When Chrysler touts its well-performing 8.4 inch UConnect touchscreen, somewhere Earl “Madman” Muntz smiles. When drivers use UConnect and other manufacturers’ infotainment systems to play their favorite music Muntz’s smile broadens. You see it was Muntz who started the convention of measuring video screens diagonally in the early days of television. He was also an important pioneer when it came to automotive audio systems, inventing and selling the first affordable car stereo systems. Muntz could also be attributed with selling the first modern personal luxury car, or even the first American sports car (though Crosley buffs would demur). Not only did he influence the way people entertained themselves behind the wheel and at home, perhaps more importantly he influenced the way mass consumer goods, including cars, are manufactured and marketed.
Muntz was a serial entrepreneur who made and lost fortunes several times, coming up with timely ideas and riding them as long as he could. His first big success was selling used cars in southern California. Every loud, over the top television pitch for a car dealer can be traced back to the way Muntz promoted his used cars.
Billboards went up all over the region saying, “I wanna give ‘em away, but Mrs. Muntz won’t let me – SHE’S CRAZY!” and “I buy ‘em retail, sell ‘em wholesale – IT’S MORE FUN THAT WAY!”, featuring Muntz’s logo, a caricature of himself wearing a red union suit and a black Napoleon hat, and he flooded the airwaves with radio ads.
His marketing persona may have been crazy, but in reality he was crazy like a fox. In 1947, he sold $76 million worth of cars and for a while he was the largest volume used car dealer in the world.
An inveterate and flamboyant romantic, Muntz married seven times, and in between matrimonial relationships he also had a number of girlfriends, including comedienne Phyllis Diller. That seems somewhat ironic in light of the fact that all of his wives were beauties and Diller famously effected a homely comedic persona. A bit of a celebrity himself, Muntz hung out with comedians, singers and actors, in fact a number of celebrities invested in his businesses.
Born in 1914, Earl Muntz didn’t have much in the way of a formal technical education, but he was a natural tinkerer, building his first radio receiver when he was just eight years old. In 1928, at the age of 14, he built one of the first car radios. Six years later, he started his own used car lot, having his mother sign all the legal documents since he was not yet a legal adult.
Seeking greater opportunities in the Golden State, in 1941 Muntz opened up a used car lot in Glendale with a second lot in downtown LA soon to follow. He met a young advertising genius named Mike Shore and told him to come up with whatever he thought would sell cars. The billboards blanketing southern California and as many as 170 radio commercials a day made Muntz a household name in LA. With much of American industry changed over to war production, there were no new cars being made after early 1942 so used cars were in high demand, particularly on the west coast. Muntz would buy used cars in the midwest and then pay servicemen who had to report for duty on bases in California $50 each to drive the cars cross country, making it possible to sell thousands of cars that way.
A car enthusiast, Muntz loved to drive and frequently transported cars himself, taking Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles, priding himself in the fact that he could do the run in 33 hours, faster than the Santa Fe Express train. In his later years, Muntz got alot of pleasure driving his customized Lincoln Continental which featured a tv set in the dashboard.
Just like late night tv comedians today joke about commercials, guys like Bob Hope, Jack Benny and Red Skelton would tell “Madman” Muntz jokes on their radio shows. That only helped publicize Muntz’s car sales, and his car lot became a major tourist attraction, a spot on the Grey Line bus tours right along with Grauman’s Chinese and the big Hollywood sign.
With his personal interest in electronics and his business interest in advertising his used car lots, it was natural for Muntz to gravitate to television when the first commercial sets came on the market. In short time he not only would be advertising on television, he’d be advertising his own television sets. He bought a tv set from a major manufacturer, disassembled it to see how it worked and then put it back together, removing parts one at a time to make simpler circuits. At the time, major manufacturers like Zenith and RCA devoted considerable resources to getting better reception in fringe areas, designing more sophisticated horizontal and vertical hold circuits (I wonder how many of you under the age of 40 have ever had to adjust a television set’s controls?) and features like automatic gain control and fine tuning. Muntz realized that if he restricted his marketing to major urban areas where broadcast signals were strong, simpler, cheaper to build circuits would work just fine for those customers. Whereas the major manufacturers might put four IF circuits in their tv sets, Muntz TVs got by with just two. If more expensive sets used potentiometers to set tubes’ bias voltage, Muntz sets used fixed resistors. Cheaper to make, more expensive to fix, but customers seem to have been happy with the tradeoffs.
Muntz’s zeal to simplify production led to the term “Muntzing” and stories were told how even as an executive he’d carry a pair of insulated diagonal cutters in his pocket so he could start removing individual resistors and capacitors from prototype circuits his engineers were developing. He’d keep removing components until the signal would be lost and then he’d say, “I guess you have to leave that one in.”
As a result, Muntz was able to sell the first television set at a retail price below $100, selling them directly to consumers from factory owned stores to eliminate distributors’ mark ups. His $99.95 black and white tv set became one of the best selling consumer items in the United States. In addition to meeting that psychologically important price point, Muntz came up with the idea of advertising screen size measured diagonally, allowing him to cite a larger number for what was really the same size screen as competitors offered. Those competitors soon made Muntz’s math an industry standard. “Madman” ended up selling over $50 million worth of televisions in just a few years. Some said that he even coined the term “TV”, supposedly so skywriting planes he bought to promote his products could use the abbreviation. He even named a daughter Tee Vee Muntz. While the term undoubtedly predates Muntz’s use, he did popularize it, and like any good self-promoter he was happy with stories adhering to the Liberty Valance rule about legends.
Like most car guys, Muntz had dreams of making his own cars. In the late 1940s, race car builder Frank Kurtis, whose roadsters’ success at the Indy 500 made him famous, designed and built about 20 aluminum bodied two seat sports cars powered by flathead Ford V8 engines. Kurtis also built a custom Buick that Muntz greatly admired. Kurtis didn’t have the resources to put the two seater into full production, so Muntz bought the manufacturing rights for $200,000 and renamed the car the Muntz Jet.
Predating the four seat “Square Bird” Thunderbird by seven years, Muntz had the wheelbase of Kurtis’ car stretched over a foot so he could add a back seat. The flathead Ford was replaced by Cadillac’s new high compression 331 cubic inch OHV V8 that put out 160 horsepower and the interior was made more luxurious, including the installation of a bar in the rear console. The Jet was not a car for shrinking violets. Muntz offered the car in a variety of loud colors and exotic skins including ostrich, alligator and leopard could be used on the interior. Even without exotic skins, one could argue that the Jet was the first modern personal luxury car. Part of the Jet’s image was as a performance car so instrumentation included a tachometer and a fuel pressure gauge. It’s thought that the safety features that Muntz added to the car, seat belts and a padded dash, were less to sell the car as safe, than they were hints that the Jet was dangerously fast. Kurtis’ simple, slab sided styling, though, was more or less retained. That simple styling has aged well, and while it’s of its time, the Jet doesn’t look quite as dated as its contemporaries. As manufactured, the Muntz Jet is an open car with a removable Carson style steel roof. Though it allowed for open air driving, the roof was very heavy and there was no place to store it in the car once removed so if it rained when you were driving without the roof, you got wet.
After building about 2 dozen Jets in Kurtis’ former facility in Glendale, Muntz moved assembly to a factory in Evanston, Illinois and made some significant changes. The easily damaged aluminum body was replaced with steel and the wheelbase was stretched another three inches, to 116″. Perhaps for supply reasons the modern Caddy engine was replaced with Lincoln’s version of the flathead V8, and Hydramatic transmissions were sourced from GM. The steel body was welded to a fully boxed perimeter chassis. The resulting structure was strong, but heavy, about 400 lbs heavier than the cars built in Glendale. In a later interview, Muntz said, “The thing was built like a tank. Had we continued, I think we’d have lightened it. If you ever had one in a demolition derby, it’d ruin everything.”
Still, performance was pretty good for the era. Road & Track tested the Muntz Jet and reported a top speed of 108+ mph. Indy 500 winner Sam Hanks recorded a verified 128 mph on the salt flats at Bonneville in a Jet that was stock except for a belly pan that reduced drag.
While Muntz’s investment was relatively minimal, $200K for the rights and about $75,000 for the tooling, the Jet turned out to be expensive to build, with a lot of handwork needed to fit and lead-in the body panels. Labor costs were about $2,000 a car, a significant sum in the early 1950s. The records were lost so it’s not known exactly how many Jets were made but Earl Muntz later estimated the total from both Glendale and Evansville was 394. About one third of those have been identified as still existing.
As with his tv sets, Muntz didn’t use distributors or dealers but rather sold the Muntz Jet directly to customers, predating Tesla’s business model by 60 years. He advertised the Jet in upscale publications like the Wall Street Journal and had some success with celebrity customers, including Clark Gable, Clara Bow, Marilyn Monroe, Mario Lanza and Gloria DeHaven. While he sold every one he could make, in a *David Brown-like manner, Muntz lost about $1,000 on every Jet he sold, about what Ford lost on every Continental Mark II they built. Ford Motor Company, however, could afford those losses. A serial entrepreneur like Muntz couldn’t.
“They cost $6,500 apiece to build,” Muntz told an interviewer, “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.”
“Today the labor in that s.o.b. would run 20 grand! I lost $400,000 on that project before we closed it down in 1954,” Muntz said.
Not only did Muntz lose money on his car venture, by the mid 1950s with color television about to hit the market and with major television set manufacturers selling more expensive console models, sales of the inexpensive black and white Muntz sets plunged. Once worth millions, Muntz’s stock in his television company was sold for just $200,000.
Ever the tinkerer, through his connection to the radio industry, Muntz had become aware of the Fidelipac 3-track recording tape cartridges used by radio stations for commercials and jingles. The developers of Fidelipac had figured out a way to pull tape off the outside of a spool and then feed it back into the center of the spool, creating an endless loop. You couldn’t reverse and fast forward was iffy, but Muntz could put an entire Long Playing 33 RPM album on one cartridge. Adapting the design and adding a fourth track so it could play in stereo, in 1962 Muntz opened up the Muntz Stereo factory in Van Nuys, California, he made some licensing deals with record companies and started selling Stereo Pak prerecorded cartridges and players. In time Muntz licensed others to make 4 track players for both home and car applications. Stockholders in Muntz Stereo included Bill Cosby, Jerry Colonna, Sammy Davis, Jr., Robert Culp, Joey Bishop, Frank Sinatra and Rudy Vallee.
The Stereo Pak was a huge hit. Customers lined up for blocks outside the Muntz factory store to get players installed in their cars. While today it’s cool to snark about eight track players in TransAms driven by guys with mullets wearing wifebeaters, in an era of $5,500 audiophile branded factory installed car stereo systems that indeed rival some very good home audio systems, it’s hard to imagine the impact tape cartridge players for cars had. For the first time the masses could have more than just an AM radio playing through one tinny sounding small speaker in the middle of the dashboard (musical trivia: Barry Gordy and the other producers at Motown’s Hitsville USA studio did their final mixes using a cheap car speaker as the monitor because that’s the way most people would end up hearing the music – oh and those late 1950s and early 1960s AM car radios used pretty sophisticated tube circuits and actually had good audio quality, even if they did take a mile or two to warm up and were played through crappy paper cone drivers).
It wasn’t just the sound quality. Perhaps even more important was the use of portable media – you could now play your choice of music in your car and not just what some disc jockey or Top 40 radio station program director chose. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but soon after tape cartridge players for cars started proliferating, so did so-called “freeform”, playlist-free FM radio stations. In addition to reflecting what was going on in the music industry in the 1960s, “underground FM” stations playing a broader variety of music, including longer cuts and extended jams may also have been the radio industry’s response to what Muntz had wrought.
Muntz’s invention of the Stereo Pak 4 track cartridge and player was a landmark event in what we call in-car infotainment today. Before then the only choice you had to play music in your car was either the radio or the completely inadequate Highway HiFi vinyl record players that offered limited content and skipped badly when going over bumps. While some automakers did offer stereo on vehicles equipped with AM-FM radios, the only place you’d find them would be in expensive Cadillacs and Lincolns. With the Stereo Pak 4 track players, for the first time drivers could have stereo audio in their cars, playing music of their choice, at an affordable price.
Then Muntz made the mistake of selling 4 track players to Bill Lear, for installation in Lear jets. Lear, another inveterate tinkerer, realized there were shortcomings in the design of the Stereo Pak system and he put engineer Ralph Miller to the task of improving it. Like all tape players, Stereo Pak cartridges use a capstan drive to move the tape. The tape is pinched between the rotating capstan and a rubber pinch roller. In Muntz’s design, the pinch roller flips up into an opening in the cartridge.
Lear realized that putting the pinch roller inside the cartridge meant making a simpler player mechanism, reducing the cost of building them. Lear also simplified the cartridge, eliminating some components, making the mechanical part of the cartridges less expensive to make than Stereo Pak cartridges. Also, by then the Phillips corporation had already introduced the Compact Cassette tape format, which used 1/8″ wide tape, compared to the 1/4″ tape used by Muntz.
With Phillips and Sony proving that tape tracks could be even narrower, Lear realized that going to eight tracks meant he could put twice as much music on the same amount of tape as Muntz and still get audio quality that consumers were accept. Eight track players and cartridges were simply cheaper to manufacture than comparable four track components. They didn’t sound as good as four track players, and the tape cartridges weren’t as reliable. There is a reason why eight track cartridges have a reputation for self-destructing, but for the most part they worked well enough for consumers to embrace them. Also, Lear made a deal with Ford to offer 8 track players as factory equipment in 1965, starting with the 1966 model year. For a consummate salesman, that was one sales opportunity that Earl Muntz missed. In a very short time 8 track cartridges took over in the marketplace. Muntz Stereo was flooded with the return of hundreds of thousands of unsold prerecorded tapes.
Soon Stereo Paks were forgotten. Muntz tried to market variations, including miniature cartridges under the Playtape brand, and even tried to create a miniaturized player that incorporated a preamp in the tape head, which sort of anticipated the Sony Walkman, but eventually he gave up on tape cartridges and moved on to other things. In time, of course, Mr. Dolby made high fidelity Compact Cassettes possible and they in turn replaced 8 track cartridges, digital music came along with Compact Digital Discs which in turn replaced the Phillips cassettes and now our car stereos play music we store on a variety of solid state memory devices. I think Earl Muntz would appreciate a car stereo with no moving parts, though he’d probably say that today’s infotainment systems are way more complex than they need to be.
Always good at spotting the next trend, Muntz went on to be among the first people to market satellite dishes, home video recorders and big screen tvs. Some of his ventures were more successful than others, but into his 70s, Earl Muntz kept finding new things to sell. By the time of his death in 1987 he had become the biggest retailer in southern California of a new device called the cellular phone. Muntz Stereo, in Ventura, California still sells cellphones, car stereos and burglar alarms.
The 1950 Muntz Jet pictured here was photographed at the 2013 Concours of America at St. John’s. It’s owned by David and Katherine Hans. From its concours level quality, you’d never guess that David Hans rescued it from a Chicago area junkyard. It’s the second Jet that Muntz made, so it came out of the California facility, has an aluminum body and is powered by a Cadillac V8. It has the additional provenance of having been featured in a number of publicity photos for the Muntz car company, posed with Earl Muntz. If the Muntz Jet strikes your fancy, they’re not that expensive to buy. They come up fairly regularly at auction and it looks like a nice one will cost you $60,000 – $75,000, which doesn’t seem like a huge amount of money for a fairly rare and historically interesting car.
*The DB in Aston Martin model names comes from David Brown, who owned the company in the 1950s and 1960s. When a friend once asked him if he would sell him an Aston “at cost”, Brown reportedly told his friend, “but then I would have to charge you more than the retail price.”
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS