Earl Muntz made his first fortune putting people on four wheels. Now he is trying for another by putting them on two
April 17, 1972

Could this be the famous Madman Muntz? This balding little fellow in the gold-rimmed glasses, gazing morosely through a plate-glass window at the autumn gloom and the cranes and bulldozers tearing concrete out of Sepulveda Boulevard in Van Nuys, Calif.? He folds a leg to sit on a white shoe at his desk; he scratches; he glumly lights another Marlboro. Out in the street, past the big sign that says MUNTZ MOTOR MANSIONS, the traffic is blocked into a creeping mess. "They're killing me with this construction work, killing me," he says, spinning his gold lighter. "Much more of this, we could be giving our stuff away and not enough people could reach us to carry it all out." His lament was seasonal; by spring, when his market hit its peak, the cranes and bulldozers would be gone and prospective buyers would once more flow unvexed along Sepulveda and into his parking lot. But now he fumed. On the wall behind the Madman's desk were some of the slogans that helped to make him famous 25 years ago, just after World War ]l, when autos were scarce and Muntz was one of the country's biggest used-car dealers, YOU TOO CAN BE A WEALTHY PEDESTRIAN—SELL YOUR CAR TO MUNTZ. And MEDICAL AUTHORITIES AGREE: WALKING IS GOOD FOR YOU.' SELL YOUR CAR TO Muntz. Beside a slogan that says, I buy 'em Retail-sell 'em wholesale MORE FUN THAT WAY! was the old Madman logo, a little figure wearing a Napoleon hat, with scissors and a chain of paper cutouts. In those days he used to hire airplanes to fly over Los Angeles and other cities spelling out his name in the sky. But he hasn't done that in a while now. "With this smog," he says, "who can see the sky?"

What Madman Muntz has been able to do better than almost any of his peers during the last 25 years—smog or no smog—is spot a trend. After cars he leaped onto television sets, then to automobile tape players. In each case he caught the tide just right and made a lot of money by riding it. Unfortunately, he has not always showed the same acumen about knowing when to bail out. The result has been predictable: each of his fortunes was seriously eroded because he stayed with a good thing until it turned sour—and beyond.

Now he thinks he sees another wave rolling in—sports motorcycling—and he is paddling for all his worth to catch and ride it. No question, lightweight sport cycles, as they are called, are to the Southern California what snowmobiles are to the Minnesota winter sportsman. It is now difficult to climb high enough or walk far enough into the mountains and deserts around L.A. and San Diego to escape these noisy intruders. They are the final noxious link between modern man and the wilderness. Beyond everything, they are ubiquitous. That, at least, is the way Madman Muntz sees it, and he hopes—if the L.A. street maintenance people will let him—to make fortune No. 4 off that vision by marketing his own line of motor homes and Japanese motorcycles in that old, campy, surefire way.

After his period of glory as a used-car dealer Muntz became the nation's largest individual new-car dealer, selling Kaisers and Frazers, brands of automobiles that have now disappeared and that Muntz says were pretty sorry to begin with. As an auto salesman on a grand scale, Muntz stuck to definite devices. His auto showrooms were open from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m. seven days a week. He insisted that his salesmen be dressed in the Madman's idea of a sporty image, with their shoes shined and a crease in their trousers but none in their shirtsleeves. ("A creased shirtsleeve might have been O.K. in New York in those days," says Muntz, "but in California it was not hep.") The salesman would greet the prospect at the door and swiftly deliver him to the turnover man, whose job was to get the name on the contract. Muntz says the best turnover man he ever knew was his old friend Don Adams (not the comedian), who in one year wrote 5,500 deals. A salesman received only $8 to $10 per car sold, but a salesman who didn't earn $1,000 per month knew he was in trouble. At the end of each month the two lowest-ranking salesmen for that period were automatically fired.

Muntz was still running around with movie stars then and going to nightclubs, and his name was used on the air by his friend Bob Hope as a household gag, as immediately identifiable in its time as, say, Ringo Starr or Knute Rockne in theirs. When the Kaiser-Frazer distributorship bubbled out of sight into a bog of disagreements between Muntz and Henry Kaiser, the Madman was ready to begin selling America what was already, in 1948, becoming one of its obsessions—television.

In 1947 Earl Muntz had grossed $72 million in the auto business and had begun raising money for his TV venture from such investors as Hope and Bert Lahr. He started manufacturing his own TV sets, taking parts from other manufacturers and putting them together in a method designed by Muntz man Rex Wilson. Muntz calls it a "revolutionary simplification" of the TV set. For the first time that clumsy box in the living room did not look like the instrument panel of a twin-engine plane. There were only three knobs on the Muntz set—one for channel selection, one for volume and one for picture control. Prices were sensational for the time—$199.50 for a 10-inch screen up to $299.50 for a 12-inch consolette.

Muntz poured money into advertising with jingles ("There's something about a Muntz TV" and "Cheer, cheer for old Muntz TV" and his musical trademark, the ditty "M-U-N-T-Z, that's Muntz" to the tune of Strauss' Artist's Life waltz) and commercial messages that promised a Muntz salesman at your house to demonstrate a set within an hour of your phone call. Before long Muntz was making and selling 50,000 sets per month. By 1954, in fact, Muntz TV was such a flourishing, expanding business that Muntz went bankrupt.

"The trouble with being a big dealer is you can get killed fast," Muntz, 57, says as he lights another Marlboro and peers out the window at the syrup flow of traffic in front of Muntz Motor Mansions. "You get this momentum going, all these commitments. Two or three bad weeks, you're burned. Muntz TV was doing $55 million per year. Then in 1953 General Sarnoff of RCA said everybody would have color TV by the end of the year. Our volume immediately dropped in half. When he opened his mouth, we were devastated."

Muntz TV was reorganized and the Madman sold out his stock for 75¢ a share, down from $6. He began looking around for something new and hoi. In the early 1960s he decided the blooming field would be stereo tapes and tape players for automobiles. Muntz helped to develop—some say he invented—the four-track stereo tape cartridge. Muntz Autostereo built the first 18,000 cartridge players in a plant in California and then found a Japanese manufacturer and began importing 600,000 players a year under the name Muntz Stereo-Pak. Muntz organized dealerships and signed contracts with record companies to get music for his tape library.

"With Capitol we had a guarantee to pay them $2.3 million over three years," he says. "The Beatles were 20% of Capitol's business and a good part of ours. If the Beatles had a big album, we made money. If they had a cold year, we got hurt. One year when they were in a slump we lost $300,000. But I was producing 30,000 cartridges every day. I had no competition until about 1969 when everybody and his uncles and cousins jumped in. They started righting and bidding and drove talent costs up so high nobody could do well."

Besides the competition, two other factors finally forced Muntz out of stereo tape. One was the development of the eight-track tape cartridge by Bill Lear. "I fought the eight-track concept, but Bill Lear got in there and convinced people. He won, but I still say the four-track is better." Another factor was the rising number of music bootleggers.

"Bootleggers are doing over 50% of the business in tape cartridges," Muntz says. "They save at least $1.25 in royalties on each cartridge. Many of the tapes you see in any auto stereo player are phony labels, bootlegged. Very few four-track tape cartridges are produced legally anymore." In 1970 Muntz sold his Stereo-Pak outfit and once again pondered what it was America might need that Madman Muntz could offer.

He considered and rejected video tape cartridges, and when nothing else caught his interest sufficiently, the Madman decided to hang up his Napoleon hat, pull down his billboards, surrender his tables at nightclubs and retaurants that were folding faster than he was and do something he had never thought he would do. He decided to retire.

Muntz had begun his working life as an installer of car radios in Elgin, Ill. At the age of 20 he rented a used-car lot for $5 per month, bought 27 automobiles for $330 and was in business, although his mother had to countersign his deals for another year. One of his first successes was selling a 1927 Whippet for $15. He sold the same Chrysler five times to people who couldn't make the payments. During the Depression of the 1930s, junk dealers were turning large profits in the car business by selling tires, parts and scrap metal, but Muntz kept at the occupation of selling cars that would run, and by the time he was 21 he had his own Chrysler dealership. Moving to the West Coast with his crack salesman Don Adams, Muntz worked with organizer Ed Lattner and advertising man Mike Shore. They invented the little logo figure, without Napoleon hat, with the slogan NO SEX, NO TRICKS, NO HIGH PRESSURE, but it was not until a radio ad said, "See this automotive madman immediately" that "Madman" Muntz was born.

Other than his merchandising interests and his fondness for tinkering with electrical gadgets, Muntz had also been involved in auto racing during the 1930s, owning three midget racers. Being retired at last, he now saw himself sliding slowly into a funk of boredom. "For three months I climbed the walls," he says. He continued asking himself, What Does America Want from Madman Muntz? Muntz figured he would go on the road for a while to air out his mind. He borrowed a motor home—one of those self-propelled bedroom-kitchens—from a friend, actor Wendell Niles, and drove through Northern California and out to Yosemite. On the road Muntz realized he had found the answer. What America wanted was what Muntz was riding around in.

"I fell in love with that motor home," he says. "It was better to have, cheaper and more fun, than a boat or a plane, both of which I'd owned. And I saw so many motor homes on the road, I knew there would soon be a lot more."

Typically, Muntz drove back and bought 76 motor homes of his own. He located a spot on Sepulveda, before the street began being overhauled, and opened Muntz Motor Mansions. Very quickly Madman Muntz discovered he had not, after all, found the answer, though he was at the first step. The answer to What America Really Wanted was not motor homes but motorcycles.

The way Muntz learned the true answer was that when people came in to lease his motor homes a great many of them asked for racks to be installed on the back so they could carry along their bikes. If there were so many who wanted to carry bikes aboard motor homes, the Madman reasoned, how many more must there be who had just as soon take the bikes without bothering with the motor homes? Enough, he figured, for him to fade out of the motor home business and to buy 535 motorcycles to rent.

It is obvious to anyone who has taken a look around America that there is indeed already a bike boom. Not just motorjock gangs, or kids, or racers, but vast numbers of solid Middle Americans are banging along the roads on Hondas, Yamahas and Harley-Davidsons. A guy turns 40, gets a divorce and buys a motorcycle, it happens all the time. But the boom you see today is a gentle breeze compared to the hurricane of motorcycle lust envisioned by Madman Muntz.

"Whatever happens on the West Coast happens on the East Coast later, and this motorcycle thing is really growing fast in California," says Muntz. "Almost everything in the country starts in the West and moves to the East. You can look for motorcycles all over New York in a couple of years. The big cause of the boom is the Japs"—he never calls them Japanese—"have finally come out with a motorcycle people will ride. Honda has made the industry, no doubt about it. The black-leather-jacket crowd hurt the image for a while, but whole families are getting into riding motorcycles now. It's no more dangerous than football or water skiing. I damn near lost a leg water skiing in 1952, so I know. People like the sporting aspect of motorcycles, the different clubs, races, the pure fun of just climbing on a bike and riding it someplace."

The phone rings on Muntz' desk. "Yes...? Well...hmmmm," he frowns, lighting another cigarette. "They both broke a leg...? Were they our bikes...? That's rougher than a cob, boy."

On the other end of the line is Muntz' son Jim, 31, who manages Biker's Country, a 500-acre Disneyland for cyclists run by Muntz near Thousand Oaks. Jim was named for race driver Jimmy Snyder, who was killed in a crash in the 1930s. A skin diver, former member of an underwater demolition team in the Navy, a boat racer and enthusiastic water skier, Jim Muntz and a couple of assistants rent out 126 motorcycles to crowds of 500 or more at Biker's Country. Race days, there may be 5,000 people arriving at the hilly, dusty site some 50 miles north of Los Angeles.

"When you first get a bike, you want to get your family and friends involved in it," Jim Muntz says in the small office at Biker's Country while motorcycles roar on the paths and racetracks outside. "Then you become the neighborhood's No. 1 mechanic on Saturdays. Pretty soon your neighbors buy their own bikes, and wives who want to keep their husbands join right in, and the kids learn to ride, and it's bikes under the tree at Christmas. Used to be, people said you were gutty, or even suicidal, if you rode a bike. Now old ladies ride them; everybody rides them."

A significant problem in the motorcycle rental business, though, is the insurance rate. Anyone who tends to be absentminded, for example, is liable to be heading toward a dandy wreck when he rides a motorcycle, which requires concentration, feel and an awareness of what is coming up next. Drunks on motorcycles don't last long. On the streets there is auto traffic to contend with. Many auto drivers still seem to view motorcycles as a menace to be squashed. There is a sound reason for the wearing of leather jackets and heavy denim pants by motorcycle riders. The outfit may save a few yards of skin when you are skidding on asphalt.

"Some guys can learn to ride a bike in five minutes, but I think it usually takes about a month of practice at a park like this before you ought to trust yourself out in traffic," says one of Jim Muntz' assistants. He is saying this to a visitor who nods vigorously. The visitor has just gone down a hill on a racecourse in a very showy end-over-end style while his bike lay peacefully in the dirt about three-quarters of the way up. "But it's the greatest sport there is."

The only thing Madman Muntz can think of that might delay the bike boom is the economy. "We're hurt bad out here in California," he says. "It used to be the kids had most of the spendable income, but this past summer the kids couldn't get jobs. People out here aren't paying bills like they used to. Muntz Motor Mansions won't take in as much money this year as I used to spend in a month on advertising Muntz TV."

He thinks about this for a moment and his face brightens.

"But motorcycles are a hell of a lot cheaper to buy and run than automobiles," he says, "and if you can't afford to buy a motorcycle, we'll be more than happy to rent you a freeway-legal bike for $8 a day and only 86 a mile, and you can get through traffic jams like that one out there a whole lot easier than you can in a car. In a car you could grow a beard before you got down Sepulveda."

He grins. On the wall behind him is a sign that says EVEN SANTA CLAUS BELIEVES IN MUNTZ.


Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)