The automotive world today is a huge part of the global economy. Millions are employed in the development and production of cars, while billions use automobiles on a daily basis. With such huge implementation into our daily lives, it is amazing to think that a mere 70 years ago, many automakers were still working on getting their feet on the ground. Starting a car company today—or even a car parts supplier—seems like it is almost an impossibility (ask Mr. Fisker for his opinion, or for a counter-point, Mr. Musk), and yet in the days of our grandparents, it seems a small investment and a good mechanic could net an investor their own motor to stick their name on the nose of. A case in point is provided in the storied history of the Muntz Jet, a car produced from 1951-1955 in America.
The story of the Jet is often detailed, due to the interesting nature of the man behind the car as well as its history, and yet a key fact is almost always missed. The history of the Muntz Jet to follow is going to include the story of the first mechanic that was hired by the new Muntz car company, a Mr. Bob Spar. Bob was hired by the owner of the Muntz motor company, Earl ‘Madman’ Muntz, and used the contacts developed in his employment to start his own company, B&M Racing. Below is the tragically short history—beginning, middle, and end—of the Muntz Jet, while simultaneously detailing the start of the still-existent B&M Racing company, responsible for many improvements in the automatic transmission world.
The Muntz Jet started its life with a man who was not named Muntz at all. Frank Kurtis was a well-known name in the world of racing, often being associated with Midget race cars and his Indianapolis racing efforts under the banner of his company Kurtis Kraft (and other Kurtis-named companies later in history). While Kurtis Kraft is often remembered by racers for the companies melding of aircraft manufacturing technology with automotive production—introducing tubed space-frames, Jubilee hose clamps, and the Roadkill-famous Dzus Fastener—he is not often associated with the world of road-going cars. Despite not being remembered for it, Frank Kurtis did dabble in road-cars, making a total of 17 road cars and 2 prototypes of the imaginatively named Kurtis Sports Car.
This Sports Car was in fact the first post-war American-made sports car, beating the venerated Shelby Cobra to market by 15 years. Underpinned by a combination of pre-war Buick chassis parts, with modern Ford suspension, driveline, and engine bits, the body was a hand-made job of fiberglass. This body featured Kurtis’ well-known penchant for combining both from and function, rather than the contemporary thought that one had to be sacrificed for the other. Kurtis was also well known for preferring a softer sprung suspension in both his race cars and his road cars. This made the Kurtis Sports a real cruiser, being comfortable on long journeys. To help cement it to the ground, the Buick chassis featured a then-modern Ford rear end and suspension. While originally designed for a Studebaker engine, the 19 cars built by Kurtis were offered Ford engines by the Ford company itself. Kurtis knew speed where he saw it, taking the engines and using them to set land speed records at Bonneville.
These records were set at the hands of drag racing legend Wally Parks, and the world took notice. Well, perhaps not the world, but MotorTrend certainly did, featuring it as its first ever cover car in 1949. The record setting car, which is the same as the MotorTrend car, was found by chance, and meticulously restored to better-than-new condition, as pictured above and below in green. This chance finding is made more impressive when one learns that the original 19 cars has more than likely been whittled down by attrition to around 4 or 5 surviving examples.
So few Kurtis Sports were made because Frank Kurtis very quickly got out of the road car game. He was given this opportunity by a well-known Southern California used car salesman, Earl ‘Madman’ Muntz. Muntz visited Kurtis’ shop, and noticed the custom-bodied Buick. He offered to—and proceeded to—buy the car marque, which Kurtis agreed to. For the debated price of either $70,000 (Kurtis) or $200,000 (Madman Muntz), Muntz bought the rights to the car, the tooling, and all existing unsold examples. Kurtis was left with no more physical ties to the car he created—although he stayed on for development for a short time—and Muntz was the owner of his own car company.
Mr. Madman knew how to sell cars, but he did not necessarily know how to build them. With 28 existing Kurtis bodies, ‘Madman’ Muntz needed a mechanic to finish them. He was also faced with a lack of an engine, as he did not want to use (or did not have access to) the Ford powerplants used by Kurtis. Muntz—being the businessman he was—decided to kill two birds with one stone. Looking to raise the status of his new car, Muntz chose a Cadillac powerplant, and upon doing so Waltzed into his local Cadillac dealer in Los Angeles and asked to speak to their best mechanic. Enter Bob Spar. In what was a blatant case of employee poaching, Mr. Muntz hired Bob to finish building the 28 remaining cars, installing the Cadillac engines as he went.
Bob Spar was much more than a simple Cadillac mechanic. While working the line at the dealership by day, he blasted the streets of Los Angeles by night, and if you were to think of a classic ‘Hot Rodder’—think Grease—then Mr. Spar would have fulfilled that image. Modifying his own car, he realized he was good at it, and along with his friend Mort Shuman, started modifying cars out of his garage. Mr. Spar specifically was interested in automatic transmissions, which, during a time when everyone was only modifying engines, gave him a skillset which he could market. Working out of his own garage, Bob was in the process of doing just that, however ‘Madman’ Muntz gave him the break he really needed. While Bob only worked on 28 cars before the company moved out of California, those 28 cars were bought by minor celebrities of the day. While no A-list stars bought into the Jet, smaller stars like actors Vic Damone and Clara Bow, and band leader Freddie Martin did. This gave Bob a client base, and the GM Hyrdra-matic automatic transmission the Jet used gave him a work supply. Not only was he called in to maintain the cars, he was also called in to modify the cars as power grew. His work included modifications to improve comfort, transmission life, and ability to hold power.
Bob knew what he was doing, and along with friend and business partner Mort Schuman, would go on to start B&M Racing. The name makes much more sense with this information, with Bob and Mort lending their first initials to the name. B&M would proceed to become a staple in the muscle car world, as well as holding the patents behind the only patented 4-speed automatic racing transmission in history, the B&M Hyrdro Stick. B&M also developed high stall speed racing torque converters as well as growing their operations to become the world’s largest supplier of performance shifters to OEM’s and tuners around the world.
Sadly, while Bob Spar might be the one who received the success behind the scenes from the Jet, the Madman was less fortunate. Once Muntz moved the operation to Evanston, Illinois, he started changing Frank Kurtis’ original design. Originally designed for a Studebaker engine, fitted with a Ford under Kurtis, and again redesigned for a Cadillac engine under Spar, Muntz once again changed his mind. In Illinois, a Lincoln motor (keeping with the ‘high end’ appearance Muntz was working towards) was chosen, being the fourth and final motor to sit in the originally-Buick chassis. Muntz also displayed his ‘Madman’ characteristics, extending the wheelbase first 13ins and then a further 3ins, so as to accommodate a rear seat. While resulting in what one person called “a back-seat worthy to be shot in”, the result was not as popular as Muntz would have hoped. Despite creating America’s first four-seater sports car, only 394 cars were sold under Muntz claims, with a more realistic number probably being closer to 198.
With so few made, and such a diverse history, the Muntz Jet was bound to be a piece of historical trivia. Having names behind it like that of Earl ‘Madman’ Muntz and Frank Kurtis only strengthen its appeal to those interested in automotive history. While the Jet seems to have been a sales curse—with Muntz rumored to lose $1,000 on every car sold—it did seem to attract mechanical talent. Originally developed by Frank Kurtis, who was once hailed as “America’s possible Enzo Ferrari”, the Jet also jump started the career of Bob Spar and his company B&M Racing, allowing them to help develop an aftermarket for automatic transmissions. Despite having less than 250 made, and only being produced for 5 years, the Jet made an astonishing, and often unremarked upon in Bob’s case, impact on automotive history.
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I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.