The Man: Earl Muntz

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Muntz News

We're In the Used Car News!

Filmmakers Document Life of Marketing Genius

By Jeffrey Bellant

They called him &ldquoMadman&rdquo Muntz.

But Earl Muntz, a used-car dealer known for his crazy billboards and radio ads in Southern California during the 1940s, made millions in the business while also manufacturing and selling televisions, car stereos and what is now a collector&rsquos automobile. His story is so interesting a California couple has produced and directed &ldquoMadman Muntz: An American Maverick,&rdquo a film documenting his life and career which is now hitting the film festival circuit.

Dan Bunker and Judy ver Mehr, a Sacramento couple who filmed the movie about the life of Earl Muntz, are bringing the documentary to the San Fernando Valley International Film Festival in April. Their poster for the film says it all: &ldquoSeven Wives ... Three Fortunes ... One of a Kind!&rdquo

Bunker said he first learned of Muntz about a decade ago. &ldquoI learned about him when I was working as a writer of television game shows back in the mid-1990s,&rdquo Bunker said. A man Bunker knew in high school called to see if he would be interested in coming to a car show up in Tehachapoi, Calif., where collectors of the Muntz Jet were gathering.

The Muntz Jet was an aluminum-bodied sports car designed in the early 1950s by Frank Kurtis, who later developed Indianapolis 500 race cars. Kurtis built about 20 of them, but lacked production resources. Bunker learned that a man named Earl Muntz bought the manufacturing rights, redesigned the vehicle for the public, and later produced a few hundred, which he lost money on.

Following the car show, Bunker learned a lot more about the Muntz story and saw that he had some great material for a film. &ldquoJudy and I had been thinking about making a movie for years,&rdquo Bunker said. Eventually, the couple met up with James Castoro, a businessman from Muntz&rsquos hometown of Elgin, Ill., and they had their financial backer.

While researching his life, Bunker and ver Mehr learned that Muntz was the oddest of entrepreneurs. Born in 1914, Muntz was still in his teens when he began curbstoning cars in Elgin. He dropped out of high school and later opened up his first lot at 19, according to ver Mehr. &ldquoHe was too young to sign the sales paperwork on car deals,&rdquo ver Mehr said, &ldquoso his mom had to sign them for him.&rdquo

Bob Renwick, 86, worked for Muntz in Elgin from 1935 to 1941. &ldquoI started by washing cars, five for $1,&rdquo he said. Later, he and his five brothers worked as salesmen at Muntz&rsquos lot. &ldquoEarl could sell a car to a man that didn&rsquot want a car,&rdquo Renwick said. &ldquoHe was a genius.&rdquo Renwick went on to run his own lot in Elgin called Renwick Motor Sales, from 1945 to 1988.

In 1941, Muntz traveled with his third wife &mdash he would marry and divorce seven times &mdash to his in-laws&rsquo home in Southern California. &ldquoHe found out that cars were selling for twice as much as they were in Illinois,&rdquo Bunker said. So Muntz opened up a lot in Glendale, Calif., and later another lot in Los Angeles.

Eventually, it became too expensive to transport vehicles from Illinois so Muntz closed the lots in the Midwest and stayed in Los Angeles. It was there he met up with Mike Shore, an &ldquoadvertising genius&rdquo who was charged with coming up with gimmicks to sell vehicles, ver Mehr said. &ldquoShore was the one who came up with the idea to advertise on billboards,&rdquo ver Mehr said, &ldquowhich no used-car dealers were doing at the time.

&ldquoMike Shore said that &lsquoPeople were already sitting in their downpayments,&rsquo when they saw the billboards.&rdquo His ads would state: &ldquoI wanna give &rsquoem away, but Mrs. Muntz won&rsquot let me. She&rsquos CRAZY!&rdquo Muntz also began advertising on the radio, and Shore&rsquos campaigns would have a Muntz caricature dressed in red full-body BVD underwear, wearing a hat like Napoleon, which became the Muntz icon.

Ver Mehr said Muntz&rsquos advertisements were so odd, that one local classical radio station refused to play them. &ldquoThey thought they were too unsophisticated,&rdquo she said. So Muntz and Shore came up with a commercial that played over classical music. &ldquoThey would play Brahms or Beethoven or Mozart music,&rdquo Bunker said, &ldquobut have lyrics over it talking about used-cars.&rdquo The radio station ran the ads.

Muntz knew his ads had become well-known when he was listening to a famous comedian of the time comment about the used-car ads on the radio, ver Mehr said. &ldquoHe heard Bob Hope tell a &lsquoMad Muntz&rsquo joke,&rsquo&rdquo she said. Other comedians of the day, like Red Skelton and Jack Benny, also joked about Muntz in their routines, which illustrates the penetration of the Muntz campaign.

&ldquoFrom 1942 through 1947,&rdquo Bunker said, &ldquoMuntz was the largest-volume used-car dealer in the world.&rdquo He also rubbed elbows with stars of the day, like singer Rudy Vallee, Bert Lahr (the Cowardly Lion in &ldquoThe Wizard of Oz&rdquo) and Gene Autry. By 1945, Muntz&rsquos used-car lot had actually become part of the Hollywood bus tours that also visited Grauman&rsquos Chinese Theater and the famous &ldquoHollywood&rdquo sign.

However, Muntz would make very little profit on his vehicles, and sometimes lost money. The filmmakers said one of Muntz&rsquos slogans was, &ldquoI buy &rsquoem retail, but sell &rsquoem wholesale,&rdquo and he may have lost money on some deals because of it. &ldquoThere was a story that a customer bought a car from his one lot,&rdquo ver Mehr said, &ldquoand sold it to Muntz&rsquos other store and made a profit.&rdquo Still, Muntz&rsquos son claimed that Muntz netted at least $1 million in 1947 from his business, ver Mehr said.

Later, Muntz got into the black-and-white television business, learning how to make cheap &ldquoMuntz Televisions,&rdquo the first to be sold for under $100, according to the filmmakers. Muntz&rsquos most famous contribution to television is that he reportedly was the first person to come up with the moniker &ldquoTV.&rdquo The story goes that Muntz bought skywriting planes to fly over Los Angeles advertising &ldquoMuntz Television,&rdquo but by the time the plane was in the middle of writing &ldquoTelevision,&rdquo Muntz&rsquos name would already be dissipating. So Muntz reportedly shortened the word to &ldquoTV,&rdquo and the rest is history.

The filmmakers added that Muntz&rsquos daughter, who provided archival information, including home videos of Muntz, is named Tee Vee.

Later, as color television replaced black-and-white television, Muntz went bankrupt, receiving $200,000 for his stock which once had been worth $6 million.

Muntz&rsquos third fortune was made in selling four-track car stereos, called the Muntz Stereo Pack. These were the precursors to 8-track car stereos.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Muntz was involved in the sale of everything from satellite dishes to all-aluminum homes.

When he died in 1987, he reportedly was the Los Angeles retailer of a new technological wonder &mdash the cellular phone.

Today, his Muntz Jet, which was his biggest money-loser, remains a valuable collector car, selling for as much as $70,000.

The Sarasota, Fla., Classic Car Museum recently added a Muntz Jet exhibit, and also held a viewing of &ldquoMadman Muntz: American Maverick&rdquo earlier this year.

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