Spartan History

The Spartan Executive has it roots in the Oil Industry.

In 1928, the Tulsa, Oklahoma based Skelly Oil Company formed the Spartan Aircraft Company. It became the successor to an aircraft company established in 1926 which had been marketing planes under the “Spartan” brand name.  Skelly’s interest in aviation had been born out of the fact that the Skelly Oil Company had become a major supplier of aviation fuel.

Through a series of acquisitions, J. Paul Getty took ownership of the Spartan Aircraft Company in 1935. Getty, who inherited his father’s oil business and parlayed it into a sizable fortune, became the richest man in the world. Getty’s ambitions were not to build a business, but to build an empire:  “No one can possibly achieve any real and lasting success or get rich in business by being a conformist”.   That sort of unconventional enthusiasm was shared by the Spartan Aircraft Company, causing it to make a complete departure from anything it had ever done before – from anything any aircraft manufacturer had ever done.  The secret development project which commenced in 1935 would yield an aircraft that was far ahead of its time – in performance, in appearance, and in luxury. The Spartan 7W “Executive” was a showstopper.

It was clear from the beginning that the Executive was an airplane unlike any other. Its design was geared to the opulent tastes of the captains of industry.  The management of Spartan knew first-hand that rich oil executives wanted speed, comfort, and luxury; and that they were willing to pay for it. No aircraft manufacturer had an offering which satisfied all of these criteria – speed, comfort, and luxury in a modern design. The Spartan Aircraft Company decided to change that. The Spartan Executive set a new standard for excellence in aviation.

While most of the country was still reeling from the Great Depression, Spartan set out to design its elegant transport. In 1935 design work began headed by veteran design engineer James B. Ford.  The prototype Model 7 (or “Standard Seven”) made its maiden flight on March 8, 1936.  It was piloted by Edmund T. Allen – “one of the nation’s crack test pilots”.  The Standard Seven was powered by a seven cylinder, 285 horsepower Jacobs L-5 engine, and attained a speed of 140 m.p.h..  Although the airplane was considered a success, it needed more power to offer the performance that would-be Spartan customers desired. As a result, Spartan engineers went back to the drawing board and emerged with a re-designed Executive powered by the Pratt & Whitney R985 “Wasp Jr.” producing 450 horsepower and outfitted with a Hamilton-Standard constant speed propeller measuring 8.5 feet in diameter.  This improved model became known as the 7-W, and made its first flight on September 14, 1936. With this new and enhanced configuration, the Executive achieved cruise speeds of a then remarkable 200 m.p.h. and a range of over 1,000 miles. The Spartan Executive model 7-W received certification from the Bureau of Airworthiness on February 15, 1937.

Only 34 Executives were produced – production ended on September 9, 1940 with the completion of the Mrs. Mennen (serial # 34). 

With a starting price of roughly $23,500, the pool of potential customers for the Executive was limited to corporations and very wealthy individuals.  Sixteen were sold to oil companies; nine to other corporations.  Two were sold to private individuals. Five were exported to Latin America for use by military generals and other government officials – three of which were ultimately exported to Spain and saw action in the Spanish Civil War. The British RAF purchased three for use as trainers in the early stages of World War II. 

When the U.S. entered World War II, sixteen Executives were purchased from their individual owners for use as transports under the military designation UC-71. At the end of the war, most were re-purchased by the original owners.  Unfortunately, however, two were destroyed in accidents while serving in the military.

Howard Hughes, the world’s most famous recluse and aircraft designer, is reported to have flown an Executive. King Ghazi of Iraq was so impressed with the airplane that he commissioned the manufacture of the “Eagle of Iraq” – a specially outfitted Executive complete with his Coat-of-Arms, an extra luxurious interior, and other custom features. The 1939 Bendix Trophy was won by a Spartan Executive at speeds of nearly 197 m.p.h.. 

When World War II broke out in December 1941, J. Paul Getty guided Spartan in a more patriotic direction. During the war years, Spartan built Navy trainers, operated an aircraft mechanic’s school, operated a refresher course for pilots from the Royal Air Force (the United Kingdom Refresher program), provided schooling in meteorology, instrument overhaul, radio engineer/operator, and a flight training program.

After the war, Spartan dabbled in various peacetime opportunities in an effort to keep all of the staff hired during the war employed: Spartan operated an airline – “Spartan Airlines, Inc.”; the Spartan factory was used to convert military aircraft back to civilian use (including the Executives pressed into service during the war); and plans were formulated for a new post war aircraft based on the Executive.

The new variant of the Executive was dubbed the Model 12.  The biggest change in the Model 12 was that it featured a tri-cycle gear as opposed to the tail wheel design of the 7W Executive.  Unfortunately, Getty made the decision that there was no future in aircraft manufacturing and canceled the program – even before the prototype Model 12 had flown. Spartan, it seemed was out of the aircraft business.

Having decided to leave the aircraft business, Getty needed to find other products to manufacture in the Spartan factory.  Many were considered: refrigerators, automobiles, and furnaces to name a few.  In the end, Getty decided that house trailers showed the most promise – veterans returning from overseas would need a place to live. So it was that the Spartan Aircraft Company evolved into a manufacturer of “mobile” homes, incorporating all of the lessons learned in producing one of the greatest airplanes ever made.  Trailer operations continued until roughly 1960. 

Getty sold his interests in Spartan in 1968. Some years later, the Spartan School was sold, becoming a stand alone private educational concern.  It continues to thrive and has a loyal cadre of alumni throughout the world.

With the introduction of the Spartan Executive, the Spartan Aircraft Company created a lifestyle which was known to only a very few of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful.  Of the 34 produced, today only a dozen examples remain.

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