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Car of the Week: 1951 Muntz Jet convertible

When one owner was looking for something a little different, he was finally rewarded with this rare 1951 Muntz Jet convertible.
Car of the Week 2020
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Mark Besser wanted to get his hands on a Muntz Jet so badly that he really wasn’t in the mood to be choosey. He’d have probably been happy to land any of the roughly 50 Jets that are believed to still be surviving.

The fact that he got a REALLY nice one, and one that has a pretty fun and interesting back story, turned out to be a bonus.

“I like oddball cars,” notes Besser, a resident of Boliver, Mo. “I’ve got a Playboy … with a folding hardtop. I’ve got a Kaiser Darrin, with the sliding doors. I’ve got an L-29 Cord, which I really like a lot. I like unusual cars. I want something you don’t see."

“I’ve been chasing these [Muntz Jets] at auctions and trying to find one. I missed one at Cape Girardeau, Mo. This is the only one I’ve really been able to find, so I bought it from dealer in St. Louis. It was originally owned by a clown in the Ice Capades. It was originally sold at a Muntz dealer in California. I have the original bill of sale and everything.”

The original owner “clown” was the late Freddie Trenkler, an Austrian immigrant who achieved fame and notoriety as a madcap comic for many years on film, Broadway and with the Ice Capades. He bought the car new for about $4,500 and apparently had the car right up until 1992.

How often do you see a snakeskin interior?

How often do you see a snakeskin interior?

Any of the Jets remaining qualify as rare and unusual, but Besser’s car is even rarer than most. Of the 198 Jets that were believed to have been built between 1950-54, only 29 were built in Glendale, Calif., before production was shifted to Evanston, Ill. Besser’s car is No. 25 and one of the last cars to be built in Glendale. The car features the 145-hp Lincoln engine, which replaced the Cadillac engine used in the first handful of cars. It is also one of just two cars known remaining that has aluminum fenders, which were used in early production but later replaced by steel doors and bodies. The California-built jets also used slightly shorter 113-inch-wheelbase and lower-profile windshield frames. And, it’s one of the few cars — estimates are fuzzy on how many there may have been originally — that were optioned with the outrageous snakeskin interior.

Powered by Lincoln! 145 hp is more than enough to motivate such a small car.

Powered by Lincoln! 145 hp is more than enough to motivate such a small car.

Besser’s Muntz Jet was sold new by the company’s Sunset Boulevard sales office in August 1951 to Trenkler, who was among a list of celebrities that owned Jets. Grace Kelly, Mickey Rooney, Clara Bow, Vic Damone and Gloria DeHaven where all Muntz Jet owners at one time, and Clark Gable gave one as a gift to his wife, Josephine Dillon.

Trenkler sold the car to a California car collector and enthusiast in 1992, and the second owner restored the Muntz back to original condition. At some point, Trenkler had the car pained maroon, but the second owner had it returned to its factory color combination of salmon with the optional textured snakeskin interior. Fittingly, the car was displayed for a time in the Peterson Museum, one of the top automotive shrines in the world.

FROM KURTIS TO MUNTZ

Frank Kurtis was the builder of many winning Indianapolis race cars before he decided to try his hand at making high-performance sports cars for public consumption. His first series in 1949-’50 Kurtis cars had simple low-profile styling using a fiberglass body. The engine could be whatever the buyer wanted, but Kurtis often installed a slightly modified Ford flathead V-8. Kits were offered and varied in the number of components the buyer desired.

Production of the first-generation Kurtis ended in 1950, when Frank Kurtis sold this part of his operation to Earl Muntz. With a few alterations, the Kurtis became the Muntz.

Built-in coolers in the back seat armrests

Built-in coolers in the back seat armrests

Earl “Madman” Muntz had made it big in the television business before turning his attention to selling cars. Before opening his Muntz Car Company in Glendale, Calif., Muntz had been a successful salesman at Kaiser-Frazer dealerships in New York City and Los Angeles, compiling a small fortune in the process. renamed the car the Muntz and made a few changes. The wheelbase was stretched three inches and turned the car into a four-passenger. Styling of the aluminum-bodied car remained virtually unchanged from its appearance as a Kurtis. Muntz manufacturing operations were moved to Illinois. The Cadillac engine used in the Kurtis wound up being dropped in favor of a Lincoln V-8. It gave the Muntz a reported top speed of more than 108 mph.

Keep in mind this car was made in '51. This was created years before the Corvette and T-Bird hit the market. Imagine seeing this on the street back in 1951.

Keep in mind this car was made in '51. This was created years before the Corvette and T-Bird hit the market. Imagine seeing this on the street back in 1951.

The Jet was heavier and handled better than its Kurtis predecessor. Transmission choices were either a General Motor Hydra-Matic or a three-speed Borg-Warner. The Jet was 54 inches tall and was built with body-on-chassis construction, independent front suspension, a live rear axle and leaf springs. It featured advanced goodies like power steering, four-wheel hydraulic brakes, dual coil ignition and dual exhausts. Other standard features geared toward the upscale buyer included: a leather interior; Stewart-Warner gauges and a center console with a Muntz radio. In addition the snakeskin upholstery, the Jet maybe have been the only car on the U.S. market with an optional “ice chest” in the rear seat armrests. It also offered seat belts and a padded dashboard — two safety features that where not yet common.

Logistics led the company to move from California to Evanston in 1949. Operations moved again in 1952 to North Sheffield Avenue in Chicago's Lake View neighborhood.

In a familiar story for many upstart companies, the obstacles of reaching a critical mass in production and putting together an efficient network to sell the cars proved to be too much for Muntz, and operations eventually ceased in 1954. Earl Muntz admitted after the fact that he took a loss of about $1,000 on each car he built, due to the inefficiencies of building cars on a such a small scale.

If nothing else, the Jet helped pave the way for the “personal luxury car” niche that would follow, with models such as the Thunderbird, Jaguar E Type, Chrysler “Letter” cars, Studebaker GT Hawk, Oldsmobile Toronado and Buick Riviera, among others, proving that Muntz had a winning idea, even if the execution fell short. It also gave guys like Besser a very cool car to pursue and cherish.

A PAMPERED ORPHAN

Besser has a bunch of wonderful cars in his personal collection these days, but the Muntz Jet will no doubt remain near the top of the list. He knows he’ll get plenty of puzzled grins every time he takes it out from folks who have never seen or heard of a Muntz. And even the “car guys” who are familiar with the Jets appreciate the racy convertible because of rarity and unique place in history.

This summer, Besser made the 700-mile trek from his home to Iola, Wis., to display the Muntz at the big Iola Car Show. As usual, it was the only Muntz in sight.

“I have other cars that I take out, but I do get it out and drive it,” he says. “It drives great. It’s got a lot of power for this age car. It doesn’t have enough brakes, but I think it drives great. It’s pretty sweet driving down the road, and of course it’s got a lift-off top, so it’s a convertible."

“Yeah, this one was hard to get, and I like it a lot, so I plan to keep it. I know how hard they are to find!”

Besser and his Muntz

Besser and his Muntz

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