Marketing the 1951-1954 Muntz Jet

Ever unpredictable, Earl "Madman" Muntz changed his mind shortly after his takeover of the former Kurtis car design seemed complete. After just 28 of the Cadillac-powered Jets had been built at the former Kurtis plant in Glendale, California, he moved the operation to Evanston, Illinois, and made another round of substantial design changes.

The aluminum body -- “It would dent if you leaned against it,” he recalls -- was replaced by a steel shell, and wheelbase was stretched again, this time to 116 inches. Curiously, the modern Cadillac powerplant was replaced by the older Lincoln flathead V-8, modified with solid valve lifters (substituting for hydraulics) borrowed from the big Ford truck engine.

a Muntz Jet autimobile with fully boxed perimeter chassis
The Muntz Jet's fully boxed perimeter chassis was strong but very heavy. Body was welded to it.

Hydra-Matic transmission, procured from General Motors, was standard, although Borg-Warner overdrive was optionally available. The investment was minimal. “We tooled that car for $75,000,” Muntz remembers. But the killer was the handwork. Panels had to be carefully fitted and then leaded-in, detailing was meticulous, and labor costs came to $2,000 per car.

“Today the labor in that s.o.b. would run 20 grand!” Muntz notes, but the actual costs were bad enough. “I lost $400,000 on that project before we closed it down in 1954,” he says.

As he was doing with his television sets at the time, Muntz marketed the Muntz Jet directly to the consumer. There were no distributors and no dealers, but there were his usual abundant advertisements, only now they appeared in more prestigious publications like The Wall Street Journal.

Muntz points with pride to the number of celebrities who bought his cars. Among them were Clara Bow, the legendary “It” girl of the silent screen, along with singer Vic Damone, bandleader Freddie Martin, and actor Ed Gardner of “Duffy’s Tavern” fame, to name a few. Lana Turner’s husband, Stephen Crane, drove a Jet for many years.

dashboard view of a 1954 Muntz Jet automobile
All Muntz Jet dashboards carried the usual instrumentation, plus tach and vacuum and fuel pressure gauges -- and they were padded for safety.

Surprisingly enough, Muntz stressed safety by offering seatbelts and a padded dash as standard equipment. It’s not that safety per se was salable in those days. It wasn’t, as Ford would discover a few years later. But by fitting these devices, Muntz was able to suggest in a none-too-subtle manner that his car was fast enough to be potentially dangerous.

And the car would go. Admittedly, the flathead Lincoln mill was no match for the ohv Cadillac V-8 in performance, although Muntz swears it was more durable. Together with the steel bodyshell and heavier frame, it made the Evanston-built Jets at least 400 pounds heavier than the Glendale cars.

Nevertheless, a contemporary test by Road & Track magazine showed a respectable top speed of just over 108 miles per hour, and Sam Hanks recorded an honest 128 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats with a Jet that was completely stock except for an undercarriage apron. As Muntz recalls, “The belly pan gave us a little lift.”

“The thing was built like a tank,” proclaims Muntz. “Had we continued, I think we’d have lightened it. If you ever had one in a demolition derby, it’d ruin everything.”

Even the removable, padded hardtop is heavy, and it’s no easy job to work the transformation from snug coupe to classy convertible. No folding soft top was provided. Nor, we are compelled to add, was there any provision for carrying the steel top. You had to leave it at home and pray it didn’t rain before you returned.

Although the Muntz Jet's life was relatively short, it has left a vibrant legacy. Continue to the next page to learn more.

For more information on cars, see: