Millennium Mooney 2000 Sweepstakes

Beginning the Millennium (Literally)

February 1, 2000

It’ll be a real speedster this year…can you wait?

Now that we’ve all lived through the supposedly tumultuous turning of the calendar to the year 2000 with not much more to show for it than a faint champagne hangover, it’s time to get down to business—to choose, find, and begin work on AOPA’s 2000 membership sweepstakes grand prize. Your eyes do not deceive you—the airplane on these pages is a sleek Mooney M20J and once thoroughly refurbished and updated, it will be the Millennium Mooney. Perhaps your next airplane?

We arrived at the Mooney—a version of the vaunted 201 series begun in 1976—through a highly scientific, arduously researched, and carefully considered thought process that consumed several staffers’ vacations, numerous committee meetings, and a host of after-hours bull sessions. Then we threw out those recommendations and settled on the Mooney because, well, we thought it would be neat. So there.

It also fits into our sweepstakes circle of life in a tidy, Disney-esque kind of way. We cut our refurbishing teeth on simple Cessnas, turned to store-bought models for a couple of years, and then launched our first retractable project in 1997 with the Ultimate Arrow. It was tremendously popular. The next year, we turned back the clock with the plucky (if ill-starred) Piper Tri-Pacer and then, for 1999, worked the cross-theme concept to a frenzy with the Cessna 206 Aero SUV.

With the Mooney, we’ve come around again to a sleek, fast, modern airplane. (You could argue that the 206 is equally modern, given its high-tech avionics suite, but its trucky nature and—some would say—homely appearance hardly make it a next-millennium poster child.) It helps that the same basic 201 airframe is still in production—albeit in the longer-cabin form as the turbo-Lycoming-powered Bravo, and the Continental-driven Eagle and Ovation2 twins (see "New-Math Mooney," p. 46). It also bolsters our affections to see the 201/MSE airplanes so highly prized in the used market. As we discovered, finding a good example can entail long hours with Trade-A-Plane, scoping out the various Web sites, and hanging around airport bulletin boards like well-to-do transients.

Early on, we pondered a couple of possibilities in turning out the Millennium Mooney. One was to start with a good 201 and go from there. The other concept revolved around buying a good M20F—the long-body, 200-horsepower precursors to the 201 that were last built in 1977—and exploring the rich aftermarket with the hopes of turning it into a 201-fighter. There’s much to be said for this route. You can start with an airplane considerably lower in cost than a 201. According to Vref, a 1977 M20F is worth $61,500 base, while a 201 commands a whopping $81,000. Within that price differential exists a lot of upgrade capital.

What’s more, the aftermarket is there to take advantage of this somewhat mystifying difference in values. Several companies make upgrade parts and kits, and some have procedures and approvals to apply later-model factory pieces to earlier airplanes. You can, with the proper application of time and money, make an early Mooney (pick from the long-body, 200-hp M20F; the short-body, 200-hp M20E; or the short-body, 180-hp M20C) into a fair facsimile of a 201.

Were you to do such a thing, you’d want to start with the cowling. When Roy LoPresti joined Mooney, one of his tasks was to spruce up the already quick M20s, and one of his first alterations was to the cowling. (Amazing…he’s still doing that.) The gaping maw of the early airplane gave way to a slick cowling with smaller inlets; a prop-shaft extension was specified to buy some room between the prop arc and the first row of cylinders. Larger cowl flaps were fitted as were tighter-fitting gear doors.

Elsewhere, LoPresti and his staff ferreted out drag with what might be called extreme prejudice. A sleeker, more angled windshield was installed. Flow-smoothing fairings appeared everywhere—at the wing root, along the flap tracks, and between the fixed and moveable control surfaces, among other places. Inside, the airplane got a new instrument panel and revised interior schemes.

When the Mooney crew was done, the 201 was about 15 knots faster than the M20F on the same power; a better climber; and, arguably, far more handsome. (Alas, the 201 is not, in the real world, a 167-kt cruiser, as the manual states; for that you need to flog the little Lycoming at 2,700 rpm, which few owners are willing to do. Call it 155 kt day in, day out.) It was an instant and enduring success.

So, we considered, should we effectively reverse-engineer and reproduce the 201 mods on an M20F? It would make good grist for the editorial mill, certainly, and based on the growth in the modification market, we surely would not be alone. But a candid conversation with Tom Rouch, owner of Top Gun Aviation in Stockton, California, revealed that while it’s possible to create a 201 out of an M20F, it isn’t usually economically advantageous. "We find that you are starting with an older airplane, so there are going to be maintenance issues to deal with before you ever begin modifying. Then there’s the labor. Putting in a 201-style windshield is a 30-hour project all by itself, and requires modifying or replacing the cowling deck. It’s a huge amount of work." And that would be only the beginning.

One other thing to consider: No matter how much money you throw into an M20F, it’ll never be a 201. It may look, smell, and fly like one, but in the eyes of the insurance companies and resale market, it’s just a modified F model. Nothing inherently wrong with that, of course, but don’t expect to get even half of your mod investment back out of the deal. Modifying an earlier airplane to later spec makes objective sense only from a few perspectives. One, you have the airplane you love and plan to keep it until you can’t fly anymore. That is, if you have a clean airframe that you and your maintenance shop know well and, perhaps, a newly rebuilt engine, then tackling the upgrades makes some sense. Two, if you are of the mind that an airplane project is a long-term deal—do the windshield this year, the cowling a couple of years down the road, for example—then the modification route is a reasonable alternative to buying a 201 outright. It allows you to self-finance the upgrades rather than biting off a big chunk like a whole new airplane.

In our sweepstakes-airplane adventure, we fit into neither category. We don’t have multiple years to get the job done, and we don’t already have an M20F hanging around. Given the compressed nature of these projects, we decided it would be best to cut to the chase and just buy a 201. The accounting staff groaned.

Mooney built the 201 starting in 1977, but changes were quick in coming. By 1978, an improved ventilation system debuted, as did vernier engine controls in place of the awkward quadrant setup inherited from the last M20Fs. By 1980, several small interior upgrades had been implemented as well as a host of service updates. In 1982, split rear seatbacks were installed that could be folded down to provide a large cargo area behind the pilots’ seats. By 1984, a single-piece belly skin was standard, replacing the hundreds of screws and multiple access panels of old. (Mechanics across the land looked up from their Aviall catalogs and managed a "well that’s just dandy.")

All through the line, the Lycoming IO-360 was the powerplant of choice, so there are no significant engine differences among the years. The wing, fuselage, and basic undercarriage have remained basically unchanged as well.

Because of the model’s continuity, there are few specific ideal years, but rather a continuum that trades newness and service features for money. Originally, we aimed for a 1980-or-later 201 but kept an open mind to older or newer airplanes. Finally, after looking at several early airplanes, a few of which had apparently led difficult lives, we began to look at more youthful examples. Bob Pursell, owner of Central California Aviation in Fresno, California, had an airplane for sale at the high end of our budget—a 1987 201 Lean Machine, priced at $112,000. Sounds like a lot, but once you begin looking at the available airplanes and witness firsthand how quickly the good, clean examples are snatched up—we lost at least two airplanes to buyers closer or quicker on the draw—it’s necessary to swallow hard and make the decision. (You might remember that we did the same with the Cessna 206 for the 1999 program and never did we regret spending a little extra for a very clean example.)

From the outset, it looks like N5617L will be a splendid starting place. With just 1,600 hours’ total time (airframe and engine), no damage history, and an overall clean appearance that suggests the claims of it living in a hangar all its life are well-founded, this 201 is young, clean, and just plain gorgeous. So what is a Lean Machine? In the mid-1980s, Mooney built a select number of 201s and 231s with a spec avionics package—most, as in our case, based on the venerable KX 155 nav/coms—intended to reduce unit costs associated with custom-built airplanes. Although the program was a limited success, the airplanes themselves have done well; they are considered identical to regular 201s as far as resale goes.

Our intentions for the 201 are quite forward-looking. It will receive a full set of UPS Aviation Technologies gear, including the company’s large, color multifunction display, driven by an IFR-approved GPS. Century Flight Systems will be on board with a new two-axis autopilot and an HSI. All engine instrumentation will be handled through a TSO’d Vision Microsystems VM1000 instrument package. All together, the Mooney’s avionics suite will represent the latest thinking in terms of ergonomics and capabilities. Naturally, the Millennium Mooney will get a new paint job and interior.

Up front, the Mooney will receive a custom Mattituck Red Gold overhaul, and the airplane will be prepared for installation of Teledyne Continental Motors’ FADEC electronic engine control system. (Approval for the IO-360 and Mooney airframe is expected late in the program.) Together with the 201’s standard 64-gallon tanks, we think the FADEC system, with its inherent efficiency gains, will make the Millennium Mooney one of the most economical airplanes in the sky. Best of all, by the real beginning of the next millennium, this capable, stupendously well-equipped traveling companion could be yours…all yours.