1952 Muntz Jet
1952 Muntz Jet. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Although Earl “Madman” Muntz was called crazy, mad, and a lot of other things, he was anything but. While loud and flamboyant on the outside, underneath the boisterous exterior was a shrewd entrepreneur.

Earl William Muntz was born in Elgin, Illinois in 1914, and while still a teenager he bought used Model T Fords, fixed them up and sold them for a profit. By age 20 he had a used car lot in Elgin, and two years later was a Chrysler-Plymouth dealer. He also took up midget racing at the local tracks.

Hearing of a shortage of cars in California, Muntz began shipping used cars out there where they brought much higher prices. He saw California as his future, and in the early 1940s moved his used car business to Glendale. Through widespread and flamboyant radio and billboard advertising, which earned him his Madman moniker, he became the largest used car dealer in Los Angeles. When construction magnate Henry Kaiser, and Graham-Paige president Joe Frazer formed the Kaiser-Frazer car company in 1945, Muntz became a California distributor for Kaiser-Frazer.

By now Muntz was a multi-millionaire, and he noted a new phenomenon called television. He got into manufacturing low cost TV sets, soon rising to fourth largest in the country.

Muntz, always keen on cars, decided to go into the business of manufacturing them. The Kaiser-Frazer business was tapering off, and in the late 1940s, noting the rising interest in sports cars, Muntz set out to produce an American version of a sports car, although it was really more sporty car than sports car.

A name that was very familiar to Muntz from his racing days was that of Frank Kurtis, a successful and prolific race car builder. His Glendale-based Kurtis-Kraft shop had built hundreds of race-winning midgets, and he developed the famous low-slung Indy “roadster” which dominated the Indianapolis 500 for many years.

In the late 1940s Kurtis had entered the sports car market with his KSC (Kurtis Sports Car), a two-seater just 1,219 mm (48 in.) high and with a 2,540 (100 in.) wheelbase. One fitted with a hopped up Mercury V8 engine exceeded 225 km/h (140 mph) on the Bonneville salt flats in 1949.

Kurtis got it into production, but during 1948-’49 managed to sell only approximately 20 of his mostly aluminum-bodied, convertible KSCs. When high production costs forced Kurtis to stop, Muntz stepped in a bought the operation including parts, blueprints, tooling and manufacturing rights.

Muntz realised that to broaden market appeal for his Muntz Jet, as he christened it, the car needed some changes. He retained Kurtis’s attractive and then popular “inverted bathtub” styling, and its combination grille and bumper. He lengthened the wheelbase to 2,870 mm (113 in.), and most importantly, turned the two-seater into a four-seater and fitted a lift-off solid top. And long before the industry was showing any interest in safety, the Muntz had seatbelts and a padded dash.

Under the hood, Muntz replaced Kurtis’s Ford V8 with the newly introduced 5.4-litre, overhead valve, 160-horsepower Cadillac V8. Production began in Kurtis’s Glendale plant, but Kurtis soon needed the space, so after only some 28 were built there, Muntz relocated the operation to Evanston, Illinois, not far from his old home town of Elgin.

He also changed the body to steel and stretched the wheelbase another 76 mm (3 in.) to 2,946 mm (116 in.). Overall length was 4,724 mm (186 in.). He also began using a modified Lincoln flathead V8 rather than the Cadillac. Toward the end of production he would switch to Lincoln overhead valve V8s.

Road & Track (9/51) tested a 1951 Lincoln-engined Muntz fitted with an automatic transmission, and although its performance wasn’t near that of the Bonneville Kurtis, it was still very respectable. The sporty 1,715 kg (3,780 lb) Jet went from zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 12.3 seconds, and had a top speed of 174 km/h (108 mph), making it the fastest American production car.

Muntz sold his cars directly to the public, not through dealers. They were very popular in Hollywood, said to be owned by such personalities as actor Mickey Rooney, Clara Bow (the silent movie “It” girl), band leader Vic Damone, and Ed “Rochester” Gardner, comedian Jack Benny’s sidekick. Muntzes also appeared in many movies.

Although Jets sold for $5,500, considerably more than a Cadillac or Jaguar XK120, Muntz said he lost $1,000 on each one, which was probably true in view of the large amount of handwork involved.

When Muntz Jet production stopped in 1954, Muntz claimed he had built 394 of them, a figure that has been disputed; some Muntz researchers claim it was closer to 200.

The end of the Muntz wasn’t the end of Muntz’s activities. He went on to sell things like car stereo systems, tape recorders and air conditioners. He was also busy personally, having gone through seven divorces, following which he dated comedienne Phyllis Diller for some time.

Earl “Madman” Muntz died in 1987 at age 73, leaving the Muntz Jet as his automotive legacy, a very desirable collectible.

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