ONCE UPON A TIME in the land of California in the years numbered 1940 or 50, a television or radio could not be turned on without Earl Muntz immediately appearing.|
Earl "Madman" Muntz was one of the most outrageous hucksters that America has ever seen. He was a high school dropout. He was, also, a marketing genius, a serial entrepreneur, outlandish character, self-taught engineer and tinkerer. He loved and lived to sell things. Earl Muntz made and lost three fortunes. He was one of a kind.
In 1934, when Earl Muntz was twenty years old, he opened a used car lot in Elgin, Illinois. He wasn't old enough to sign contracts so he had his mother sign all of the sales paperwork. Seven years later, he moved to California and bought thirteen right-hand drive cars that were built for the Orient, but stranded by World War II. One of the cars was a Lincoln custom built for Chiang Kai-Sheik. A Los Angeles newspaper ran a story about the cars and he was able to sell all of them in less than two weeks. Some were sold before he was able to unpack the crates. He was on his way.
During World War II, with a shortage of used cars on the west coast, he paid servicemen $50 to drive cars he bought in the midwest cross country. He was able to sell the cars in California for double what he had paid for them. Only one car disappeared in transit. It was recovered a year later and he was still able to sell it at a profit.
Earl Muntz would often drive some of the cars from Chicago to Los Angeles himself. This was before the interstate, and he had to stop in every town along Route 66, but he boasted that he could make the trip in 33 hours, faster than the train.
During the war because of gas rationing many people got rid of their cars. Earl Muntz picked them up cheap. He advertised- "Walking is good for you; sell your car to Muntz." Soon, he began appearing on radio to promote his dealership. He inundated the airwaves with his advertisements. At one time, he ran 176 one minute commercials a day on 13 radio stations.
A classical music radio station deemed his commercials "unsophisticated" and refused to sell him time. So, he made commercials with a classical music bed and Muntz jingles sung to them. The station accepted the ads.
He had skywriters etch his name in the sky.
Madman Muntz was the original "this owner is crazy, come take advantage him". His salesmanship style has been imitated countless times. He screamed. He hollered. He loudly boasted:
"I BUY THEM RETAIL AND SELL EM WHOLESALE IT'S MORE FUN THAT WAY!"
There is a story that a customer actually bought a car at one Muntz car lot and drove to another of his lots, resold it to them and made a profit. Was it true or was it a tale Earl Muntz concocted and spread for the publicity?
He would do anything for publicity. He even considered joining the Communist Party during the McCarthy era in order to get more exposure. He dressed up in red long johns and a Napoleon hat, a caricature for a crazy person with delusions of conquering the world. It was an image he dreamed up with advertising man Mike Shore to get attention.
Mike Shore, also, realized that potential customers were sitting in their downpayment as they drove around town, so he devised a billboard campaign. A cartoon character with a caracature of Muntz's face stared down from Los Angeles billboards dressed in the Madman outfit- bug eyed- with captions such as "You look terrible behind that wheel!"
Madman Muntz would advertise a car as the SPECIAL OF THE DAY. He said that the car had to be sold that day. If the car was not sold, Madman Muntz vowed to smash it to bits with a sledgehammer!
Madman Muntz sold $72 million worth of cars in 1947. He had one the largest Kaiser-Frasier dealerships and a string of used car lots. In 1947, he sold 22,000 Kaiser-Frasiers. The entire production output for the Kaiser-Frasier company was 147,000 cars for the year. He became a national celebrity. Bob Hope and Jack Benny often used his name as a punch line. Tour buses regularly stopped at his car lot. In 1943, he paid UCLA fans at the Rose Bowl to flash cards spelling his name at half time. Soldiers marching to chow at the Santa Ana camp would sing his famous jingle: "M-U-N-T-Z. That's Muntz!",
Muntz went from selling cars to selling televisions. He coined the term TV out of necessity. He had skywriting planes flying over Los Angeles spelling out Muntz Television, but by the time the plane got to the middle of television, Muntz was already disappearing. So he shortened television to TV. He even named his daughter Tee Vee. Tee Vee later went by the name of Tina and had a singing career.
He is infamous in the history of television, both for making a fortune selling them and for skimping on components in order to keep his prices low. Engineers nicknamed his electronic-design practices- "Muntzing", which means to reduce something to the absolute minimum number of parts required to make something work.
When Earl Muntz started his plans to sell TV receivers in 1946, he looked for an edge. He wanted to get the circuits simple, keep the manufacturing costs low, and use a lot of promotion.
He realized that a television set designed to receive the "far-fringe reception" of 40 or 50 miles out from the transmitter, had to have at least 3 or preferably 4 Intermediate Frequency (IF) stages with a pentode for each stage, plus a transformer, 5 capacitors, 3 resistors, and loops to hold the frequencies stable even when the signals were very weak.
Earl Muntz decided to give up the outside the big city "fringe" business to other established manufacturers. Instead, he would design his televisions for urban areas like New York City, where you could look out your window and see the station's antenna on top of the Empire State Building.
He took a trip to New York City, checked into the Warwick Hotel and ordered three television sets delivered to his room: an RCA, a Philco and a Dumont. He turned all three televisions to the same channel and began pulling tubes from each one by one. When he pulled one tube too many from a set and the picture went black, he would make a note. Then, he put all the tubes back, changed the channel to another of the four television stations operating in New York City and repeated the test.
Next, he substituted parts from one set and put them in the others and did the same thing. When he was finished, he loaded up a suitcase with the parts he needed.
Earl Muntz checked out of his room, left the chambermaid with an extra large tip and a room full of leftover TV parts and broken cabinets and headed back to Los Angeles to start his TV empire.
Muntz knew he could get his engineers to continue to design television receivers that would be very simple and inexpensive that would work fine in strong signal areas. He knew he could get away with two IF stages and his sets would not need fancy loops and tubes.
As the circuits shrank, the price shrank, and as his sales volume grew, he achieved economies of scale that made the sets even cheaper to make.
People would watch Ed Sullivan, squinting at their tiny 7-inch screens. At the end of the show, who would be there to promote his new low-priced 14-inch TV sets? Why look, it's Madman Muntz!
He would say, "You can have a TV in your home tonight. Your living room is our showroom." And, dressed in his red long johns and Napoleon hat he would claim,
"I wanna give em away, but Mrs. Muntz won't let me. She's Crazy!!"
Actually, Earl Muntz never appeared on TV or on billboards although many people think they remember seeing him. The three foot tall wacky cartoon character Madman Muntz was on all advertising. Muntz dropped his prices so fast, that his competitors accused him of being a madman. He was the first to sell a television set for less than $200. They said that his low prices were unfair competition.
Earl Muntz was a master marketer, and he knew that the bad mouthing by his competitors could be turned in his favor. He knew that his TVs were not built of cut-rate parts, and that they were carefully engineered to be at least as reliable as his competitiors' sets that cost twice as much and they performed just as well, as long as you stayed near town.
How did he keep making his televisions so inexpensive? MUNTZING. He hired very smart engineers. And, the story goes that he would wander around to an engineer's workbench and ask, "How's your new circuit coming?"
After a short discussion, Earl Muntz would say, "But you seem to be over-engineering this- I don't think you need this capacitor." He would reach out with his handy insulated nipper that he always carried in his shirt pocket, and snip out the capacitor.
Well, I'll be a monkey's uncle. The picture was still there! Then, he would study the schematic some more, and then snip a part here and snip a part there. Muntz would guess on how to simplify and cheapen the circuit. Then, usually, he would make one snip too many, and the picture or sound would stop working. He would tell the designer, "Well, I guess you have to put that last part back in," and he would walk away. That was MUNTZING- deleting all parts not essential for basic operation. Engineers and collectors still refer to his old televisions as "gutless wonders". Muntz took advantage of this story, and advertised about his "uncanny" ability to cut costs.
Earl Muntz kept after his engineers to build in only the circuits that were essential, and for those years, his TV receivers were moneymakers. All because of his MUNTZING he would brag in his ads. But really, it was just sharp clever engineering. Of course, he had to know where to start snipping. Although he was not a degreed electrical engineer, he was a pretty smart self-taught engineer. He had built his first radio when he was 8 years old and at 14 built what was probably the first car radio. He knew how to engineer what people needed at a price they could afford.
Automatic Fine Tuning, which makes manual fine-tuning unnecessary, has only become a standard feature on television sets in the last thirty years. But as early as the mid 1950s, Madman Muntz was bragging that there was no fine-tuning on his best receivers. Was he ahead of his time? No. He just left out the fine-tuning knob. His sets were all tuned at the factory. Then, if the tuning drifted on a hot day or the tuner components got old, you had to call a repairman to tweak it with a special screwdriver.
So, he had the gall to leave out an important feature, then, bragged about how simple they were to operate.
By 1949, Muntz TV was producing 5,000 sets a month. He mailed out TV knobs with a note-"Call and we'll show up with the rest of the set." He ran ads that said "Stop staring at your radio!"
In Muntz TV's peak year, 1952, he sold $55 million worth of television sets at his 72 stores.
Madman Muntz once bought a sports car designed by Bill Kurtis, who built all of the Indy car winners from 1950- 1956. It was a custom 1941 Buick. In 1949, like Victor Kiam, the electric razor pitchman, "liked it so much he bought the company." Bill Kurtis had decided he was not going to be able to make a profit with the company so he sold it to Earl Muntz for $200,000 and stayed on as a consultant. Earl Muntz renamed the car, the Muntz Jet and souped it up with Lincoln or Cadillac V-8 engines. Chrysler even supplied an early version of the Hemi for two cars produced in 1953. The Muntz Jet sold for $5,500, which was big money for a car in the 1950s.
The Muntz Jet originally had an aluminum body which proved too hard to form and was switched to steel , a convertible hard top and bucket seats. It had seatbelts which were rare in a car at that time, but they were strictly for show. Madman Muntz pitched that "if you name a car a jet you better have seatbelts."
He put in a console between the front seats with a Motorola radio in it and attached speakers to the kick panels. The radio was a 110 volt system he modified to run off the car battery. One option offered for the Muntz Jet was a pre-cassette wire recorder.
The weirdest option offered was a huge armrest dividing the back seat which was actually an ice box.
Madman Muntz mostly sold the cars to Hollywood people who tried to outdo each other with wild colors and interiors. He painted them in pink, chartreuse, heliotrope, bright lemon yellow and upholstered them in snake skin, alligator and leopard or whatever the customer's whim.
Only 394 Muntz Jets were produced between 1951 and 1954. They are a rare collector's item now and only about 130 still exist. A fully restored Muntz Jet can sell for over $75,000. The Muntz Jet has made many lists as one of the top 100 automobiles ever made.
One of Madman Muntz's advertising pitches was, "My prices are so cheap, I'm losing money on every deal, but I'll make it up in volume.�
His accountant showed him that he actually was losing $1000 on every Muntz Jet built. He almost lost his shirt trying to Muntz his way into color televisions in 1956 and the company fell $5 million in debt. His stock dropped in value from $6 million to $200,000. Unfortunately, Earl Muntz went bankrupt in 1957. Muntz TV reorganized and continued without him for a number of years. The Madman went on to other things.
Earl Muntz said one time that he never minded losing a fortune because "it was so damn much fun making another one."
Magazine articles written about him in the 50s and 60s all seemed to have the same headline- "The Madman Returns."
He soon got back into the business of selling TV and electronics with a "hi-fi and stereo" store in Los Angeles.
Car audio was the next world Muntz set out to conquer.
In the early 1960s, he started producing the Muntz Stereo-Pak, a 4-track tape system. He sold 300,000 units in 1966.
He produced Stereo-Pak cartridges and had the rights to 75,000 songs. He even sold the Stereo-Pak cartridges through his own mail order record club called "The Book of the Muntz Club."
Earl Muntz was so enthused over the Stereo-Pak that he put five units in his home including one with speakers in his swimming pool. He said, "It's amazing how well you can hear down there."
The Madman sent a buxom model, renamed for the occasion- Brenda Muntz, to Viet Nam to pass out Stereo-Paks to the GIs. The Pentagon turned down his offer to put Stereo-Paks in Jeeps.
Many big stars drove around with Muntz Stereo-Paks in their cars. Frank Sinatra had one in his Buick Riviera. James Garner's was in his Jaguar. Red Skelton had one in his Rolls Royce. And, Lawrence Welk had a Muntz Stereo-Pak in his Dodge convertible.
Bill Lear took a ride in a car with a Muntz stereo in 1963. He was so impressed that he immediately drove over to see Earl Muntz and signed a distribution deal. Lear installed Muntz players in some of his Lear Jets. He began taking the players apart and tried to find ways to improve on their design- and the 8-track was created.
At his stores, Muntz paid his employees $50 a month to buy white Ford Mustangs and adorn them with Muntz advertising. He said, "It makes them better employees. They're Muntz-A-Fied!"
During one holiday, Madman Muntz had to buy ads to tell people to stay away from his store. The store, staffed with girls dressed in skimpy Playboy-bunny like costumes, was too crowded.
Later, he was involved in projection TVs and aluminum houses, Muntz Motor Mansions, and the Muntz Motorcycle Park among other things. He always had something going on. He had even tried his hand at air conditioning in the 1950s when he bought out the Tropical Air Conditioning Company and started selling units made of glass fiber instead of metal at a price 30% less than his competitors.
The last frontier tackled by Earl Muntz before he died in 1987 was cellular phones.
He liked being called Charlie by his friends. Charlie's business philosophy was "take care of the customer first."
Mad Man Muntz was married seven times. Sometimes, he couldn't remember what his current wife's name was. He told a reporter in an interview in 1967 when asked, "It's uh Virginia? Hell, I almost can't keep em straight."
He claimed to have stayed friendly with all of his ex-wives and called their new spouses "husband in-laws".
Charlie was a raconteur. He loved to cook and have parties for his famous and not famous friends. He drank highballs and smoked Lucky Strike cigarettes. He lived in a house that was all white. Everything was white- walls, carpet, furniture, appliances, and countertops. Everything. He had two white Thunderbirds. Until his death, he drove a custom Lincoln Continental, also white, with a TV built into the dashboard. He claimed it helped him drive better.
copyright 2007 Michael Dunn