The light rain started during the first ten minutes of the Chicago Symphony’s playing of Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony at Ravinia the other evening. We didn’t care. It cooled things off a bit. We just wrapped ponchos and tarps over our heads and continued picnicking and listening to the music.
Nor did I mind the jetliners flying over the festival park on a southwest approach to O’Hare. The jets reminded me of my favorite private plane: the small, cute, historically important J-3 Cub, an airplane reduced to the essence of simplicity and ease of flying.
The Cub was introduced by Piper Aircraft Co. in 1937. And for three-quarters of a century, many pilots including me have often wished we were in a Cub—with the large door open, exposing almost the entire right side of the cockpit—flying slowly over the countryside or landing at a small grass strip somewhere away from the suburban sprawl.
The day before the Ravinia concert, I was in Oshkosh, where the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Cub at its annual fly-in, an event I have attended almost every year for more than a quarter of a century.
Nearly all of the 200 Cubs throughout Wittman Field wore the Piper Cub Yellow color and flaunted the familiar bear cub logo that appeared on the first J-3 to leave the Lock Haven, Pa., factory. The Cub is absolutely adorable and will catch the eye of even the most unaware brand observer. Its color is not only easy to see against the blue sky but is the most distinctively recognized color of any aircraft in history. When you see it, you know the plane is some version of the Cub.
It may not be a J-3 because after building 19,073 J-3s from 1937 until 1947, Piper stopped making the small airplane, replacing it with the Cub Special and the even-larger Super Cub. Both were painted the same J-3 yellow and shared a family resemblance, much like big brothers.
At a time when most companies and individual business people gave little or no thought to branding, the Cub by design or luck became the benchmark against which other private planes were designed and built, spawning a host of competitors in the early 20th century. It has also triggered a longer list of copycats at the turn of this millennium, many available in Cub Yellow and looking enough like a J-3 to fool all but the most experienced observer. New Cub-lookalikes appear each year at the EAA fly-in.
Just as Coke became the symbol of the soft drink industry while Dr. Pepper, for example, became an also ran, and just as Chevrolet became the recognized leader of the auto industry while Pontiac became a good but indistinctive competitor, the Cub, for many years, led the private aircraft industry—in recognition, branding, and dreams. Today, people still buy used Cubs, spending years re-building them and then flying them on warm weekends to local airports and annually to fly-ins like the recent Oshkosh event.
Now, 65 years after the last J-3 Cub rolled off the assembly line and sold for around $2,200, a good, rebuilt, ready-to-fly J-3 can be had for $20,000 or so. One in excellent condition will cost you a cool $40,000.
Most companies today can only wish they could establish a brand that would inspire an industry of competitors and imitators, and encourage legions of people to lust after their products. Apple can do it. But few other companies, a handful perhaps, can now build such a brand.
Driving home after the Ravinia concert (an entire evening of Tchaikovsky music, including the 1812 Overture with live cannons), I hoped to see a lone Cub, flying low over the trees, a lone Cub on the first leg of its homeward-bound trip after a week at Oshkosh, a week when thousands of pilots and fans like me gawked at it, touched it, looked inside at the sparse instrument panel with its bear cub-emblazoned airspeed indicator—and wished that we were flying it all alone at, say, 1,000 feet above a field of fresh-mowed wheat, watching the sun sink slowly beyond the horizon.