Cars We Remember: Earl ‘Madman’ Muntz, his Muntz Jet and 4-Track Tape Player
Q: Greg I’ve enjoyed your columns on Malcolm Bricklin and Preston Tucker over the years. Another car manufacturer that I remember from the 1950 era was a man called “Madman Muntz” and his Muntz Jet.
I’m sure you remember him and would appreciate if you could give us some information on him and his car?
— Joe S., Danville, Pennsylvania
A: Joe, I’d be glad to touch on Madman Muntz, as he is indeed a car manufacturer that deserves note and even more so as the inventor of some very special car and home entertainment products along the way.
You mention my columns on Malcolm Bricklin and Preston Tucker, both who tried in vain to manufacture and sell a car in direct competition with the Big Three of Ford, GM and Chrysler. You can throw John DeLorean’s name into that bunch too, as all three had similar dreams but sad endings when it came to successful car manufacturing.
As for the Muntz Jet you mention, it was the brainchild of Earl “Madman” Muntz who at the time was a Southern California’s used-car dealer and a true inventor and entrepreneur. He was known for his wacky commercials and advertisements, but underneath was a talented marketing executive and inventor who knew how to both manufacture and sell as long as it wasn’t a Muntz Jet.
As for specifics when it comes to the Muntz Jet, Muntz teamed up with auto racing legend Frank Kurtis, the latter best known for building over 600 midget race cars that ran at tracks like Ascot Park in California and Chicago’s Soldier Field following World War II. Kurtis is also known for his efforts at Indianapolis and building other race cars, too.
Kurtis receives credit for building what would eventually become the very first Muntz Jet. Working out of a very small garage in Glendale, California, Kurtis built a streetable sports car and officially introduced the vehicle as a Kurtis Sport in 1948. His car featured 10 aluminum panels, a fiberglass hood and a removable hardtop and soft top.
Unlike most car manufacturers, Kurtis customers could choose any drivetrain they wanted, and Kurtis would make it happen. However, most buyers choose a 110-horsepower Flathead Ford V-8. I look back at Kurtis now as perhaps the first “kit car” manufacturer who went the extra mile and finished the car up for his buyers in whatever combination they wanted.
I use the word “Kurtis Sport buyers” with tongue-in-cheek, as in 1948 Kurtis operated out of the aforementioned very small shop and built his aluminum body cars by hand. Thus, only 36 “buyers” came to purchase a Kurtis Sports car.
Enter into the fray “Madman” Muntz as he acquired the entire Kurtis operation for an estimated $200,000 which was big money back then. Muntz renamed the Kurtis Sport a Muntz Jet, and made it more consumer friendly by stretching the wheelbase from 100 to 113 inches and adding a back seat. For power, how about a 331-inch Cadillac V-8 that produced 160 horsepower? Yes, that’s what he offered but in his first year of 1951, Muntz only built 28 Jets with a retail price of $5,500. Thus, he did a bit worse that Kurtis in 1948 but wasn’t that concerned.
Muntz then announced he was moving his entire operation to Evanston, where he made more changes to his Jet automobile. Specifically, he replaced the aluminum body with steel and stretched the wheelbase again to 116 inches. The Cadillac V8 was replaced first by a Lincoln Flathead V-8 with 154 horses, then with Lincoln’s new 317-inch overhead valve V-8, which produced 160 horses.
Muntz sold his Jet through the 1954 model year and it is said that 394 Jets were built. It is estimated that today some 49 survive. Movie stars, of whom he was friends with many, were his customers. However, from the beginning Muntz was losing money on every sale as production costs were very high although he never really cared considering his outstanding fortune.
Muntz, thus, is best known for being a entertainment product creator and his “crazy” showmanship and TV and newspaper ads. He was a respected inventor and designer, as his first-ever Muntz 4-Track Tape Player system was the forerunner of Lear Industries 8-Track Tape design. Both his 4- and Bill Lear’s 8-Track design made Muntz a multi-millionaire. Lear is the same company and person behind the Lear Jet and worked closely with Muntz on the 8-track tape players.
Muntz made even more money by inventing things like the Muntz black-and-white TVs that sold for $100, Muntz stereos and the first-ever big-screen TV with Sony components. His used car lot was called “Elgin” after the Illinois town where he was born in 1914. He was also a Kaiser-Frazer new car dealer, and a great one at that.
In ending, Muntz never went to college and was married seven times. He actually dropped out of high school to open his first used-car dealership with a $500 loan that his mom co-signed for. When he died in 1987 from lung cancer, he had left a legacy that to this day, few if any can ever match. Through a friend at Super Stock & Drag Illustrated Magazine (the late Woody Hatten) I had the pleasure to meet Madman Muntz at a drag race in Englishtown, New Jersey, in 1976.
Thanks for the question Joe, and to find out more on Muntz, check out www.madmanmuntzmovie.com and his documentary movie, “Madman Muntz: American Maverick” released in 2005.
— Greg Zyla writes weekly for More Content Now and other Gatehouse Media publications.