit for restoring/rebuilding an airplane. Make up your mind that, if it’s available, you’re going to buy the best of a given type and pay top dollar for it. At the same time, don’t pay so much that you could buy one of the more popular, mainstream models for the same price.
Buy To Fly Or Fix, Not Resell. It’s easier to get upside down financially with one of these airplanes than with the more popular ones, so buy with the idea of flying the wings off of your plane and enjoying it, not reselling it. Your operation costs will be low and you’ll be getting some inexpensive flying time. But if you plan on getting all of your money out of it, watch what you spend on “fixing it up.” Most airplanes, if well cared for and consistent with the above guidelines, will return all of your purchase price, but the more popular ones are more likely to return the dollars you put into them along the way.
|1. AERONCA CHIEF Of the name-brand classics, the Chief has been the slowest to catch up to the value curve. Considering it’s basically Champ wings bolted on a side-by-side (rather than tandem) fuselage, there’s no logic to the huge price differential between the two. (The Chief lags the Champ by a solid 30% or more.) The Chief doesn’t give blazing performance (85 to 90 mph), although the standard 65 hp 11AC Chief (not the 85 hp 11CC Super Chief) still has adequate get-up-and-go. With the Super Chief’s 85 hp, it gets a decided boost and is much more expensive. Because the Chief’s value is lower, you’re likely to run across more questionable examples of the Chief than the Champ as they’ve been allowed to go downhill. It’s better to find a totally restored airplane that costs twice the average Chief price. You’ll realize three times more airplane and less headaches. The airplane has tons of adverse yaw, so be prepared to use your feet, but it’s a pussycat on the ground.|
|2. AERONCA SEDAN The 15AC Aeronca Sedan is a big airplane. It has a huge, comfortable, well-lit cabin and carries four people with ease (900-pound useful load). It has well-done all-metal wings, although they’re difficult to inspect, so plan on spending some time eyeballing them because lots of Sedans have been sitting derelict for at least part of their lives. If there’s one drawback, it’s that the 145 hp Continental is about 40 hp short of what’s needed for an airplane that size. Still, it’ll give you an honest 110 to 115 mph and a lot of comfort along the way. Its handling is sedate and solid, and it offers excellent runway visibility for a taildragger. In an effort to keep the price down, designers decided not to include flaps. This is too bad, as flaps would make the plane an even better off-airport performer.|
|3. BELLANCA The older triple-tail Bellancas come in two commonly available versions, the 14-13 with the 150 hp Franklin (14-13-2 with the 165 hp Franklin) and the 14-19 with the 190 hp Lycoming O-435 (six-cylinder). Assuming a more or less straight and clean airframe, they’re surprisingly fast. Typically, however, they’re not as fast in real life as the spec charts would have you believe. Assume 140 mph with the little engine, 145 to 150 mph with the 190 hp. The later airplanes are also a little wider. These planes scare people because of their wooden wings, but the fear is unjustified. On the other hand, they do require that an A&P crawl all over the airplane because the wings don’t like being left out in the open and ignored. The airplanes are delightfully smooth to fly, quick to maneuver and easy on the runway, although they get much of their performance from small cockpit dimensions so they aren’t big-guy airplanes. Both engine types require some specialized knowledge.|
|4. FUNK Following World War II, Funk aircraft were produced with C-85 engines, but make no mistake, this is a 1930s antique with more or less modern reliability. The cockpit is smallish, and the big control wheels that are mounted on the ends of a T-shaped control column look as if they’re out of an old airliner. This is a “fun” airplane because it’s unconventional yet useful. Plan on 95 to 100 mph cruise at 4.5 gph. It’s one of the least expensive types, but you’ll be dependent on the Funk type club for information: not many mechanics even know it exists.|
|5. MAULE M-4 JETASEN The original Maule was powered by the same 145 hp Continental that was then (early ’60s) also powering the C-172. Then, after a few years, the horsepower race took off, and the Maule sprouted the big angular tail we’re all so familiar with. The original Jetasens were light, easy-to-fly airplanes. Though they don’t rocket off the runway like their big-engine siblings, they still do fine with four people. In fact, they have nearly the same useful load (approximately 1,000 pounds) as all the later airplanes and more useful load than some, courtesy of their 1,100 pound empty weight (they’re as much as 300 pounds lighter than the newer airplanes). Also, the older, rounded tail looks much better than the later, rectilinear shark fin. The airplane is at least 25% cheaper than the next-larger-engine model and doesn’t give up that much in performance.|
|6. PIPER TRI-PACER The PA-22 Tri-Pacer continues to be the best bang for the four-place buck in aviation. (Although in the 125/135 hp versions, “four-place” may be stretching the definition because temperature and altitude eat into the plane’s performance when it’s fully loaded. The 150/160 hp versions are much better in those situations.) The airplane was produced throughout the ’50s into the ’60s and is available in everything from “backline-ratty” to “as new” condition. The airplane requires some definite inspection for rust inside the door frames and wing carry-through structure at the bottom of the fuselage. Though it has short wings, the performance is much better than many assume, and it’s an honest 120 to 125 mph airplane, but at a much lower cost than its peer group competitor, the C-172. Metal conversions are available on many Tri-Pacers.|
|7. PIPER J-4 CUB COUPE The J-4 is the Piper everyone has forgotten about. Okay, so it isn’t postwar, but since it’s mostly a J-3 Cub, and some J-3s were built after the war, I thought I’d include it. The J-4 is a Cub, pure and simple, but with two-abreast seating. In fact, a lot of the major components, like wings, etc., are virtually interchangeable. One notable difference between the two is that the Cub Coupe is much less expensive to acquire than the J-3, which is far from being undervalued. Unlike its competition (such as planes in the Taylorcraft BC series), the J-4’s cockpit isn’t too tight for two new-millennium pilots, and it’s much more comfortable. In fact, the Coupe is actually a very likeable airplane compared to its peer group, though at 75 to 80 mph cruise on four gallons per hour, just about everything is faster. Supposedly more than 1,200 J-4s were produced, but you don’t run across many today. It’s a great-looking airplane with surprisingly good handling.|
|8. REARWIN/COMMONWEALTH “The what?” you may ask. The Commonwealth Skyranger was another postwar continuation of a prewar design (the Rearwin) and is another of those models that died when the 1946 aviation boom didn’t happen. A tallish, two-place tandem design with surprisingly good handling, it can be bought for a fraction of the cost of a Cub or Champ from the same period. There are the usual caveats about wood spars and fuselage tubing, but at less than five gallons an hour, it’ll give a lot of 100 mph enjoyment for not much money.|
|9. STINSON 108 The Stinson 108 series offers what are possibly the slickest controls on any certified airplane and a four-place cabin that’s vaguely reminiscent of an old station wagon. In fact, one of them was dubbed the “Station Wagon.” There are four variations (108, -1, -2, -3), but only the 108-3 is visually different from the rest—its huge, upswept fin was necessitated by the 165 hp (versus 150 hp) engine. The Franklin engines generally can’t be supported by your local FBO, but there are plenty of specialty shops for both the airframe and the engine. Give preference to a Lycoming conversion and Cleveland brake conversion. The STCs for the 220 hp Franklin or 230 hp Continental O-470 convert the mild-mannered limo into a serious hot rod. It’ll cruise at 115 to 120 mph, but cleanups and big motors push it closer to 150 mph. Metal conversions are available on many Stinsons.|
|10. STRAIGHT-TAIL CESSNA 182s Although the 1956-59 straight-tail 182s may appear frumpier than their swept-tail cousins, they give almost identical performance at a fraction of the purchase price. The older airplanes cruise within a few knots of the later models and carry almost as much. For much less money, you get modern performance in a classic package. These are the only undervalued Cessnas in existence, but condition is everything. Check for corrosion and general wear and tear because you can get financially upside down in a hurry fixing lots of little stuff.
Incidentally, while you’ll find lots of these “also rans” in Trade-A-Plane, often the best place to find them is tied down at local airports. As if we need another excuse to go flying!