Art Teeters recalls a persistent customer showing up at his aircraft repair shop in the late 1970s. “This gentleman owned a P-51 and kept asking us to rebuild it,” he says. “I kept turning him down. At the time, I just didn’t see any way that Mustangs could ever be a viable business.”
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Teeters eventually relented, and his Salinas, California-based company, Cal Pacific Airmotive, is now one of the oldest warbird restorers in the world, and among a handful to work on North American P-51 Mustangs exclusively.
Rebuilding personal sport Mustangs like that first one, followed by a string of racers, occupied Teeters’ facility for the next decade. “But that day is long gone,” he says now. The finite number of surplus P-51s has shifted the company's restorations from simply making the fighters airworthy for a weekend outing toward expensive, historically correct military makeovers.
Teeters traces the transition to the ambitious owner of a particular Mustang and the random path of a hurricane: “It would have to be Kermit Weeks and Cripes A’Mighty 3rd,” he says. “The popularity of that one airplane after its first restoration [in 1983] struck up an interest in historic authenticity. Kermit put a lot of effort into getting it right, and that really caught people's fascination.” In 1992, however, Hurricane Andrew leveled the Weeks Air Museum in Tamiami, Florida, severely damaging Cripes and most of the other aircraft in the collection. A subsequent rebuild, this time by Cal Pacific, further raised the standard of fastidious historic restoration. Public appreciation of the greatest generation’s greatest fighter grew, along with interest from wealthy warbird aficionados. After Cripes A’Mighty won an unprecedented second Experimental Aircraft Association Grand Champion award at the Oshkosh, Wisconsin fly-in in 1999, “things really took off,” says Teeters.
And they show no sign of leveling. Cal Pacific stays booked years in advance, and, like most Mustang restorers, it has never had to advertise. The painstaking, total-teardown process, often requiring more than 25,000 man-hours, can’t be hurried. Eager to hear the rumble of a Rolls -Royce Merlin engine, potential owners often find their enthusiasm dampened by the notably quiet three- to five-year delivery time. “A lot of people would love to own a Mustang, but that timeline really turns them off,” says Teeters. But Cal Pacific says that patient dedication pays dividends in authenticity. “Our commitment is this: After we've restored your airplane, no one will be able to tell it from an original, inside or out.”
Just as no quick-and-dirty P-51 restorations are to be had anymore, neither are there many economy models. A surprising number of Mustangs, for example, are still flying on original, 60-year-old wings. “But the guy who buys one of those today for just $1.2 million is probably going to end up having to put another million and a half into it three years from now,” says Teeters. Cal Pacific insists upon replacing original wing spars with historically accurate but newly manufactured equivalents at the time of restoration.
Customers sometimes get sticker shock, but in the cosmos of modern Mustang ownership, buyers’ remorse is rare. “I remember the first really authentic restoration we did years ago,” says Teeters. “We put about $300,000 into it, and I just felt terrible about the owner having to pay out that kind of money. But then he turned around and sold it for three times that much.”
When Mustang aficionados aren’t busy restoring and flying the airplanes, they like nothing better than to hang out with other P-51 owners. For four days beginning on September 27, P-51 pilots will fly in to the Gathering of Mustangs & Legends: “The Final Round-Up,” a follow-up to a 1999 fly-in held in Kissimmee, Florida (see “Mustang Mania,” June/July 1999). This year’s event, which will be held at Rickenbacker International Airport in Columbus, Ohio, will feature a 51-Mustang formation, solo flight demonstrations, and an auction. The following seven Mustangs will be among the nearly 100 airplanes expected to attend.