The 201 cowling Mooney created has carefully shaped cooling inlets on each side of the propeller with probably half the total inlet area of the old cowling. The 201 cowling is stretched forward and the lower half tapers smoothly. The cooling inlets are not as small as on some later designs, such as the Piper Saratoga series, but they were a huge step forward in drag reduction.
Previous Mooneys had a ram-air feature that opened a port on the front of the cowling to ram air directly into the engine induction system. The ram air bypassed the air filter, and the port was intended to be open only when up in clean air. In the models before the 201, the induction system was so bad that opening the ram air increased manifold pressure by a solid inch, or maybe more. The 201 cowling induction was so much better that the ram air made less of a change. Mooney said it still increased manifold pressure by an inch, but that was really stretching the point. That was actually good news because the new cowling design was working.
The Mooney has a welded steel-tube-frame fuselage that is covered with a nonstructural aluminum skin. A structural tube rises from the instrument panel to join others that carry loads over the cabin top. That tube sweeps back only slightly, and the older Mooneys used that tube to separate the windshield into two halves, so the windshield was also close to vertical.
On the 201, the windshield base is moved several inches forward so there is much more sweepback. The windshield is also larger and curved to increase visibility as well as reduce drag. The new windshield added several miles per hour toward the goal and made the airplane look much more attractive. The combination of the new shapes for the windshield and cowling transformed the Mooney from a flying oddity to an airplane that, well, looked just right — still small, but now attractive.
Other drag-reduction changes on the 201 included a two-piece main gear door that more tightly enclosed the wheel and brake disk when retracted; improved gap seals around the flaps and flight controls; and some other improvements to fairings around the wings and tail. The cabin step was redesigned to cut drag, but rumor had it that the step was not installed on the prototype that recorded the magic 201 mph in level cruise.
There was more excitement around introduction of the 201 than anybody could remember for another piston single, except for in the early days of the Beech Bonanza, which remains the all-time piston single sensation. Many pilots just flat-out didn’t believe the 201 was as fast as Mooney claimed. After all, the industry was just beginning to standardize its pilot’s operating handbooks and to actually tell the truth about performance. Every veteran pilot had knocked at least 10 or 20 mph off a manufacturer’s cruise speed claim, including the advertised speed of earlier Mooney models.
Here at Flying we got the very first Mooney 201, N201M, in late 1976. The model year is listed as 1977 but a few were built in 1976. I had just joined the magazine and was low man on the totem pole, so I didn’t get my hands on the prized 201 often, but when I did, I had the same experience the rest of the staff did, which was rock-star status on any ramp. Wherever we went pilots gathered around, always with the same question: Does it really go that fast?
The honest answer was yes. By that time we were making the transition from miles per hour to knots, and at maximum cruise power the 201 was averaging 165 knots. That is 10 knots short of 201 mph, but that was at around 75 percent power, not the maximum 200 hp Mooney used to clock the magic number.
Unfortunately Mooney had not lavished the same attention on the interior of that original 201 that it had on the aerodynamics. The cabin was still covered with that cheesy plastic, the seats were second-grade leather that split and cracked, the cabin leaked in the rain, everything rattled, and there was a big, clumsy throttle quadrant taking up precious cabin space. But we were cruising at 165 knots while burning 10 gph, and life was good.
Mooney built more than 370 201s in that first model year, a huge number for a small company. After three years of production, about 900 201s had flown away from the Kerrville, Texas, factory. The average equipped price for the first 201s was just under $60,000, but by 1985 inflation and a lot of optional equipment carried that price to more than $140,000.
Today the early 201s’ book values range from around $70,000 to perhaps $90,000 or more for one with a low-time engine and in excellent condition. Originally the Lycoming IO-360 engine carried a TBO of 1,800 hours, but that has been extended to 2,000 hours. Versions built in the 1990s all have book value well above $100,000.
Mooney made substantial interior improvements in the 201 pretty quickly. A big change was exchanging the throttle quadrant for push-pull controls. The move saved lots of space in the panel, and also made it easier to get in and out of the pilot’s seat and to move around once you were there.
The instrument panel itself also evolved with improved location of engine gauges and more room for avionics. In the original 201, there are structural tubes behind the panel that prevent installing avionics in a logical way. The tubes in later versions were relocated without giving up structural strength so dual stacks of radios could be installed.
The interior was covered in plastic for most of the 201 production run, but the quality of the plastic improved after the first couple of years of production. So did the seat materials and carpet. The 201 was a mainstream airplane, and Mooney found that it had to match what the other manufacturers were doing in terms of interior furnishings.