I’m looking at a Spitfire. At least, I’m looking at what I have been told is a Spitfire. At the moment it is a collection of corroded, muddy pieces of bent metal and a few plastic boxes of scraps. Apparently it’s a late-model Mk XIV Spitfire that crashed in Germany in 1945, and it’s waiting for a buyer to return it to its former glory. 

The bits are currently resting in the storerooms at the Aircraft Restoration Company (ARCo) hangars in Duxford, Cambridgeshire, alongside a hoard of vintage instruments, technical manuals and high-powered Rolls-Royce engines. For visitors, the hangar recalls something like the world’s best toy factory and the warehouse from Raiders of the Lost Ark. It is, in fact, home to one of the world’s largest restorers of vintage aeroplanes – one that has an international register of high-net-worth clients – with a particular specialism for warbirds: 40 per cent of the 70 or so Spitfires that still fly in the world today have been brought back to life by ARCo.

Maintenance work is carried out on the Bristol Blenheim Mk I’s Mercury engine
Maintenance work is carried out on the Bristol Blenheim Mk I’s Mercury engine © George Romain
A Westland Lysander and (right) a Spitfire Mk I
A Westland Lysander and (right) a Spitfire Mk I © George Romain

For John Romain, ARCo’s managing director (who has more than 1,000 hours’ experience flying Spitfires alone), the real excitement comes in the special projects. “If an owner has a rare, specific aeroplane, it’s likely they’ll come to us because we specialise in the one-offs. We have a Mk I Bristol Blenheim, which is probably the only one in the world and it’s certainly the only flyer in the world.”

Many of ARCo’s clients are secretive about their planes, and several of the aircraft are subject to non-disclosure agreements. On the day I am given a tour by ARCo’s Jack McBride, there is a clutch of Spitfires in progress, several of them Mk IXs in the two-seater configuration that is becoming increasingly popular as it allows those without a pilot’s licence to experience the thrill of warbird-flying in the passenger seat. The RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s C47 Dakota is in for an overhaul too – but the project Romain is most excited about is an “exceptionally rare” ’30s Supermarine Walrus biplane that’s due to begin hands-on work in about nine months.

The fuselage of a Spitfire in progress, looking towards the cockpit
The fuselage of a Spitfire in progress, looking towards the cockpit © George Romain
Spitfire Mk I N3200, donated by ARCo client Thomas Kaplan to the Imperial War Museum, Duxford
Spitfire Mk I N3200, donated by ARCo client Thomas Kaplan to the Imperial War Museum, Duxford © George Romain

ARCo’s work starts with a project plane. This could be a complete aircraft that needs major work or, in the case of the crashed Mk XIV Spit, little more than a data plate identifying what the plane once was, requiring reconstruction from the ground up. “It’s what we call a basket case,” says Romain. So begins an intensive process of research and repair, using traditional skills that are increasingly rare. “To go into the world now and find good sheet-metal workers, good engineers who are used to working on old aeroplanes, is extremely hard,” Romain explains. “Then you need people who can overhaul old instruments, engine fitters, propeller fitters. You don’t find these skills in the modern engineer who’s coming out of an airline or the RAF. They’re skills we have to teach.”

Firing up the Blenheim on the tarmac. In the background is a photo-reconnaissance Spitfire Mk XI
Firing up the Blenheim on the tarmac. In the background is a photo-reconnaissance Spitfire Mk XI © George Romain
Small parts in an oil bath
Small parts in an oil bath © George Romain

Where large portions of the aircraft are missing, they have to be fabricated, which brings difficulties of its own. “We sometimes can’t get the original materials,” says Romain, “then we need to bring in stress engineers to dictate which material it’ll be and how the part can be made.” Modern computerised numerical control (CNC) machining makes this process easier, and the fabricated parts are indistinguishable from their vintage counterparts – right down to machined forge marks for the detail-obsessed.

Depending on what the client wants, restoration can take up to six years for a really unique build. Costs are something of a “how long is a piece of string” question – but expect around £20,000 for an annual maintenance bill, hundreds of thousands for an engine overhaul and into the millions for a complete rebuild. “It’s all down to expectation in terms of how much the client is willing to put into it,” says Romain. “Are we restoring back to stock condition and making it a concours aeroplane? Or are we making it safe and operable and putting a nice new paint scheme on the exterior? If someone came in now with a basket-case Spitfire, you’d be looking at two and a half years and about £2.4mn.”

How to fly it: three more warbird restorers

Aircorps Aviation, Bemidji, Minnesota

Since its founding in 2011, Aircorps has won awards for its second world war restorations, including several P-51 Mustangs. Its register of ongoing restorations includes a 1944 P-47D “Razorback” that served in the Pacific. aircorpsaviation.com

Hawker Restorations, Elmsett, Suffolk

The Hawker Hurricane played as important a role in the RAF as the Spitfire, but there are only 15 still flying. Hawker Restorations specialises in the Hurricane’s uniquely challenging construction, in which linen is stretched over a metal frame. Part-ownership is currently available for an early Mk I Hurricane that took part in the Battle of Britain for £500,000. hawkerrestorations.co.uk

Avspecs, Auckland, New Zealand

Avspecs is responsible for three of the four wooden-framed De Havilland Mosquitoes still flying today. Current projects available for sale include a 1944 Mosquito and a dual-control trainer model. warbirdrestoration.co.nz

The US billionaire and conservationist Thomas Kaplan and his childhood friend Simon Marsh had a pair of early Mk I Spitfires restored from 2007 to 2012 by Romain and his team. “Simon found two Battle of France Spitfires, both with fascinating provenance. The entire process was a labour of love and John and his team were wonderful. What the team did was exquisite,” says Kaplan. 

After Marsh died in an air crash in 2013, Kaplan parted with his two Spitfires – P9374 sold at Christie’s in 2015 for a record £3.1mn, while N3200, the earliest surviving Spitfire, was donated to Duxford’s Imperial War Museum

A few concessions have to be made for modern safety standards – modern radios have to be fitted, and all wiring has to be up to date. Some owners like features such as tablet stands to be added to the cockpit, but otherwise the results should be indistinguishable from the aircraft that rolled off the assembly line in the ’40s. “Our boys aren’t just engineers, they’re more artists,” Romain insists. “The work that they do falls into that artistic mould.”

Restoration is only the first half of the story, of course. Next door stands ARCo’s maintenance hangar, where the planes are kept in top condition amid the smell of petrol and castor oil. The company also offers training for owners in how to fly these vintage aircraft safely: “Our Bristol Blenheim has unique, very delicate engines,” explains Romain. “If it’s a plane that hasn’t been in use since the second world war, we do a lot of research into how they were flown.”

A photo-reconnaissance Spitfire Mk XI in the air
A photo-reconnaissance Spitfire Mk XI in the air © George Romain

The reward is a piece of history brought loudly back to life: “There’s nothing better than putting two of your colleagues in the Blenheim and going away for a weekend to an air show. Or being given a Mk V Spitfire and doing a village fête display,” says Romain excitedly. “It’s fantastic.”

And if owning your own Spitfire isn’t on the cards, you can still get a taste of the thrill with ARCo’s sister company Aerial Collective, which offers flights in the back seat of a Spitfire, a Hawker Hurricane or the Blenheim.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article