How Muntz Cars Work

The Muntz Jet maintained a recognizable body style throughout its short lifespan.

The Muntz Jet was one of those interesting "shoestring" cars that sprang up in the late '40s and early '50s, when many believed that a dream and a little money were all it took to make it big in the auto business. The dreamer here was Earl "Madman" Muntz, an irrepressible radio/television manufacturer whose wild-and-woolly advertising also made him Southern California's largest -- and most-flamboyant -- used-car dealer.

Muntz's car actually originated with Frank Kurtis, the famed designer of winning race cars (especially dirt-track midgets) who turned his enormous talent to a street sports car in 1948. The resulting Kurtis Sport was a slab-sided two-seat convertible that was unusual for the day in having a unit body/chassis with just ten outer panels, all aluminum except for a fiberglass hood and rear deck. Appearance was bulbous but pleasing on a tight 100-inch wheelbase. Side windows were clumsy, clip-in Plexiglas affairs, but a removable rigid top was provided along with the soft top.

Like interior hardware, the Kurtis' suspension and running gear were mostly proprietary components, though Frank Kurtis tuned spring and damper rates for optimum handling and road-holding. The powerteam was anything the buyer wanted, though 239-cid Ford flathead V-8s with Edelbrock manĀ­ifolds were fitted to most examples. The Sport was also offered as a kit at $1495-$3495, depending on completeness.

Light weight gave the Sport good acceleration despite the flathead's meager 100 horsepower, and reviewers loved the car's nimbleness and stability. But Kurtis-Kraft was a small company building cars mostly by hand, so sales were as slow and sparse as profits. Thus, after building just 36 Sports through 1950, Kurtis sold his Glendale, California, operation to the "Madman" for $200,000.

Muntz set about making the Sport more salable, retaining its basic styling but adding 13 inches to the wheelbase, a back seat, and more conveniences. This meant extra weight, so Cadillac's new 160-horsepower, 331-cid overhead-valve V-8 was substituted for the Ford flathead. The result was America's first high-performance personal-luxury car. Muntz called it the Jet.

Working out of the former Kurtis plant, Muntz built 28 Jets before moving operations to his hometown of Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago, and making more substantial changes. The aluminum body -- "It would dent if you leaned against it," he told Collectible AutomobileĀ® magazine in 1985 -- gave way to a steel shell on a new 116-inch wheelbase.

Curiously, the modern Cadillac V-8 was ditched for Lincoln's old 336.7-cid flathead, albeit modified to produce 154 bhp via solid lifters (replacing hydraulics) from the Ford truck version. GM Hydra-Matic transmission was made standard, though Borg-Warner stick-overdrive was optionally available.

This 1954 Jet would be one of the last produced by Muntz -- the company fell on hard financial times and folded in late 1954.

"We tooled that car for $75,000," Muntz recalled. But labor costs were a monumental $2000 per car because body panels had to be carefully fitted, then leaded-in. Meticulous detailing was required elsewhere.

The Evanston cars weighed 3780 pounds, about 400 more than the Glendale Jets, but were more durable. Both versions were fairly quick. Lincoln-powered models could do 0-60 in a tick over 12 seconds and see nearly 108 mph. Toward the end, Muntz switched to fiberglass fenders and Lincoln's 317.5-cid ohv V-8, which began at 160 bhp and was later rated at 205 bhp.

Unfortunately, Muntz lost money from the start on his cars, and when his television business hit hard times in 1954, he shut down his car-manufacturing business.

Even the "Madman" didn't know for sure, but it's estimated that 394 Jets were built; of these, at least 49 survive today.

For more on defunct American cars, see: