The first Muntz Jet automobile was quick, capable, cushy, and a full seven years ahead of the first four-seat Thunderbird. Behind it was a wild and crazy genius who has sold just about everything and is still going strong after making and losing several fortunes, Here we meet the car -- the 1951-1954 Muntz Jet -- and the irrepressible "Madman" who made it happen.

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front view of a red 1954 Muntz Jet automobile
Muntz Jet frontal styling was disarmingly simple for the chrome-laden 1950s. This 1954 example carries non-stock wheels. See more classic car pictures.

He says it "could trim the tail off an XK-120." "He" is Earl "Madman" Muntz. "It" is the automobile that bore his name more than 50 years ago.

"The Jag had a much smaller engine, of course," he says. "They were about even on take-off, but on the top end we could trim 'em! I'd say the XK handled better, though. We were very, very heavy."

Muntz looks back on his car as "just too far ahead of itself." And then, reflectively, he adds, "We simply didn't have the facilities to compete with the major manufacturers. They did lift some ideas from us, though."

Indeed. For the Muntz Jet was a fast, powerful, sports-oriented four-seat luxury car -- precisely the concept that enabled the 1958 Ford Thunderbird, despite a severe recession, to achieve nearly double the sales volume of the "Little Bird" that Ford had been building the year before. And the Jet predated the first "Squarebird" by a full seven years!

Muntz Jet collectible automobile from the 1950s
The 1954 Muntz Jet as seen from the rear.

Production records are lost now, so no one is quite sure just how many Jets were built. Muntz himself estimates the total at 394, and wryly recalls that he lost $1,000 on every one he sold.

"They cost $6,500 apiece to build," he notes, "and at that price they wouldn't sell. At $5,500, I couldn't make enough of 'em, but I couldn't afford to keep it up. But as far as the car itself was concerned, we were very fortunate. We didn't have too many problems."

Muntz didn't actually design his car, although he might be said to have redesigned it. As most enthusiasts know, the Jet was derived from an aluminum-bodied two-seater developed by Frank Kurtis, who by the late 1940s had achieved national recognition as the designer/builder of a number of racing cars ranging from dirt-track midgets to Indianapolis 500 champions.

His little sports cars, most of them powered by flathead Ford V-8s, drew enthusiastic reviews from the critics, but Kurtis's lack of volume production capability meant very high prices that severely limited sales, and he built scarcely more than 20 of his road cars in 1948-1949.

In stepped the "Madman," who offered $200,000 for Kurtis's tooling, manufacturing rights, and assorted leftover components. Suddenly, the used-car salesman turned TV impresario found himself the proprietor of an automobile factory, albeit a modest one.

Muntz set about making the Kurtis more salable. Wheelbase was stretched from 100 to 113 inches, a back seat was added, and the 100-horsepower Ford flathead gave way to Cadillac's new, lightweight, 331-cubic-inch overhead-valve V-8 with 160 horsepower.

Luxury touches were added to the interior, but Muntz retained the basic Kurtis styling with its smooth, slab-sided shape. The result was America's first high-performance personal-luxury car.

How would this redesigned beauty sell? Find out on the next page.

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