Sunday, February 9, 2014

1951 - 1954 Muntz Jet: No Two Dashes Are Made The Same

What was it about the "Madman", Earl Williams Muntz, that seared his brand on our consciousness? He was a successful businessman, of course, selling millions of dollars worth of stereos and cars at a time when millions of dollars was real money. He became the archetype of the "crazy salesman" (Crazy Eddie's in New York in the 1980's is a prime example) and apparently, flush with more cash then what he knew to do with it, he brilliantly launched his own car brand, a reliable and time-tested way to burn through huge piles of moolah (just ask Briggs Cunningham).

And so the Muntz Jet was born.

Frank Kurtis, one of the most innovative and mechanically-gifted men of his time, had built a two-seat roadster called the Kurtis Kraft Sport. It was beautiful, fast, and sold a whopping 28 units. He ended up selling the rights and tooling to Muntz for a song, and Muntz stretched the body a foot, added a backseat and dubbed it the Jet.

It was capable of 125mph even with the cool top down, and came in exciting colors like "Mars Red" and "Lime Mist".  It was a car ahead of it's time, and very expensive for the early 1950's (about 20% more than a Cadillac convertible), yet he still lost money on every one he sold. Less than 400 made it into the hands of buyers, and after a run of three short years, the Muntz Jet was no more.

Now, of course, my fascination with dash panels and gauges come into play here. These cars were basically hand-crafted, and that meant there were individual flourishes, none so apparent as the dashboard.

One of the few constants was the inclusion of the Stewart Warner "Hollywood" panel, appropriate since the Madman got his start in California. It typically held a speedometer, tachometer, and six accessory gauges.
And other than that, all bets were off. Some had dual panels; some had the panels shunted to one side with custom gauges planted in front of the driver. The originals had the Muntz emblem on them, most that you see nowadays at shows do not.

 Lets take a look.

Above is the "typical" dash layout of a Jet. It features a Stewart Warner array, with a couple of accessory switches, and a "luxurious" padded dash in front of the passengers seat. This was the layout for the majority of the cars.

There were variations, such as the set-up we see in the article posted. Here's a closer look...

It has dual panels, winged SW gauges near the driver, and extra engine gauges to the right, possibly vacuum and oil temperature. In between there looks to be a "Fuel Efficiency" gauge that were popular in the early Fifties. And about 200 knobs and warning lights.

So we know what an original single panel is supposed to look like. But not too many survived the intervening years intact. Here's one that did...

It has all Stewart Warner, period-correct gauges with curved lenses. The insert has been painted black instead of the original engine-turned finish.

Here is a mix of old and new...

The speedo is from the 1950's, the surrounding gauges are 1970's-80's. The colored jewels are vintage.

This set has straight-out new gauges (looks like the Stewart Warner "Classic Series").

And here is an interesting contrast between an original set, and a restored one in a different car (a 1949 Kurtis).

The tachometer is an original SW Electric gauge, which was a huge failure, technologically-speaking and also sales-wise. It was their answer to the Sun Company's version, and this one didn't pull it off.
You can see from this picture of an original how unwieldy it was, and what a pain in the ass it was to mount.


Now here is a restored panel, based on the same era.

Notice the sheer whiteness of the graphics and needles. Even new, original gauges from SW had more of an ivory cast. The tach gauge is set up to look like the early-fifties electric style, but I guarantee that it's either a mechanical one, or fitted with new electronics, and the difference in the graphics is also apparent. But kudos to this owner, who actually went the extra mile to have the gauges resemble originals, an effort you rarely see and should be appreciated (the hole in the top center drives my OCD brain crazy, though; just stick a 3/8" Dialco lens in there!)

And finally, here is a really interesting variation, a Muntz minus the Muntz panel. It substitutes an obscure 1953 Kaiser set, and it actually kind of works.

The original owner managed to keep the spirit of the original, but added their own custom flair. Nice job!

Muntz himself wasn't above gilding the lily, as his "Snakeskin Special from 1952 shows...

Madman Muntz. He was a nut, a failure, a genius and a huge success, sometimes all of the above within the space of a few years. But he left us a legacy of a Frank Kurtis roadster with the lipstick of a mass-marketering savant all over it, and for that I say, thanks, Earl!

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