To paraphrase an old adage: the experience of a lifetime can start with a single journey. Just ask Bryce Frey of Chesapeake, Va., the owner of a 1953 Muntz Jet.
“When I was 19 years old, I went to California on spring break,” Frey recalls. “In Hollywood, we happened to walk by the Muntz dealership, went in to look at the cars and I never forgot that.”
It’s not surprising that the dealership commanded such unforgettable attention, it was owned by Earl “Madman” Muntz, a hugely successful distributor for Kaiser and Frazer automobiles. Muntz’s garish ads dominated southern California car advertising.
Frey purchased his Muntz four years ago from the estate of a private party who had it on loan to the Forney Museum of Transportation in Colorado. The Muntz is serial number 53M536, meaning it was built in 1953 in Illinois. It has its original, overhead-valve, 1953 Lincoln V-8 engine, and is one of four known to have been built with a Continental spare.
Restoration took about two years at the hands of W.W. Motor Cars and Parts of Broadway, Va. Although Frey’s son and daughter don’t share in their father’s old car passion, they did travel three hours to the unveiling at the restoration shop.
Frey says he gets the ‘biggest kick’ in seeing other people’s reactions to the car. “I’m also pleasantly sur- prised that it is so comfortable to drive.”
It isn’t the first Muntz he has ever owned. “I bought a 1951 Muntz in 1974 that was a basket case,” he says. It was traded away in 2007 and is now in the hands of someone who is restoring it.
Frey has waited a long time to acquire his show car, and says he is just enjoying the moment. He did win second junior in the AACA class 35A last year, but is only entering the car in shows “when it’s something I want to go to,” he says.
He has no definite plans this year. Because of a conflict, he won’t make it to this year’s Muntz Mania meet, but if you want to catch what one friend of Frey’s calls “a gathering of Easter eggs”, the meet will be held in Greenwood, Ind., Sept. 17-19. In addition to his coveted Muntz, Frey collects Cadillacs. Also in his stable is a 1940 Cadillac limousine, a ‘41 Cadillac convertible coupe, a ’41 Cadillac convertible sedan, and a ‘69 Cadillac Deville convertible.
MORE MUNTZ MADNESS
Though ultimately a financial failure, the Muntz Jet remains the one creation most identified with Elgin, Ill., native Earl “Madman” Muntz. “I wanna give ‘em away, but Mrs. Muntz won’t let me. She’s crazy!” screamed a caricature of Muntz dressed in a Napolean hat and red BVDs from billboards and print ads. As a successful car salesman, he claimed revenue of $76 million in 1947. He also made fortunes by producing and selling cheap, stripped-down television sets, and a four-track car stereo he invented called the Muntz Stereo-Pak.
|The hubcaps on this Jet are from a 1954-’55 Cadillac with Earl “Madman” Muntz characterized in place of the Cadillac medallion.
If you are lucky enough to see a Muntz, like Bryce Frey, you likely won’t forget it. According to the Muntz Jet Registry, less than 200 were manufactured from 1950 to 1953: the first 29 in California, and the remainder in Evanston, Ill. Of those, approximately 125 are known to survive.
“Muntz claimed his company manufactured 394 Muntz Jets, but Muntz owners believe the number is closer to 198,” Frey explains, adding, “Muntz started production numbers at M101 (M102 is the earliest, known Muntz). In 1952, production numbers jumped from 52M252 to 52M501 because Muntz wanted people to believe that he had produced more than he actually had. There was another jump in production numbers later on.”
The car got its basic design from an aluminum-bodied, two-seater sports car created by racecar wizard Frank Kurtis. Only 22-30 (Serial No. KB22 is known) of the Kurtis Sport Car were built by Kurtis-Kraft, Inc., before Muntz entered the picture. Kurtis sold the manufacturing rights to Muntz who redesigned the car by stretching the wheelbase to accommodate a backseat for passengers.
According to an article in the April 20, 2006 Old Cars Weekly, by contributing writer Mitch Frumkin, the Muntz Jet was first stretched to 113 inches, then to 116. “Interestingly, the final batch of Muntz cars built included two that had extended wheelbases of 120-121 inches, and even several shortened 2-passenger roadsters, similar to the original Kurtis car,” he wrote.
Also changed from the Kurtis to the Muntz, was the engine. “Although most of the California-built Muntzes were powered by the Cadillac-engine, the vehicles assembled in Illinois came with Lincoln flathead V-8s, with some Lincoln overhead powerplants,” Frumkin said, noting that a former Muntz Car Co. employee in Illinois told him that two Jets were factory equipped with the 331-cubic-inch Chrysler Firebird V-8.
Customers chose between a General Motors four-speed Hydramatic transmission or Borg-Warner three-speed manual gearbox, with the majority opting for the automatic. “Either way, the cars were fast, and articles of the era stated that Muntzes had the potential speed of 140 mph,” Frumkin added.
Like Muntz himself, the cars were flashy. They were built as luxury cars. “You could buy a Muntz for $5,625 at a time when entry-level Cadillacs were selling for $3,500 to $4,000,” Frey says.
Unique for the time, they came equipped with padded dashboards, seat belts and even liquor and ice cabinets.
“There was nothing like that on the U.S. market,” Frey adds. “Returning servicemen were bringing back MGs and Jaguars.” The Muntz was designed for the competition.
Most noticeable were the unusual Easter egg colors; Frey’s is painted Orchid. “Anyone who paid more than a Cadillac wanted to be noticed,” Frey reasons.
Muntz lost money on the Jet from the start. Various sources say he lost about $1,000 for every car he built, but he continued because the publicity was great for business. He apparently decided he could ill afford such high priced publicity, and ceased production in 1954.
This Muntz Jet is one of very few with a continental kit.
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