1951 Muntz Jet

Starting at age 14, Frank Kurtis was immersed in California car culture. He began his career as an apprentice at Don Lee Coachbuilders in Los Angeles and eventually developed his talents into a successful business building Midgets, Sprints, and Indy cars. His Kurtis-Kraft cars became the pick of the field from local dirt bullrings to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and between racing car orders, he built Hollywood movie cars and one-off specials. In 1948, a special commission for a one-off roadster based on a wrecked ’41 Buick inspired Kurtis to design a production sports car. Frank designed the body and chassis and arranged for Studebaker to supply suspension components and their upcoming OHV V8 engine. The plan called for a reworked Champion frame, with all design and construction done by Kurtis, and Studebaker handling sales through their vast dealer network. But production delays with the Studebaker V8 jeopardized the deal, and Kurtis instead turned to Ford to supply their flathead V8. The slick and stylish body, which had elements of Kurtis’ one-off 41 Buick special, was constructed from fiberglass, steel, and aluminum. It was a handsome and capable car, but Frank Kurtis soon lost interest in the project, and he sold the rights to the design after only 15 Kurtis Sports were built.

The man who persuaded Kurtis to sell the design was Earl “Madman” Muntz of Southern California. The original showman of the used car business, Muntz pioneered the use of television ads and fostered his “Madman” persona through a series of zany TV spots and catchy advertising slogans. The Madman schtick was a good act, and his dealerships became tourist attractions. In reality, Muntz was a sharp and intelligent businessman and engineer who later found considerable success in designing and selling consumer car stereos and televisions. Muntz was known to do just about anything for self-promotion, so a flamboyant sports car with his name on the trunk was just the ticket to drive even more traffic into his showrooms.

To transform the Kurtis Sports into the Muntz Jet, Frank Kurtis stretched the chassis by 13 inches to accommodate a pair of rear seats. Cadillac’s new 331 cubic-inch OHV V8 powered most of the cars, though a few had Lincoln flathead or overhead valve V8s. Softer and more luxurious than the Kurtis Sports, the Muntz Jet boasted semi-unitary construction, bucket seats with console storage, a padded dash, and an available liquor cabinet and ice chest in the rear. It was one of the quickest cars of its day, and a fascinating precursor to the Thunderbird and Corvette. But the list price of $5,500 was enough to dampen enthusiasm, and after just 198 Jets rolled off the line, Muntz ceased production, claiming he lost as much as $1,000 per car.

This extraordinary Muntz is the second car produced and is the subject of a meticulous, nut-and-bolt restoration with little regard to cost. Undoubtedly the finest of its kind we have ever encountered, chassis number M-102 first appeared in Muntz publicity photos featuring designer Frank Kurtis and factory test driver (and 1957 Indy 500 winner) Sam Hanks. Chassis M-102 is one of the first 28 cars built by the Kurtis Kraft shop in Glendale, CA, so it has aluminum door skins and fenders rather than steel used on the later Evanston-built cars. After its time as a promo car, it was sold to a private buyer and led an uneventful early life. In 1969, the most recent owner acquired chassis M-102 from Mr. Wesley Schwebke after responding to an ad in the Chicago Tribune. At the time, he owned another Muntz and purchased M-102 for $60.00 to use it as a parts car. A few years later, a garage fire damaged his other Muntz, and he eventually decided to restore M-102 using the fire damaged car for parts as necessary. When new, these cars were somewhat crudely built, often with flamboyant and garish color schemes. The goal of this restoration was to highlight the Jet’s unique character while adding a welcome dose of sophistication and modernized performance.

The task of re-imagining the Muntz from the ground up began in earnest in the early 2000s. The owner employed chassis specialists SRIII Motorsports of New Lenox, Illinois, to thoroughly re-engineer the structure and suspension. The wealth of exquisitely engineered improvements includes air ride, power rack and pinion steering, a Moser-built Ford 8.8-inch rear end, four-wheel power disc brakes, QA1 adjustable dampers, and much more. The 331 cubic-inch Cadillac OHV engine was completely rebuilt and bored to 353ci., and dyno tests show an output of 325 horsepower and 350 ft-lbs. of torque. The engine pairs with a GM 700R4 automatic transmission that sends power through a custom driveshaft to the rear axle. Fabulous and extremely rare period-correct speed equipment includes an Edelbrock 6x2 “log” intake with six Stromberg 97s, Hildebrandt valve covers and oil filter housing, and a highly desirable W&H DuCoil distributor.

The fully restored body is finished in a stunning shade of Merlot, selected from a late model Jaguar palette. Bodywork is beautifully straight, displaying superb panel alignment with tight, consistent gaps. Contrasting the gorgeous paint color is a removable hardtop upholstered in cream to complement the interior. All of the exterior brightwork and chrome trim is superb, displaying fit and finish quality far beyond standards of the 1950s. It rides on factory steel wheels shod with wide-whitewall bias-ply tires, and original chrome Sombrero-style wheel covers with “Madman Muntz” center caps.

Inside, cream leather features on the seats, console, door cards, and dash pad, while red carpets, door top trims, and the dash tie in beautifully with the body color scheme. From the seats to the custom headliner, the quality of the upholstery work is outstanding. Fabulous details abound, including the engine-turned instrument panel, restored original Stewart-Warner gauges, console-mounted Motorola radio, color-matched Arvin heater, and the correct early-style Ford Crestliner steering wheel (unique to the Kurtis-built cars) complete with the whimsical Muntz cartoon emblem.

With its meticulous, no-expense-spared restoration, this is undoubtedly the most exceptional Muntz Jet available worldwide. It captures all the character and charm of the original design while delivering vastly improved performance, handling, and quality. This Muntz Jet is a superb piece of mid-century Americana, sure to delight its next keeper well into the future.


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