Earl Muntz was an unlikely candidate to build the first American personal car as he had not a shred of auto manufacturing experience. But a lack of personal experience never stood in Earl’s way when it came to making a fortune. Not just one fortune, mind you, but Earl made and lost several fortunes in such diverse industries as used car sales, new car sales, television manufacturing, and electronics, in addition to car manufacturing.
A Born Salesman
If there ever was a born salesman, it was Earl Muntz. He opened his first used car sales lot in his hometown of Elgin Ill. in 1934 at the age of 20. Not being of legal age, his mother had to sign all of the legal documents on his behalf. Earl headed west in 1941, opening used car lots in and around Los Angeles. In the absence of any new car production during World War II, Earl saw a golden opportunity and scoured the country for used cars of all varieties, brought them to the car-starved culture of Los Angeles and made easy sales.
When new cars became available after the end of WW II, Earl opened a Kaiser-Frazer dealership in Southern California and became the largest Kaiser-Frazer dealer in the U.S. by selling over 22,000 new cars in 1947. All told, Earl sold $72 M worth of new and used cars that year.
Following his second adventure making televisions (an aside: Earl, trying to save advertising expenses, is credited with coining the term “TV” as an abbreviation for “television”. He was so proud that the term was quickly adopted that he named his first daughter TeeVee Muntz without consulting his wife beforehand. His wife was not amused) Earl fell into the car manufacturing business by accident.
As a mover and shaker in the Southern California automobile world in 1950, he was given a ride in a two-seat sports car built by noted racecar designer and builder, Frank Kurtis. Kurtis’ car was sleek and had outstanding performance thanks to its Ford V8 power. Earl was so impressed that he bought the car, all of the tooling to make the car, and the services of Frank Kurtis for $200,000. Earl was now the manufacturer of the Muntz Road Jet.
Kurtis’ design was lengthened and a back seat was added prior to production. The first 29 cars, made in Glendale, California, had aluminum bodies and Cadillac V8 engines. Production was then shifted to Evanston, Illinois where the wheelbase was lengthened and power was switched to Lincoln V8 engines. The body was changed to steel to reduce production expenses and to improve durability.
First Personal Luxury Car
The Muntz Road Jet was the first American personal luxury car, hitting the market in 1951, two years before the Corvette and four years ahead of the Thunderbird. The Jet had a padded dash and seat belts years before any other American car. It featured a full array of Stewart-Warner gauges and had a Carson-type padded top that could be removed from the body. There was no room to store the top in the car, so it had to be left at home when taken off.
Earl Muntz added his personal touches to the Jet in the form of a center console with a radio and special armrests on either side of the rear seat. One armrest opened to reveal a small bar, while the other was an ice bucket. Options included a telephone and a wire recorder—remember this was before tape recorders.
Earl used a direct marketing approach, selling cars directly to customers without distributors or dealers. His use of Lincoln engines and many Ford parts enabled the cars to be serviced at Ford dealers.
Production Ends in 1954
The Road Jet sold for $5,500 at a time when a top-of-the-line Cadillac convertible cost $3,980. The production costs of the Road Jet were said to exceed the selling price and it is estimated that by 1954 Earl Muntz had lost $400,000 in his car-making venture. In 1954, Road Jet production ended after 394 cars were built.
By the mid 1950s, Earl had suffered terrible financial losses as a car manufacturer, the arrival of color TV had wiped out his black-and-white television empire and Kaiser-Frazer had gone out of business in 1955.
Was Earl discouraged? Probably, but it didn’t stop him from coming up with an audio tape player for cars that later became the popular 8-track tape player. He was on his way to the next fortune.