Whether it’s cars, motorcycles or airplanes, enough dough can make anything like-new again. But if you have classic cars in your hangar (and I know a lot of you do—keep the pics coming, I love old stuff) you know that a restored ‘59 Vette won’t be a practical daily traveler. But classic airplanes can be, serving duty as the family ride to the vacation home, work meetings and fly-ins. Unimproved strip? Hot and heavy? There are plenty of classic airplanes that are up to the task if you are. But are they?
When we ran our field report on buying and owning classics and warbirds in the March 2020 Aviation Consumer, we got mail asking if it’s realistic to join the ranks of vintage aircraft ownership expecting new-Cirrus-like dispatch reliability. I used to think the answer was an affirmative no. Don’t even try. Really old airplanes are hangar queens. But while preparing this month’s used aircraft guide on the North American Navion, I changed my mind. The earliest Navions are old gals—70-something years—and account for the majority of the roughly 500 Navions still flying, plus some parked Navions that could fly again with a healthy dose of love, money and patience. And what else does it take to get a 70-something-year-old airplane in go-anywhere-now condition? I’m not necessarily talking about barn finds. This assumes you buy an airworthy bird. I’ve had my hands in enough classics to know that airworthy might be a relative term when talking 70-plus-year-old airplanes that are light on maintenance and paperwork. Can one ever be good as new?
My go-to on this was Chris Gardner at Sierra Hotel Aero in St. Paul, Minnesota. Gardner grew up with Navions. His dad commuted with them while working as an Air Force fighter pilot, while the younger Gardner—an A&P and airline crew chief—wrenched them, and P-51 Mustangs. He also did the Navion’s baggage door STC. Won at auction in Bowling Green, Ohio, his company owns the coveted type certificate, tooling, service letters, drawings, PMAs, parts and some STCs for the Navion fleet, and he has built a respected shop that supports, refurbishes, services and modifies Navions (and other classics) from all over the world. Some of Sierra Hotel’s latest Navion refurb projects are so modern you might not initially recognize one as a Navion. The images above are proof, and hints at what an $850,000 2024 model-year Navion might look like.
Gardner told me that many of the Navions that have been through his shop for a ground-up refurb were purchased for around $30,000 and flew away with over $400,000 invested in them. It may be a challenge to convince your insurer or money lender to adjust the hull value accordingly, as Gardner put it. But those are far and few in between. For most of the old Navions with managed neglect, Gardner matter-of-factly warned that you’ll spend at least $70,000 to get it up to snuff for reliable traveling. Of course that may not include modern avionics and panel upgrades, which could be $70,000 alone. Don’t forget paint, interior and speed mods. If there’s a bright side to throwing that kind of dough at a 70-year-old airplane it’s that you’re essentially getting specialized, reliable and factory-like support, which should be a big influencer in buying any old (or new) airplane. As for the Navion, it’s a solid airframe that for some is worth a high-dollar refurb investment. And to them and others, so might a brand-new one.
A new J-model Navion could be a reality in a few years. Gardner has been heavily focused on producing the next-gen Navion—making good use of the data collected by upgrading old Navions—and planning to utilize modern manufacturing methods, domestic manufacturing and equipping the airplane with modern systems (including automotive styling) buyers would expect. He wouldn’t tell me what powerplant might be used to power a new Navion, but I’d put money on there being at least an option for a Jet-A-burning variant to serve other countries. Priced similarly with its contemporaries, but bettering them with a near 4000-pound gross weight, steady and forgiving handling and truck-like build quality, the next-gen Navion could be one of the best classic remakes we’ve seen. —Larry Anglisano