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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."