Car Collector Corner: Reader recalls 'Madman' Muntz Jet automobile
Q: Hi Greg and thanks for all the old-time car columns. I really enjoy them and they bring back great memories. I'm now 81 years old, and remember a car called the Muntz Jet that was built in the USA. Can you give me some info on the Muntz Jet and how many years it was offered for sale? Charles K., retired and happy in Illinois.
A: Charles, I'd be glad to. The Muntz Jet was the brainchild of Earl "Madman" Muntz, who was one of Southern California's best known used car dealers and a true inventor and entrepreneur.
Originally, Muntz teamed up with auto racing legend Frank Kurtis, who built all of those midget race cars that ran at tracks like Ascot Park and Chicago's Soldier Field following World War II. Kurtis would go on to build a streetable sports car, and introduced a Kurtis Sport in 1948. His car featured 10 aluminum panels, a fiberglass hood and a removable hardtop and soft top.
Kurtis customers could choose any drivetrain they wanted, and Kurtis would make it happen. However, most buyers choose a 110-horsepower Flathead Ford V8.
Now, when I use the word "buyers," one must keep in mind that in 1948, Kurtis operated out of a small shop and built his cars by hand. Thus, only 36 Kurtis Sports were ever built, which is when "Madman" Muntz came into the picture and purchased the entire Kurtis operation for an estimated $200,000.
Muntz then re-named 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 and Cadillac 331-inch V8 that produced 160 horsepower. In his first year of 1951, Muntz built 28 Jets with a retail price of $5,500, and then announced he was moving his entire operation to Evanston, Illinois. There, he made more changes, replacing the aluminum body with steel and stretching the wheelbase to 116 inches. The Cadillac engine was replaced first by a Lincoln Flathead V8 with 154 horses, then with Lincoln's new 317 V8, which produced 160-horses. Muntz sold his Jet through the 1954 model year.
Muntz said 394 Jets were built, and it is estimated that today some 49 survive. Movie starts, of which he was friend with many, usually bought them, but from the beginning Muntz was losing money on every sale as production costs were very high.
Muntz, however, is known for more than his "crazy" showmanship, car antics and TV commercials. He was a respected inventor and designer, as his Muntz 4-Track Tape Player system, the forerunner of the 8-Track, made him millions. He made even more millions by inventing things like 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 his Illinois hometown where he was born in 1914. He was also a Kaiser-Frazer new car dealer, and a great one at that.
There's way more on Muntz, so check it out at www.madmanmuntzmovie.com.
Muntz 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.
Thanks for the question, and if you don't have a computer, visit a family member or friends so you can check out Madman Muntz's homepage.
(Greg Zyla is a syndicated auto columnist who welcomes reader questions on collector cars or auto nostalgia at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 116 Main St., Towanda, PA 18848).