LONDON – A restored World War II fighter plane that was left to rot in a South African scrapyard for 25 years fetched a record price of 1.58 million ($4.14 million) at auction.

Its new owner is Stephen Brooks, a London property dealer with a lust for adventure.

Brooks and his wife Jo are both aviation enthusiasts and were part of a team that flew a helicopter from the Arctic to the Antarctic two years ago. He has also driven across the Bering Strait from the United States to Russia in an amphibious vehicle.

Brooks, 47, has a pilot's licence and has flown helicopters, but is now going to learn how to fly the Spitfire, which has been the ultimate collector's item for amateur flyers since the 1969 film The Battle of Britain, which did for Spitfires what the James Bond films did for the Aston Martin.

The sale came at the end of an annual event held every April in the Royal Air Force Museum at Colindale, in north London by the auctioneers Bonhams.

Brooks admitted afterwards that it was more than he had budgeted for, but seemed delighted anyway with his new acquisition which, with a 200,000 premium added, will set him back 1.78 million in all.

"It's a beautiful plane," he said, "It's British, and it should stay in Britain and it should stay flying. Things like this are built to be used and not to be a museum piece."

The Vickers-Supermarine Mk IX Spitfire is one of a batch of 103 built at Castle Bromwich and delivered to the RAF in November 1944. Four years later, re-equipped with a new Rolls-Royce engine, it was sold to the South African Air Force, and was taken by ship from the UK to Durban.

It is the second Spitfire sold at auction by Bonhams in seven months. The previous one went for $2.8 million to a Chinese buyer in New Zealand last September.

A LEGEND OF FLIGHT
* Initial designs were repeatedly rejected by the British Air Ministry and when production began it was so slow the Government considered scrapping Spitfires to prioritise other aircraft.
* The Spitfire was almost christened the "Shrew" but Sir Robert MacLean, director of Vickers-Armstrong, the manufacturer, eventually plumped for his daughter's nickname.
* The Spitfire's main adversary was the German Messerschmitt Bf 109. The two planes were both powered by liquid-cooled, 12-cylinder V12 engines.
* There are thought to be only 44 airworthy Spitfires left.
* Many pilots found the Spitfire awkward, finding the closed cockpit claustrophobic.

- INDEPENDENT