Concorde memorabilia collector interview: Simon Jones
Concorde memorabilia collector interview: Simon Jones
Simon Jones wasn't a serious collector - until in 2003 when he heard that it was the end of Concorde
If a city financier chose to collect something, you'd perhaps expect it to be art, fine wines, or perhaps even luxury watches. But, while Simon Jones works in the financial sector in London, he is a collector with a difference...
Since 2003, Simon has been devotedly collecting what could be one of the largest and comprehensive private collections of Concorde memorabilia in the world. Put simply, his collection comprises everything from the cockpit and engine to passengers' flight menus.
Like all the best collectors, Simon has become something of a Concorde historian over the past. It was fascinating speaking with him, and learning why Concorde was the "UK's equivalent of the man on the Moon."
Here he talks to Paul Fraser Collectibles about his passion for the sadly-departed plane, the investment potential of this niche sector and his plans for the Concorde Innovation Centre.
PFC: Why do you think Concorde captured the public's imagination?
It was arguably the pinnacle of global travel, the best of the best. You couldn't fly faster in anything except a military jet or space rocket, and even most military jets don't reach the top speed of Concorde. The maximum speed of 1,350mph [or Mach 2.04] was twice the speed of sound, faster than a rifle bullet and quicker than the earth rotates. That speed equates to almost a marathon a minute, about 23 miles covered in every 60 seconds! It doubled aviation speed overnight when it entered service.
Going from London to New York sees you take off from London Heathrow at 10:30am, fly 3.5 hours west and effectively go backwards against the earth's rotation to gain a five hour time difference. The net effect sees you land in New York by 9:30am local time thus you appear to land before you take off!
Concorde was capable of reaching mach 2.2, twice the speed of sound
You're also flying higher than anything else, again except some military jets, reconnaissance aircraft and space rockets. In fact it's so high, Concorde's pilots always claimed they could see the curvature of the earth. To be specific, it flew about 60,000 feet high when all normal commercial airliners achieve around 40,000 feet, so 50% higher.
The other key reason that Concorde captured the public's imagination was the passenger list was packed full of celebrities, leaders, royalty and business owners. It read like a global who's who and put the glamour into world travel.
PFC: How did your background lead you to building your collection of Concorde memorabilia? What started your fascination?
When I think back to my early years growing up in a small English seaside resort town of Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire, you realise that you have a lot of influences that come into play in later life. These shape many future dreams you go on to achieve. This includes a flight on Concorde and sailing on the QE2 with my father.
In fact, during childhood, my father used to recall tales of when he taught the principles of flight as an officer on helicopter carriers as part of his national service.
Another key influence was living next door to an RAF Squadron Leader who was flying supersonic Mach 2.2 English Electric Lightning jets out of RAF Binbrook in Lincolnshire. These jets flew above our house on a daily basis and often in formation, very low and very loud!
Early connections to aviation also stem from being a member of the Air Cadets and being lucky enough to fly in Chipmunks (a small RAF trainer) and gliders when I was young. As part of an Air Cadets camp, we visited Binbrook and I was fortunate to rummage around in one of the scrap parts bins.
It was here that I actually collected my first part of a supersonic jet! It was a small panel from a Lightning's outer skin and was painted in typical MOD/RAF camouflage colours of green and grey paint. Without realising it, I suppose this was a seed when I was very young that would later grow into my passion for collecting parts of Concorde in my 30s and beyond.
Finally, my father was a chemical engineer who was talented enough to design parts of chemical factories which were awarded patents. He travelled all over the world during the 1970s when I was growing up and his heroes included people like Isambard Kingdom Brunel, arguably Britain's greatest engineer. However, my father was much more interested in steam trains rather than aviation but he had a huge admiration for Spitfires, another British aviation icon like Concorde. This of course stemmed from the Battle of Britain days in world war two when he was a young boy growing up in London.My father's doctor, Aldridge "Fin" Haddock, had also been a Spitfire pilot (and former prisoner of war)...
Even though I am not technically minded in general, I suppose my father's love of engineering eventually spilled over to my own fascination with Concorde - how was it made, what's behind the outer skin, what materials did they use and how was it all designed? How was supersonic flight possible with so many obstacles to overcome?
I still have some very interesting items from childhood such as books on the best inventions of all time, the Guinness Book of World Records and one called Book of Speed which was all about fast transport. And, of course, you play things like Top Trumps when you're a kid. Concorde appeared in all of them and even paper airplanes you make as kids also look like the shape of Concorde! I still have the scrapbook where I cut out many images of Concorde from English newspapers and magazines when it started commercial passenger flights in January 1976.
In combination, when looking back, you realise all these factors provide a lot of early influences around you which go on to shape your future life somehow. In my case, I ended up collecting parts, artefacts and memorabilia from arguably the world's most famous, glamorous, iconic and fastest airplane, Concorde.
PFC: Did you ever get a chance to fly on a Concorde yourself?
Thankfully, I did achieve that dream! However, the cost of the ticket was such that, like a lot of people, I could only afford to fly on Concorde one way.
My flight came about when BA made a huge announcement onApril 10,2003 saying they would sadly be stopping Concorde flights in six months' time onOctober 24, 2003 and retiring the aircraft after 27 years' service. Air France had made a similar announcement that day but was ending its Concorde services much earlier on May 312003. Therefore, it was a "now or never" sort of thing and Carpe Diem!
Concorde had no in-flight movies and just a music selection but it was pure heaven when combined with the superb cuisine, wine cellar, cheese selection, chocolates and of course the champagne.
PFC: That was in June 2003. Had you already begun your Concorde collection at that point?
Other than what I picked up from my Concorde flight, like a certificate, no, not at all.
In November 2003, all of the Concordes went off to museums and the one I flew - G-BOAE, or Alpha Echo for short - went off to Barbados in November 2003.
Two days before Alpha Echo took off for Barbados, the first major auction of Concorde items had already taken place at Christie's in Paris. It featured Concorde's iconic nose cone on the front cover of the catalogue in black and white. It looked simple, very elegant, technically brilliant, perfectly shaped and incredibly iconic. I knew it would be the one item that defined the world of the Concorde collector and everyone at the auction knew it would have the highest price tag. About 1,300 people were bidding in Paris and the initial estimate for the nose cone was 10,000. It went for nearly 300,000.
The most iconic piece of Concorde memorabilia
This was followed by the auction from Bonhams London, in December 2003. What struck me was the vast array of complex items of all shapes, sizes and colours that were inside Concorde. I wanted to buy the whole lot! I knew it should also make a good investment due to the aircraft's popularity and scarcity, seeing as a total of only 20 were ever made. Some of the pieces just looked absolutely brilliant and I just couldn't believe that you could actually buy parts of a supersonic aircraft.
However, with 18 out of 20 surviving Concordes still in museums, there are very limited opportunities to find Concorde parts. Really we're talking about the spare parts, we're talking about replacement parts. There are obviously not that many of those from just 14 production models and six development ones.
PFC: Was the Bonhams sale the first time that you had participated in an auction?
Yes, it was the first time that I'd participated in an auction and, to be honest, I was trembling. You hold the placard up, and when bids are starting to go - one thousand, two thousand all that sort of stuff - your hands are shaking.
The part I eventually bought was something called an "outboard water drain mast" made by Rosemount. This company also made the front-mounted pitot tube on the front of the aircraft on Concorde's nose cone. The water drain mast jettisons the waste water out of the aircraft from Concorde's galleys and toilets.
I really didn't bid on anything until the piece I got. It cost 2,350 and I left it almost to the end. It was interesting to watch the psychology of bidding in auctions. Sometimes you find that there's a lot of intense bidding on one particular item. But on other bits and pieces, that are still quite unique and interesting, it seems like the audience is asleep.
In addition to the dream of flying Concorde, I had also now secured a piece of the aircraft which I would probably hold forever and be very proud to have.
You're effectively parting with a lump of cash for a chunk of metal, but I was chuffed. I left it quite late, the bidding, because some of the pieces that I'd wanted to buy were just simply way out of my league, financially!
PFC: What kinds of pieces carried the higher estimates in Bonhams' auction?
The pieces that were really going sort of 'sky high' were all the parts that are Concorde-specific.
A lot of parts on any airplane, whether it's supersonic or subsonic, are the same. But there are certain parts on a Concorde that are only specific to that type of aircraft, such as the Machmeter.
There's no other plane in the world that has a Machmeter to measure the speed of sound. Another example is the 'droop nose' selector from the cockpit that was used to lower and raise the nose cone itself. Those were the parts that were going really, really high. However, as was the case at Christie's in Paris, the nose cone of Concorde took centre stage at Bonhams in London with a price of 320,000!
PFC: Can you tell us a bit more about your collection and the pieces it contains?
In 2004, there were two main auctions by Dovebid. I think both were about three or four days long so that's a lot of lots to clear! Accordingly, I was hopeful that prices would be rather lower than we saw at Christie's and Bonhams in 2003. It helped that I had also accumulated a couple more city bonuses by then. I wouldn't say that I went mad... But I sort of ended up buying a lot of what, I thought, were very interesting-looking items and getting many of the things I missed atthe Bonhams auction.
Some of the most interesting parts I bought through Dovebid, that I couldn't afford at Bonhams, were two items from the very front and rear of Concorde. The needle-shaped pitot tube is attached to Concorde's nose cone. It measures air speed and tells Concorde's pilots when the plane is going supersonic! At the other end of Concorde, there was a large, round, tail lamp sitting at the very back of Concorde that acted as a flashing warning light and anti-collision beacon.
Concorde's rear light
The majority of my Concorde collection comes from the two UK Dovebid auctions in 2004 and a later one in Toulouse, France in late 2007. All the French Concordes were built in Toulouse, the modern day home of Airbus, and I was actually the top bidder there, winning items like Concorde's main landing undercarriage and a huge variety of parts that I didn't get at Dovebid.
A local private collector in Toulouse later sold me a parachute from the French prototype of Concorde. This was used to slow Concorde down on landing in case the anti-lock braking didn't work properly.
In November 2001, Concorde came back into service after the fatal Paris crash in 2000. It had a series of safety modifications which included fitting Kevlar lining inside the fuel tanks. I managed to get a piece of that material which is the same as that used in bullet-proof vests and the bodies of F1 race cars, so it's incredibly strong.
In building the collection, I tried to get a representative sample of every part of the aircraft. There is something from the nose, cockpit, wings, engines, passenger compartment, galleys, crew areas, cargo hold and undercarriage. Fair to say I succeeded and people often joke with me that I could practically rebuild a Concorde with all my parts!
PFC: Does your collection include interior things, like seating?
Yes, it does. I ended up getting some seats from different eras, because Concorde's interior changed with the times to suit the style and design of a particular decade since its first flight 1969.
The original cloth-covered seats were representative of current fashion trends in the late 1960s/early 1970s with colours like burnt orange and crimson reds to create a very funky, psychedelic interior by today's standards! I have a few seats from this era and they even have ashtrays in them as smoking was of course allowed on flights back then.
These wild colours on the original seats were later changed to a more business-like, conservative and rather sombre grey seat. The final seats on BA Concorde's were in full leather and done in a smart, dark, navy blue colour. Every item in the collection has a story in itself. It's great to have different seats from different eras. I also have champagne glasses, menus and silver serving trays.
Concorde had 100 seats in total but interesting to note that it had no row 13. Compared with a Boeing 747, the interior was built for speed rather than comfort.
PFC: Do you have any paper items or manuscripts?
Yes, in addition to parts of the aircraft, paper-based items form a key part of the overall collection. In addition to things like menus, I have some posters including a large one from the movie "Concorde '79".
One of the BA menus is a commemorative edition of the Charles and Diana wedding back in 1981. However, the French produced some really elaborate menus, more like works of art.
Then I've got the really nitty-gritty stuff, the flying manuals. They literally tell you how to fly Concorde, service it and where to fit the spare parts! It's incredibly complex. If you were a Boeing 747 captain, you still had to have a further six month training program to fly Concorde.
I also have some design diagrams that confirm Concorde was a very special aircraft since it was essentially designed with paper and pencils long before modern desktop pcs, mobiles and the internet all became mainstream.
PFC: What sorts of pieces from the engine do you have?
Primarily fan blades of various sizes made from exotic, expensive alloys like titanium and nickel-based compounds. I also have two whole turbine fan assemblies which form some of the compressor stages inside the heart of the engine.
I also have a pair of "reverse thrust buckets". They are mounted at the very back of the engines and they open and close in various positions like a giant clam shell to help Concorde's flight performance.
PFC: What kinds of things do you look for when you're hunting for Concorde memorabilia?
If you had to deconstruct Concorde and pull it all apart, that's exactly what my collection is all about. It allows you to look at the parts inside and see the engineering behind Concorde that you would never see otherwise from the finished shape. There was clearly enormous effort from so many people going into the design of one single product.
Concorde takes off on its last flight
It also represents the maximum knowledge from a number of key industry sectors such as electronics, plastics, glass and metals. I am guessing that some of Concorde's pilots or the people in BA's management haven't seen most of these items. I think the public would therefore find it fascinating.
All these parts help to tell the story of Concorde but I am also hoping to reach out to the people behind Concorde so they can help to provide further insight.
PFC: Is provenance a significant factor? Like pieces used in certain flights etc...
Yes and no. The items from the BA Dovebid auctions and Toulouse all came with certificates of authenticity from the auction houses. However, only the odd piece has some kind of original certificate to it from the manufacturer or airline. Therefore, it is hard to confirm any chronology of the ownership or location of these historical items. There is also little clue as to which part was on which of the 20 aircraft. However, all the parts do have rather long serial numbers so I suppose that would be a great starting point to seriously hunt for further details. A lot of the pieces are just simply so old that they got passed through different hands and the original certificates are lost. Former Concorde engineers might be able to verify further information but it is a case of finding them in time since this was many years ago.
Another obstacle to gaining further information is that some of the companies making components for Concorde have either gone out of business, exited the aviation sector or have been acquired. In other cases, record keeping has been poor and many companies make little effort to preserve their heritage archives. Regrettably, they make little fuss that their company was once involved in the design of Concorde.
I'll give you an example: I've got a nose cone from Concorde's testing and development period in the '60s and '70s, and that's probably the single-most valuable piece I have. I contacted a company involved in its manufacture, Marshall of Cambridge, and they told me that they don't have any of the old serial codes or design diagrams. It was like the history had been wiped out of their records and the company had never made it!
I suppose this is why you pay the buyer's premium when you acquire items at an auction house. You have some reassurance that houses like Bonhams, Sotheby's or Christie's have done their homework on an item's authenticity and they know their reputation is on the line. In general, any paperwork that can accompany these historically significant items makes it more interesting, credible and valuable.
So yes, that's what you have to be careful with when you collect Concorde memorabilia, making sure it is authentic.
PFC: Do you have much contact with other Concorde collectors. Is it a close knit community?
Yes, I do. You do run into other collectors. I've got a good friend of mine down in Toulouse. He actually works for Airbus and he's set up a small museum in one of the rooms at his house which looks great. He has a Machmeter and a gyroscope from Concorde. Another collector works for Airbus in Filton, UK.
I know two people who are ex-BA and they also have good collections. So, I tend to find that the majority of the serious collecting community actually had some kind of involvement with the manufacturer or the airline that was operating Concorde.
A sight not seen since 2003
But, yes, we do sometimes trade with each other [and] know who each other are.
But the thing with Concorde collecting is that once you get hold of a piece you tend to lock it down. You don't really tend to trade it! Because the stuff is so ultra-rare and ultra-exclusive, and we do find that the community tends to hold on. It's not readily traded in the market.
And I think that in itself makes it very, very special to collect. When you do get a piece floating around it gets snapped up pretty quickly and locked down forever.
PFC: Have you had much interaction with museums?
I've been in touch with people at the Science Museum and their neighbour Imperial College who have good aeronautics and mechanical engineering departments.
When I was first collecting the pieces in 2003-4, it was really for my own enjoyment.I guess there is also a heavy dose of patriotism in there and being proud that our country, along with France, gave the world supersonic passenger jets to enjoy. Bearing in mind, Concorde was originally conceived to help shrink the world, to bring us all closer together by rapidly reducing our journey times across vast distances.
However, before I went to Toulouse in 2007, there was a magic point where 'I crossed over', and said to myself: "Rather than collecting for myself, I'm going to start collecting really for the nation to enjoy this as it is part of our country's heritage and identity". Before the items got scattered across the globe to various collectors, I would do what I can to try and preserve as many pieces of Concorde, to keep them together, to one day re-tell this amazing story to the public by sharing all the parts I collected.
I'm now in a period where I am talking to museums and trying to start joint ventures and look at the possibilities.
PFC: It sounds like you're becoming a historian and expert, as well as a collector?
The more pieces I've collected, it's raised my awareness and fascination levels and forced me to go back into the story more and more. It just opened my eyes like a little kid and rekindles all those moments you have as a child when you are full of dreams. For centuries, man has been trying to emulate nature and fly like birds. About 500 years ago Leonardo da Vinci made several sketches, way ahead of time, about gliders, helicopters and parachutes! However, it wasn't until the Wright Brothers in 1903 that powered flight was possible. Just a few decades later, we mastered flight to the point of Mach 2 and supersonic with Concorde. So this aircraft represented a major point in modern history.
Concorde represents the very essence of pushing mankind forward, like man stepping on the moon. They both happened in the same year, 1969. While America won the race to put man a man on the Moon, the UK and France claimed the title to develop the world's most successful supersonic flight operations. What amazes me about Concorde is that it helped two former warring nations come together and peacefully join forces to advance technology and the human race.
PFC: Are you seeing Concorde collectors from other, perhaps emerging, nations?
The people in Great Britain, France and America were the main ones who enjoyed supersonic flight as it connected three of the world's greatest cities in London, Paris and New York. It helped shrink the Atlantic Ocean and connect them in a sort of magic supersonic triangle. Therefore, these are the main countries where Concorde collectors reside. But I'm sure there are new collectors in the new developing nations in from China, India and Brazil in addition to places like Australia and in Japan... all kinds of people seem to love Concorde.
More sombre than BA's original offering...
Put it this way: the auctions only happened in England and France but what if 1,000 of the richest people across the whole world were simultaneously offered Concorde items or a nose cone, what price would they fetch? I think it would be astronomical. We have already seen the art world move dramatically higher once new bidders come in from newer markets like Russia and the Middle East. I think Concorde is so incredibly rare and such a part of 20th and 21st Century history that a lot of people out there would like to own this, in developed nations and emerging nations.
PFC: You mentioned you've got a nose cone from Concorde. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
The nose cone I have is apparently from Concorde's development period so it was in the critical period when the design and technology were being perfected ready for production.
Concorde was the only aircraft in the world which had a moveable nose and visor to achieve its objective of supersonic flight.
When travelling at twice the speed of sound, it had to have that classic dart-like shape when it was flying through the sky where the aerodynamics are critical to achieve such a high velocity.
However, if the nose was kept like this when Concorde was coming into airports and landing, the pilots just couldn't see the runway since it has a high angle of attack! Therefore, the nose cone and visor were lowered 12.5 degrees to aid visibility.
In summary, the nose cone is very special from many perspectives and it is the most iconic and recognisable part of Concorde. It is unique to a Concorde's operations, that's why these pieces are so high [in value] at Christie's and Bonhams.
PFC: We've already touched on this, but would you recommend Concorde memorabilia as an investment?
Yes. It is rare, cool and unusual. As mentioned, the supply of items is very low and demand is high. There were only 20 aircraft built, a very tiny volume of production... One Concorde crashed, one got scrapped and the remaining 18 are mostly in museums...So, as an investible collectable [speaking as someone] coming from a financial background: absolutely.
Concorde was much loved by the public and always a highlight at any air show or airport wherever it went. So it was a one-off, a freak of aviation design and long after its retirement, it is becoming even more of a myth and legend. Given today's eco-challenges and economic climate, it will probably never be recreated.
PFC: Are you looking to exhibit your collection in the future?
I would like to share the collection with the public and put it on display in the UK for all to see, even tour it globally to key cities around the world. I certainly don't want to keep it in a barn, like I'm doing at the moment.
If people see the exhibition and get inspired, success can be measured over the long term by the new things people can create.
Like Concorde, we have to rise to new challenges, think creatively, push boundaries, design new solutions, come together and share risks, responsibilities and rewards.
Concorde was more than an aircraft. It was a symbol of mankind's very advancement. Like man on the moon from NASA, we cannot always count the cost of doing these projects if we do them, the cost is more if we don't do them... and never learn.
"The Concorde Innovation Centre". That would really be my dream, to take the collection and show it off like that, to tell the story, highlight what we learned from that and to ask what is next. This will inspire people so they create and achieve their own personal "supersonic dreams" and aim as high as possible in life.