J-4 Cub Coupe Opener

The "Other" Piper Cub
Text and Photos by Budd Davisson, Air Progress, Circa, 1990

Once upon a time there was this baby airplane. It was still a Cub and was many years away from metamorphosing into multi-motored monsters bearing proud Indian names. This not-yet-grown airplane had everything going for it. It was cute as a button, was dead cheap ($950 with a forty horse Continental up front) and it was the absolute darling of the trainer set. This furry little flying machine was leading aviation out of the depths of the Depression and was well on its way to becoming a legend ... but it wanted more.

The later model J-4's enclosed the engine completely.

Somewhere in the back of this airplane's mind it saw itself dressed in tweeds and flitting from business meeting to business meeting. It pictured itself privy to all types of private discussions held in its cabin in which high buck mergers and stock transfers took place. The Cub was tired of teaching, it wanted to step out and become part of the real world of business. But, as it stood on a rain soaked ramp and looked at its own reflection, the Cub knew it had problems. It was difficult for him to imagine someone in a pin-striped suit struggling to insert himself into the all-but-inaccessible cockpit. The Cub knew the businessman wouldn't like being scrunched up in the front seat like a groundhog nibbling on a ballbat, surrounded with furnishings that were one step below early linoleum. The Cub knew it was going to have to clean up its act, if it wanted to be anything more than a one-trick pony.

The answer to the Cub (and its parents) was obvious; do away with the canoe seating arrangement and widen the fuselage to allow passengers to sit like real people ... side by side. Then they'd slick up the interior and venture into the world of leatherette and mohair. The Cub folks knew there was nothing better for your image than to change your looks, so they hammered out a streamlined cowling and spinner, giving the old Cub a nose job. When they were done, they stepped back to admire the new machine and realized that they had a sixty-five horse business coupe that was the aerial counterpart of the two-passenger cars Ford had been building for years. The name was obvious, it was to be the Cub Coupe.

A fairytale? No way! The J-4 Cub Coupe was Piper's first hesitant step away from the Cub. Old Bill Piper knew they couldn't stay in business with a single product, but at the same time he didn't want to invest the time and money it would take to develop an entirely new line of airplanes. It was 1938 and the economy was still pretty shaky. not to mention that the world situation, which looked like it might go to hell in a hand basket any minute. So. Bill Piper and his boys sat down and did what they could to civilize the J-3 Cub. When they introduced the Cup Coupe to the aviation world in 1939 there were undoubtedly a number of groans, since the airplane cost $1.995, which was a pretty hunk of change in those days. Shucks folks. a J-3 Cub with the same sixty-five horse Continental engine was a solid $500 cheaper: In truth, we may never know for sure whether Piper was going after the businssman or whether he was simply diversifying his product line and was striving to match his competition. such as the Tavlorcraft, Luscombe and the Aeronca Chief. all of which offered side-by-side seating. Whatever the reasons, they didn't work because the J-4 was built for only three years: 1939, '40 and '41. Today the J-4 lives` on in that magic world called "obscurity." As it happens, on the used airplane market, obscure also translates into "cheap." just as "popular" freely translates into "expensive." Today the much prettier, much more useful. and a thousand times more comfortable J-4 Coupe costs anywhere from twenty-five to forty percent less than a regular J-3 in comparable condition (Ed note: this still applies in 2007). Four to six thousand dollars will let you buy J-4 Cub Coupes all day long . . . providing you can find them (this definitely does NOT applie in 2007…sorry).

It's hard to get a handle on exactly how many J-4s were built but estimates on those surviving—flying and otherwise—range from twenty-five to 100 airplanes. Which means there are at least that many chances for people who want cheap fun flying to realize their ambition.

Until I saw Bob Hunt's Bermuda Blue J-4A at a New Jersey fly-in, I'd almost completely erased the J-4 from my memory banks. When I saw the airplane sitting there, I couldn't think of any reason why the airplane wasn't more popular and more loved.

It wasn't until the next day that it dawned on me I ought to make an effort to find the owner of that particular Cub Coupe, so, when my wife sent me out to get ice for her party that afternoon, I remembered the ice machine next to the airport. And it was only twenty miles from home. So I had my own little Cannon Ball Baker Trophy Run through the back woods roads. I screamed into the airport, got Bob's name off the registration slip and still made it home before all the ice melted (most of it anyway). “Boy, honey. you should have seen how bad the traffic got. I thought I'd never get home." (Ed note: you can now see that there are many reasons she is now an ex-wife.)