The Muntz Jet was a Madman’s dream
From the humble community of Elgin, Illinois, Earl Muntz began what became an empire. A high school dropout who took to working at the family hardware store, Muntz was a budding electronics whiz. By 14 he had not only built his own radio, but also crafted a second that he fitted to his parents’ car. That was only a taste of things to come.
In a bid to leave the hardware store world, Muntz was just 20 when he opened a used car dealership in 1924. A trip out west brought the realization that used cars were much more profitable in California, and the enterprising Muntz opened a dealer in Glendale, California. A permanent move followed, and Muntz quickly thereafter learned the power of the press.
He purchased 20 vehicles that were denied import overseas and got a local newspaper to write a story about the interesting right-hand-drive cars. All 20 sold shortly after, at prices that made Muntz realize that the marketing was just as important as the cars. He took this little lesson and ramped it up to Evel Knievel levels. He became a showman.
The tropes of used car salesmen can be traced directly back to Muntz. He created the high-flying personality of “Madman” Muntz, a character who babbled on about used cars while wearing a Napoleon hat and long red underwear. Commercials featured claims such as, “If this car isn’t sold today, I’ll smash it with a sledgehammer!” The requisite car wouldn’t sell and Muntz followed through on his promises—proof he was willing to do anything for publicity. It is said that he even contemplated joining the communist party during the McCarthy era, all in the name of putting his name in headlines.
The marketing worked. After selling millions of dollars’ worth of televisions and used cars, Muntz dove headfirst into a new venture. Frank Kurtis, builder of Indianapolis 500 race cars, wanted to build an American car that could compete with the European sports cars of time. Muntz liked the scheme and after just two years of production, he bought the Kurtis operation.
And thus was born the Muntz Jet. From 1951–54, the Jet was produced in the same facility that Kurtis created. There were changes, mainly a 13-inch wheelbase increase and the addition of a rear seat. The flowing body was formed from aluminum, and the tops were basically handmade fiberglass or a standard fabric convertible. Production numbers are debated, as Muntz claimed 394 were built, while other sources cite 198 left the factory. Either way, not many survive from the original grouping.
“There are about 40 around. Maybe 30 of them are drivable,” said Alan Galbraith, as he and I walked the show field at the Concours d’Elegance of America in Plymouth, Michigan. “The information required to properly restore them is just not there. There is no record of how many cars left the factory, let alone what colors they were or how they were equipped.”
Galbraith is a Muntz Jet owner and lover of oddball cars, even going so far as to create Concours d’Lemons to gather other oddball enthusiasts, but the deep purple Muntz on the lawn was not his. Instead, it belonged to Amelia Island Concours founder Bill Warner, who was being honored as Enthusiast of the Year at the show.
Walking around the car, there are small touches that all make sense knowing Earl Muntz’s history. The steering wheel and hubcap center both feature a caricature of “Madman” Munz, complete with Napoleon hat, red underwear, and boots. The interior features a high-quality stereo, but the rest is pretty basic fare.
In fact, many parts of the car are aftermarket bits to cut cost of production. Galbraith pointed out both the windshield frame and the gauge cluster were pieces that could be purchased by any consumer with a bit of cash and a mail order catalog. Those cost cutting measures didn’t matter, though; even with price inflation every year eventually culminating in a $4500 sale price, Muntz was losing $1000 per car. That can reasonably be attributed to no-cost options that included wire recorders and radio telephones, effectively tying in Muntz’ electronic passion with his automotive venture.
The Muntz Jet exists as a fun footnote in history, and a reminder that there was a time when a well-to-do businessman could just decide one day to build a car with his name on it. Sure, Elon Musk has been making a good run at it, but put the Muntz Jet against a Tesla Model 3 and I know which one I’d rather be seen in.
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