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MORE THAN 50 years before the TV show “Mad Men” sought to portray advertising extremes, an entrepreneur known as Madman Muntz promoted everything from cars to TVs to home videos to cell phones. Earl William Muntz, 1914-1987, adopted the name Madman—with antics to suit. Actually, he was an astute businessman and innovative self-taught engineer, promoting the concept that less can indeed be more.
Muntz began his madness early in his hometown, Elgin, Illinois. He opened a used car lot in 1934—at age 20. (His mother had to sign the car-sale paperwork because he was under age.)
Muntz discovered that California had a better used-car market, so he moved there in 1940. He opened a car lot in Glendale, part of the evolving Los Angeles sprawl, and soon another lot in Los Angeles itself.
Early on, he used his skills to heighten entrepreneurial excitement. For instance, he claimed his advertised “Daily Special” would get demolished by sledgehammer if the car hadn’t sold by dusk. (No record exists of his actually wielding the sledgehammer….)
Muntz had been building television sets since 1946. He began selling them in 1947 with features that ensured success, at least initially.
An appropriate parable here about motor racing great Colin Chapman: In developing his race cars, Chapman was said to remove components, one by one, until the car broke. Then he’d put that last component back—confident that he’d determined the minimalist best.
The television receivers developed by Muntz predated this idea with a process that became known as “Muntzing.” Muntz would snip components out of his engineers’ test rigs until the picture or sound went away—then he’d say “Well, I guess you have to put that last part back in.”
Muntz’s TV sets were the first to retail in the U.S. for less than $100 (figure about $900 in current dollars). Their simplified electronics gave poor reception in outlying areas, but worked fine in cities where signal strength was strong. No matter; this was where the customers lived.
Muntz invented the telescopic indoor antenna, again focusing on city dwellers with TV stations nearby. He also devised the marketing scheme of advertising screen size measured diagonally, not width—thus exaggerating matters by √2 or approximately 1.4 times.
Muntz lived large in other ways as well. He married seven times, having ex-wives become friends and socialize with each other. Two children were named James and Tee Vee, the daughter later known as Teena or simply Tee.
Indeed, Muntz was the first to use the term “TV” to describe a television receiver. There’s an entertaining example of his TV advertising at http://goo.gl/JHhF0T. Those of a certain age are likely to remember the jingle.
In 1951, Muntz got into the new-car business by purchasing rights to Indy car builder Frank Kurtis’s designs. [A kind reader corrected my original “Curtis.”] The Muntz Jet was a flamboyant four-seater with features such as a backseat wet bar.
Perhaps 394 Muntz Jets were built between 1951 and 1954. Later, he claimed he lost around $1000 on each sale.
As the TV business matured—and his Muntz Jet fizzled—Muntz turned to car stereo. He invented a four-track tape cartridge and player, the Muntz Stereo-Pak, and marketed it through ads invariably populated with foxy young ladies.
Muntz’s four-track had better fidelity, but Bill Lear’s later eight-track was less expensive—and deemed good enough.
In the mid-1970s, Muntz came up with the idea of buying 15-in. Sony cathode ray tubes directly from Japan, fitting a special lens and reflecting mirror, thus giving large-screen projection. Home video!
By 1977, projection TVs were a multi-million-dollar business, only part of which was Muntz’s. In the early 1980s, he got caught up in the format game and guessed wrong with Compact Video Cassette.
Remember CVC? Neither do I.
In the mid 1980s, Muntz was the first retailer to offer Hitachi cell phones for less than $1000. Earl Madman Muntz was the leading retailer of cell phones in Los Angeles when he died of cancer in 1987.
Madman in all the best of ways. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2014
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