July 2010 — The Mooney 201 was a product of an earlier fuel crisis, the one that plagued the United States for most of the 1970s. When adjusted for inflation, avgas cost matched today’s $5 per gallon and up, and many pilots prized fuel efficiency matched with speed above all other airplane characteristics.
Mooneys had always been the fastest piston singles when measured in terms of speed versus horsepower. The early 20 series with 180 hp Lycomings could cruise at 140 knots or a little more, which is very good for a four-seat airplane. The later 200 hp versions could top 150 knots in cruise on a good day while burning around 10 gallons per hour.
There were a few singles faster than the Mooneys, such as the Bonanza, but it had more power with a 285 hp Continental and thus burned more fuel. A Cessna 210 could run down an older 200 hp Mooney but used 300hp to do it. A Piper Comanche was very close to the Mooney in performance, but only after horsepower was increased to 250. The original 180 hp Comanche couldn’t keep up.
For years the Mooney had a cult following with owners constantly yakking about how fast they cruised and how far on so little fuel. Owners of other piston singles didn’t pay much attention to the fuel bill, but did notice the small size of the Mooney cabin and happily filled the tanks on their more thirsty airplanes.
The 1970s fuel crisis that followed the Middle East oil embargoes, and then avgas shortages caused by a refinery disaster in Texas, changed everything. Suddenly fuel efficiency moved to the front burner, and most of us were calling ahead to FBOs to see if they even had avgas, at any price. The time was right for Mooney to up the ante.
To take full advantage of its lead in fuel efficiency, Mooney brought in the late Roy LoPresti in the mid-’70s from Grumman American to put the finishing touches on a new model to be called the 201. Roy was an excellent aerodynamic engineer and also a superb showman. He understood what pilots wanted and knew how to market an airplane as well as design it.
Mooney was building two basic airframes in 1975. The Executive cabin was about a foot longer than the Ranger and Chaparral’s. The Exec and Chaparral had 200 hp engines, while the Ranger was the economy champ with its 180 hp Lycoming. Most believed the smaller Chaparral was faster than the longer Executive, but in reality the Executive’s fuselage stretch didn’t make much difference in performance.
When Mooney engineers went to work on an aerodynamic cleanup to get an even bigger lead in speed versus efficiency, the Chaparral was the initial target of the work. It seemed that its smaller size would yield an even higher cruise speed than the same drag reduction would on the longer Exec. Legend has it that LoPresti recognized that the speed increase results would be virtually the same for either airframe, but the market would be much greater for the longer-cabin Exec, which could carry four adults in some comfort.
It’s impossible to know after all of these years exactly who at the company did what, but LoPresti gets credit for establishing the goal of flying at least 1 mph for every horsepower. It was an objective everybody could understand, and would give Mooney bragging rights in the fuel crisis. Of course, merely flying 200 mph on 200 horsepower would not be good enough for Roy, so he kept at it until a prototype clocked 201 mph true airspeed, and the model name was born.
The fundamental key to low drag and efficiency in all Mooneys is a well-designed wing with a laminar flow airfoil, and a small frontal area to reduce drag. The Mooney cabin offers reasonable headroom but achieves that by having very low seats. You sit nearly on the floor with your legs more or less straight out, much like the seating position in those old British sports cars. The compact cabin, a well-designed wing-to-fuselage intersection and smoothly faired landing gear in the retracted position all help minimize drag.
However, the cowling on the Mooneys before the 201 was a drag nightmare, and the windshield shape and rake were far from optimum. To get to 201 mph, LoPresti and the other Mooney engineers had to find at least 15 mph worth of drag reduction, and the cowling and windshield were the prime targets.
The original Mooney cowling was blunt, and there was a huge gaping hole across the top half of the cowling, including an area below the prop spinner, to scoop in cooling air. Maybe it was as good as materials and tooling would allow to be constructed when Al Mooney designed the airplane in the early 1950s, but it was far from optimum by 1975.