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.
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!
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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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.
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.
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.
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1951-1954 Muntz Jet's Legacy
Muntz Jet aficionado Vic Munsen has tracked down 49 Jets, just 10 percent of the estimated original production. Earl Muntz notes that he has scoured wrecking yards all over the country in search of parts for his own two cars and has yet to find a Muntz dismantled anywhere.
From this he concludes that many more of these sturdy cars still exist, more than 50 years after their initial construction. The Muntz Jet has also left quite a legacy and has been an influence on a number of cars that came after its four-year run.
The following chart offers a look at the specifications and performance capabilities of the 1951 Muntz Jet.
Major Specifications: 1951 Muntz Jet*
||All-steel 4-passenger convertible coupe with removable padded steel top
|Construction||Body on fully boxed perimeter-type frame
|Overall length (inches)
|Overall height (inches)
|Overall width (inches)
|Track front/rear (inches)
|Minimum ground clearance (inches)
|Curb weight (pounds)
|Cooling system (quarts)
|Fuel tank (gallons)
||L-head V-8 (Lincoln)
|Bore x Stroke (inches)
||3 1/2 x 4 3/8
|Displacement (cubic inches)
|bhp @ rpm (pound/feet SAE gross)
||154 @ 3,600
|Torque @ rpm (pound/feet SAE gross)
||275 @ 1,800
||1 x 2 bbl. carburetor, mechanical pump
||4-speed Hydra-Matic automatic (GM)
|Transmission ratios (I-IV:1)
||3.82/2.63/1.45/1.00 (Reverse: 4.31:1)|
||Hypoid, spiral-bevel gears|
|Final drive ratio
||Independent; upper and lower A-arms, coil springs (Ford)|
||Live axle, longitudinal semi-elliptic leaf springs (Ford)|
||4-wheel drum-type with internal-expanding shoes and hydraulic actuation|
|Brake diameter (inches)
|Total effective brake lining area (square inches)
|Wheels||Pressed steel with drop-center rims, 15-inch diameter|
|Performance||0 to 30 mph
|0 to 40 mph
|0 to 50 mph
|0 to 60 mph
|0 to 70 mph
|0 to 80 mph
|0 to 1/4 mile (second @ mph)
||18.8 @ 72
|Top speed (mph)
*Specifications shown are for the Evanston-built, L-head Lincoln-powered cars, which apparently accounted for the bulk of Muntz Jet production.
As the Muntz Jet neared the end of production, fiberglass fenders were used and the new ohv Lincoln V-8 replaced the obsolete flathead. Both these changes brought less weight and consequently better performance. Unfortunately, the Muntz automobile was a losing proposition. Perhaps it was doomed from the start.
Today, Earl Muntz can take honest pride in his Jet, the car that pointed the way for the generations of personal-luxury models that have followed over the past three decades. As has often been said throughout his long and varied career, he was simply ahead of his time.
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