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Ex-Orchestra leader Freddy Martin, original Joe Bailon customized 1952 Muntz Jet Convertible Chassis no. 52M–246

Sold for US$100,000
Lot 296
Ex-Orchestra leader Freddy Martin, original Joe Bailon customized, 1952 Muntz Jet Convertible
Chassis no. 52M–246

Ex-Orchestra leader Freddy Martin, original Joe Bailon customized
1952 Muntz Jet Convertible
Chassis no. 52M–246

There is no more colorful figure in America’s postwar automobile history than Earl “Mad Man” Muntz. Earl Muntz was an American original. So was the automobile that bore his name.

Earl Muntz was a used car salesman in Illinois. In the late Thirties he packed his bags and headed to Southern California where, in the war years and their aftermath, he discovered he could buy used cars back home in the Midwest, haul them to California and make a pretty good living re-selling them in the California car culture. He jumped on Henry Kaiser’s postwar bandwagon and became a Kaiser-Frazer dealer. Reputedly Earl Muntz’s Southern California dealerships sold 22,000 Kaiser-Frazers in 1947, one-seventh of the company’s total output.

An advertising campaign created by Mike Shore introduced Earl “Mad Man” Muntz, dressed up like Napoleon and shouting “I want to give them away, but Mrs. Muntz won’t let me … She’s CRAAAZY! … I buy ‘em retail, sell ‘em wholesale – It’s more fun that way.” Not surprisingly, over the years there were a total of seven Mrs. Muntzes. Neither is it surprising that Earl eventually went broke selling cars.

He made another fortune selling simple, low cost TVs of his own design and is credited with inventing the abbreviation “TV”; he even named his daughter Tee Vee. He made another one when he invented the stereo 4-track tape player that was the basis of Bill Lear’s 8-track.

In 1950 Earl Muntz bought Indy car builder Frank Kurtis’s design, and all the tooling, for a 2-seat sports car and renamed it the Muntz Road Jet. Muntz stretched the Kurtis “sports car” 13 inches to add room for a back seat. The styling was simple, but streamlined. The chassis was advanced for its time with a front subframe supporting the independent front suspension and engine joined to a rear subframe by structural sheet metal rocker panels in a semi-unit body structure. “Mad Man”, with an unerring eye for exposure, made sure the Muntz Jets were visible, choosing bright paint hues and flashy contrasting interiors under the removable Carson-style padded hardtop.

The first Muntz Jets were powered by overhead valve Cadillac engines but GM soon declined to supply them and when Muntz transferred production from Glendale, California to Evanston, Illinois he secured a supply of Lincoln V-8 engines and Hydramatic transmissions from Ford. Most were flathead Lincolns, but the final cars, with a wheelbase stretched three more inches for more back seat room, were powered by 205 horsepower overhead valve Lincoln V-8s, giving the last of the Muntz Jets honest 100+ mph performance.

The Muntz Jets were, like their sponsor, nothing if not flamboyant. In addition to the bright colors Muntz touted fantastic options – most of them never seen in one of the cars – like a wire-recorder in the radio and a cooled liquor cabinet in the compartments under the back seat armrests. Advanced features in the Jets did, however, include a console between the front seats and seat belts. “Mad Man” felt that any car called a “Jet” had to have seat belts, although they were attached to the seat frames, not the floors, and were more show than go.

Estimates of how many Muntz Jets were actually produced are as wild as Muntz himself, presumably reflecting his bravado of claims he made of sales, a best guess being anywhere from 200 to 400 cars! One customer was Freddy Martin, renowned tenor saxophonist and famed orchestra leader who pioneered the Tenor Sax Band style of the 1930s. Martin enjoyed a career that spanned more than fifty years working with and alongside many of the luminaries of his day. Christened ‘Mr. Silvertone’ by Saxophonist Johnny Hodges, through the Forties he became ‘Mr. Silver Screen’ as his band featured on a number of Hollywood movies including - ‘Seven Day’s Leave’ ‘Stage Door Canteen’ and ‘Melody Time’. Later he would be involved in all manner of projects, he was for example the Musical director when Elvis Presley first played Vegas and his orchestra became the house band at the Los Angeles Coconut Grove in 1969. He was also a noted car ‘nut’.

In the Fifties, Martin was at the height of his fame, he even had his own TV show, and in the same way that he gave his own unique style to music and was known to have been a fan of the custom car movement. It’s not at all surprising that one of Mad Muntz’s Jets would have appealed to him in the first place, and he bought this car new in 1952.

The pace of progress in the early Fifties was swift and it wasn’t long before Freddy felt that the Muntz was getting left behind on the road and needed to ‘step it up a little’ – in music parlance. Martin’s drummer admitted some mechanical experience and at first he was given the task of adding some ‘zing’ to its performance, but it wasn’t long before Martin turned it over to San Francisco customizer Joe Bailon for a complete reworking.

By this stage Bailon was already known for his customizing skills, most notable his 1951 Custom ‘Miss Elegance’ but his true fame came just a few years later when he mixed up his ‘Candy Apple Red’ paint color for the first time. The story goes that one night on the road Joe became entranced by the color of the glowing tail light on the car ahead of him which set him about a quest to create that color, it’s said that ‘he threw some gold powder on the bench, mixed it with Sherwin-Williams extra-brilliant maroon and clear lacquer and there it was at last’. Such colors and six inch deep paint jobs became his trade mark. He would later become a charter member of the National Roadster Show Hall of Fame.

Bailon completed the transformation of Martin’s Muntz Jet to the style you see today, aesthetically this included the adding of a grille, airscoop and continental kit. The front end was radically re-worked, Martin felt that the car looked ‘snub-nosed’ so Bailon cut away the sheet metal to let in a grille, the hood itself was opened with a scoop at its front and the fenders were extended forward with headlights ‘frenched’ a la Delahayes and Talbot-Lagos of the Thirties. At the rear, the fenders were extended and finished with Mercury style tail lights, they were joined by a Mercury-type bumper on which sat the Continental covered spare tire. While under the hood a 275hp V8 Cadillac motor hopped up performance. Starkly repainted in white with a black top and trimmed from end to end with brilliant chrome brightwork including wire wheels. It’s not surprising that the finished car caught the eyes of two writers for MOTOR Life magazine while on their way to another job bustling through the busy Hollywood traffic one morning. Giving chase they flagged the car down and were able to write a completely different story entitled ‘a correspondence Custom’, referring to the fact that Martin’s busy schedule had only allowed for him to write and call Bailon during the revision - in fact they were able to photograph it before Martin had even seen the car himself!

Bailon is said to recall that Martin liked the finished article, but used it very little. Its life after Martin isn’t known exactly until it surfaced in pretty much derelict condition in Oregon in the late Nineties. Frank Opalka and Lou Natenshon of Highland Park, Illinois acquired the car and oversaw a thoroughly authentic restoration of the car with an onus on replicating rather than improving Bailon’s handywork – by the car’s grille evidence of the metal snips he used are still present for example. The Cadillac motor was completely rebuilt and detailed as was the suspension, the underside of the car soundly weatherproofed and chrome were appropriate restored or replaced. The interior, which seems to have been predominantly stock Muntz was similarly restored, replicated or in the case of detail dash features spares were sourced from meets such as Hershey. A full article charting the restoration by David LaChance appeared in Hemmings Classic Car magazine in December 2006, during which La Chance made contact with Bailon who vividly recalled rebuilding the car for Martin, it makes fascinating reading and can be viewed online here. The car made its post-restoration debut at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in 2006. Last year the car was shown and toured at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

With a few hundred miles on the odometer post restoration this unique automobile presents beautifully today. Standing as a great testament to three unique men their fields, Muntz, Martin and Bailon the car will always be a show stopper and talking point wherever it goes, even at among other Muntz’s for which there is a registry and gather biennially.

On file are a selection of articles relating to these three men as well as a hard copy of the Hemmings article.

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