Earl “Madman” Muntz’s career as an automaker was all too brief, but over the course of five years, he managed to produce nearly 400 examples of his unique sport-luxury convertible. Today, an estimated 50 Muntz Jets survive, which makes seeing two poised to cross the auction block in the coming month a rare occurrence indeed.
Muntz was a natural-born pitchman who got his start hawking used cars in Illinois in the 1930s. By the early 1940s, Muntz had moved his act to the West Coast, and during the war years his ebullient style (and, perhaps, limited competition) earned him the title of the largest used car dealer in the world. At the war’s conclusion, Muntz focused his effort on selling new models for Kaiser-Frazer, and by 1947 his energy turned the California dealership into the largest in the country. An electronics buff, Muntz would also find a way to build television sets cheaper than anyone else, and his direct-to-the-consumer sales model would become significant to his future automotive endeavors.
Around the same time, race-car builder Frank Kurtis was building sports cars for the street in his Glendale, California, shop. The low-volume Kurtis Sport was a two-seat convertible with an aluminum body and, generally, a flathead Ford V-8 for power, though customers could specify their drivetrain of choice or even purchase the Kurtis Sport in kit form. Enter Madman Muntz, who saw the Kurtis Sport during a visit to buy a one-off custom on a Buick chassis from Frank Kurtis. Impressed by the Kurtis Sport’s potential, Muntz negotiated a deal to buy the rights and tooling to the car, and in 1950 began his short-lived career as an automaker.
Muntz saw the Kurtis Sport’s potential, but he also saw its limitations. Looking to broaden the car’s appeal, he stretched the wheelbase from 110 inches to 113 inches, giving sufficient room to add a rear seat and up passenger capacity to four. Weather protection came not from a folding soft top, but from a removable steel hardtop, padded for a more traditional look. The drawback to this design was that the roof could not be carried in the car, meaning that topless motoring required reliably fair weather. Instead of the Kurtis Sport’s flathead Ford V-8, Muntz struck a deal with Cadillac to supply its 331-cubic-inch, 160-horsepower V-8, and in keeping with the car’s luxury aspirations, Muntz increased the quality of the car’s interior appointments. Looking for a suitable name to market his car to consumers (directly, without the aid of a dealer network, just like his television sets), he called it the Muntz Jet.
A mere 28 Muntz Jets were built in California before Muntz moved the operation to Evanston, Illinois. Based on the feedback received on early cars, Muntz revised the design in several significant ways. To give more passenger legroom, the wheelbase was stretched an additional three inches (to 116 inches), and a new body was crafted from steel instead of aluminum. Though the changes added roughly 400 pounds to the car, they also aided durability, as several early customers complained that Muntz Jet bodywork could be dented merely by leaning on the car. Also reportedly for reasons of durability (though perhaps supply also entered into the equation), Muntz replaced the Cadillac V-8 with a modified Lincoln V-8, which would remain the standard engine throughout the remainder of the car’s production run (which lasted until 1954).
Like the Tucker 48, the Muntz Jet also placed something of an emphasis on safety, coming equipped with seat belts and a padded dash. In the early 1950s, safety wasn’t a major selling point for new automobiles, but Muntz quickly spun this to his advantage by pointing out that race cars had seat belts, so if his car had them, it must be fast. Though no Hollywood A-listers of the day purchased a Muntz Jet, celebrity owners did include early film star Clara Bow and singer Vic Damone.
Priced at $5,500, the Muntz Jet was more expensive than most Cadillacs at the time, yet Muntz later admitted to losing $1,000 on each car assembled. The biggest reason was his low production volume, which reduced the possibility of significant automation. By his own reckoning, labor costs alone added $2,000 to each Muntz Jet produced, and in his company’s five-year history, less than 400 of the removable hardtop convertibles were assembled.
On August 2, Auctions America will offer a 1953 Muntz Jet convertible at its Burbank, California, sale. Formerly part of the Bob Pond collection, this yellow Muntz Jet has a known ownership history dating back to 1969, and was fully restored in 2000. Options on the car include a deluxe heater, an outside spotlight, a driver’s side-view mirror, and even an RCA 8-track tape player, though this item was surely added later in the car’s life. Based upon its rarity and condition, Auctions America predicts a selling price between $150,000 and $200,000.
Less is known about the 1951 Muntz Jet convertible, chassis M125, set to cross the stage at Mecum’s Monterey sale on August 14-16. Said to be part of an estate, the car was once restored to a rather unusual standard (including faux snakeskin upholstery and headliner), but has not been run in roughly two decades and is being sold in “as-is” condition, and is offered at no reserve. Mecum expects to realize a selling price between $50,000 and $75,000.
Article courtesy of Hemmings Daily, written by Kurt Ernst.