Spitfire sale: This munificent man and his flying machine

A Spitfire rescued from a South African scrapyard has been sold for £1.6m. Andy McSmith meets its new owner
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The Independent Online

A Second World War fighter plane that was left to rot in a South African scrapyard for 25 years fetched a record price of £1,580,000 at an auction yesterday. Its new owner is a Stephen Brooks, a London property dealer with a taste for adventure.

Mr Brooks and his wife Jo are both aviation enthusiasts and were part of a team who flew a helicopter from the Arctic to the Antarctic two years ago. He has also driven across the Baring Strait from the USA to Russia in an amphibious vehicle.

Mr Brooks, 47, has a pilot's licence and has flown helicopters, but is now going to learn how to fly the Spitfire, which has been the ultimate collector's item for amateur flyers since the 1969 film The Battle of Britain, which did for Spitfires what the James Bond films did for the Aston Martin.

The sale came at the end of an annual event held every April in the Royal Air Force Museum at Colindale, in north London by the auctioneers Bonhams. This is usually an afternoon strictly for lovers of veteran cars – a string of which were sold yesterday for prices up to £24,000.

But the sale of the Spitfire, which has been restored to working order and flight tested, was the climax of the afternoon. It was preceded by a short film set to martial music, which included some old black and white film from the days when models such as this were new.

The auctioneer, James Knight, then started the bidding at £850,000. It appeared that the plane was to go to an anonymous telephone bidder for £1,550,00. Mr Brooks, who had bid £1.5m, was visibly reluctant to go any higher, until the auctioneer nudged him along by asking: "Would £1.58 million help?" He admitted afterwards that it was more than he had budgeted for, but seemed delighted anyway with his new acquisition which, with a £200,000 premium added, will set him back £1.78m in all.

"It's a beautiful plane, no question," he said, "It's beautifully built. It's British, and it should stay in Britain and it should stay flying. Things like this are built to be used, and not to be a museum piece. The goal is to get it gracing our skies as soon as possible. Spitfires are the ultimate flying machine."

Sholto Gilbertson, who handled the sale for Bonhams, was equally pleased. "We believe that it's a new world record price for a Spitfire sold at auction," he said. But Peter Tuplin, whose firm Classic Aero Engineering spent four years painstakingly getting the Spitfire into working order was less thrilled, having hoped that it would fetch a price closer to £2m. "It's a bit on the cheap side, but there you go," he said.

The Vickers-Supermarine Mk IX Spitfire is one of batch of 103 built at Castle Bromwich and delivered to the RAF in November 1944. Four years later, re-equipped with a Rolls Royce engine, it was sold to the South African Air Force, and was taken by ship from the UK to Durban.

The record of what became of the aircraft in South Africa has been lost, but it may be the plane that is recorded as being damaged in a collision with another aircraft late in 1951. It was marked "for disposal" early in 1952, but for some reason there was a two-year delay before it was formally taken out of service and sold to a scrap metal firm in January 1954.

Its new owners, the African Metal & Machinery Co, kept it at their Salt River yard until November 1979, when what was left of it was rescued by the South African Air Force Museum.

Two years later, it was bought by the British builder and aviation enthusiast Charles Church, and passed from one wealthy collector to another. Church began the long, laborious process of restoring it to working order. In 1989, it was sold, partially restored, to Alan Dunkerley, who sold it in 2002 to Paul Portelli, founder of the London firm World's End Tiles. He commissioned Classic Aero Engineering to get the aircraft back into working order.

The aircraft has spent 15 hours airborne, in order to prove to potential buyers that it can be flown. It will need a final engine check at 20 hours, and will get the equivalent of its MOT at 25 hours.

Coincidentally, it is the second Spitfire sold at auction by Bonhams in just seven months. The previous one, which was in less good condition, went for £1.1m to a buyer from New Zealand. It's the first two-seater Spitfire of its type to go on sale for more than 20 years. It was originally built with just a single seat but converted to take a passenger after the war so that it could be used for training.

It was one of three Spitfires used by the Dutch to train pilots and the only one of the three that did not crash. On the side it still bares the number H-99 of the Dutch trainers who managed not to crash it.

Spitfire A legend of flight

*Initial designs were repeatedly rejected by the Air Ministry and when production began it was so slow the government considered scrapping Spitfires to prioritise other aircraft.

*The Spitfire was almost christened the "Shrew" but Sir Robert MacLean, director of Vickers-Armstrong, the manufacturer, eventually plumped for his daughter's nickname.

*The Spitfire's main adversary was the German Messerschmitt Bf 109. The two planes were both powered by liquid-cooled, 12-cylinder V12 engines.

*There are thought to be only 44 airworthy Spitfires left.

*Many pilots found the Spitfire awkward, finding the closed cockpit claustrophobic.