The Arnolt-MG is an international amalgam – a combination of a stock MG TD rolling chassis, and a sleek, custom, Italian body designed and hand-formed by Carrozzeria Bertone of Turin, Italy. Arnolt-MG’s are found in two configurations, coupe and convertible, both with very small back seats that (barely) qualify them as 4-seaters. They are beautiful and unusual cars, very much in the 50’s Italian design idiom, and they are fairly rare – only 67 coupes and 36 convertibles were completed of the original 200 planned. Despite these fairly low production numbers for a virtually custom automobile, S. H. Arnolt’s life and career are the stuff of legend, and it is often difficult to separate facts from hyperbole.
Arnolt-MG cars were the result of an unlikely collaboration between Chicago industrialist Stanley H. Arnolt II, and Carrozzeria Bertone. Arnolt was the quintessential American forward-thinking businessman, entrepreneur and financier: he is said to have stood a dramatic 6’2″ (but his son, Michael, assures me he was no more than 5’10”, and wore lifts in his cowboy boots to appear taller), weighed over 200 pounds, and liked to dress like a Texan, from Stetson hat to flamboyant boots. Born Stanley Harold Aranoff in 1906, he studied engineering during the Great Depression, and had every expectation of becoming a significant manufacturer of automobiles. In 1939 he began to form his empire when he purchased (or was given in lieu of salary when the company for which he worked went bankrupt) the rights to a 1,000cc 4-cylinder flathead inboard marine engine originally designed as auxiliary power for sailboats, a market that had largely disappeared with the Depression.
His acquisition of these Sea-Mite manufacturing rights was propitious, since as the war loomed the U. S. Government began ordering vast numbers of his proven power-plants for small boats and for starting aircraft engines. After the war’s end Arnolt (affectionately known as “Wacky” for having motored from St. Joseph, Michigan, to the Chicago Navy Pier in a 13-foot rowboat powered by one of his Sea-Mite engines) easily shifted production, manufacturing aluminum products for companies such as Sears Roebuck, making American Explorer campers and boat trailers, So-Lite recreational aluminum boats, Arno-Craft marine hardware, and Arno-Lite spotlights. Ads show commercial products such as the Arnolt “Club Smoker” chrome stand ashtray, as found in theater lobbies.
There can be no doubt that cars were really Arnolt’s passion, and he acquired a dealership for popular British cars such as the MG TD and Morris Minor in Chicago. (He is said to have later regretted not taking up the offer of a VW dealership, as he was convinced the cars had no future in America.) He also started Autocessories in Warsaw, Indiana, making and selling an associated line of after-market auto parts for the MG sports cars that were clearly his second love, after sports-car road racing
To understand the genesis of the Arnolt-MG, one must look into the Italian auto industry of the early 50’s, where a significant shift was underway. In earlier times, as with American luxury cars, it was common for a purchaser to express his individual tastes and driving needs by ordering a complete rolling chassis from his manufacturer of choice, and commissioning for it a custom body from an independent body-maker. In Italy, for instance, it was normal for Lancia, Fiat, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Maserati and other automobile manufacturers to supply a rolling chassis to designers and fabricators such as Touring, Bertone, Ghia, Zagato, and Vignale. These shops would design and build their distinctive “body-on-frame” with the desired style and details: 2-seater or 4, open-or closed, short body or lots of leg-room, modern aerodynamic or more traditional shape, sharp tail fins or gentle curves, exotic sports car or stately sedan, etc. These cars, hand-made and usually unique in their presentation and construction (and therefore quite costly), were stylish studies in contemporary automobile design, and the bread-and-butter of Italian custom fabricatrors.
But with steel in short supply in post-war Italy, by the early 1950’s manufacturing had evolved: the traditional separate chassis and body were phased out, replaced with more economical uni-body construction. Here the body shell, doors and roof formed the vehicle’s critical structure, with a fairly flat floor pan to which the suspension and drive-train were attached. Of necessity, this shift from hand-built to more industrial production signaled the death-knell of the genre of custom body-makers, since there was no longer a separate chassis to form the basis of a custom design. Bertone and his fellow panel-beaters found themselves to be dinosaurs in real danger of financial ruin, since these modern construction techniques wiped out their custom trade.
Arnolt-MG’s were advertised as “A family and sports car” with the “smart aero-dynamic styling” of Italian body lines. “Wherever you take it your Arnolt Convertible wins instant admiration because of its distinctive lines and luxurious appointments. In sunny weather with top down it offers the ideal way to travel. There is plenty of room for four and generous space for baggage in the rear luggage compartment.” It was clearly aimed at a discerning audience desiring attractive and sexy Italian bodywork, but who were unable to afford a custom Ferrari or Alfa Romeo, or who did not have access to a mechanic who could fix one! As such, it was like no other car available in the US. But there was growing market-competition for sleek, exotic sports cars: the Arnolt’s price was within $500 of the Jaguar XK120, which offered far more impressive performance from a DOHC 6-cylinder engine, and was capable of propelling that car to an easy 120MPH. (In 1954 alone, more than 12,000 XK120’s were sold.) Another competitor, the 1953 Porsche, cost $3,800, and although an entirely different car, also far out-handled and out-ran the Arnolt.
For reasons that are unclear, after less than six months MG ceased to supply Arnolt and Bertone with TD chassis, the last of which was delivered in May, 1953. Some have suggested that this was because MG was winding down TD production and shifting to the TF, or that “MG changed its car design in 1954…” But the TD and TF chassis are identical, and MG carried on to make some 2,000 more TD’s, and 10,000 TF’s in 1954 and 1955, so that seems an unlikely explanation or justification. And since the MGA design with an entirely different chassis did not appear until 1956, that seems like a very stretched time-line. Another suggestion is that MG simply could not afford to supply the cars to Arnolt as the demand for their cars exceeded production. This also seems unlikely, since the TF was a stop-gap car, and the factory was winding down T-series production to gear up for the more modern MGA. No matter the reason, consensus is that with MG chassis no longer available, production of the Arnolt-MG ceased after 103 cars: only 67 coupes and 36 convertibles had been assembled, of the planned 200. To stimulate sluggish sales in 1955, ads show that Arnolt offered the larger 1500cc XPEG engine as an optional extra, installed in Chicago. Perhaps due to the very Italian features that attracted Arnolt to the prototypes at the Turin auto show, the cars were slow-sellers in the American marketplace, and the various Arnolt ledgers show that the last car delivered to a buyer was coupe 312 on November 16, 1956.
According to a post on Bring A Trailer (7/21/18) by Anatoly Arutunoff “there were 3 crated bodies for sale in a warehouse in Chicago in early ’62. the security guys used them for target practice–3 or 4 bullet holes in each one. they wanted something like $350 apiece for them.” On his BAT listing of 11/27/12 he wrote slightly different details: “bill pryor and i went by a warehouse in chicago in ’63 where some arnolt coupe bodies were advertised in the classifieds. they’d been used for target practice by security; several bullet holes in each. asking price $150 each.” Since the Bertone bodies were welded to the MG chsassis in Italy it is unclear why there would be body tubs remaining in Chicago in the 60’s, and no independent confirmation of this has been found. Considering the source of these definitive staements, however, some variation is likely tru
Entirely satisfied with their international collaborative process, Arnolt and Bertone went on to successfully design and manufacture the very powerful, sporty (and pricey) Arnolt-Bristol car, a perfectly balanced sports/racing machine much sought-after in high-performance car circles, then and now. With a 6-cylinder British Bristol engine (based on a BMW design) and chassis, and bodied by Bertone, Arnolt entered his racing teams of Arnolt-Bristol cars at Sebring between 1955 and 1960, with very creditable showings. Arnolt also continued to collaborate with Bertone on unique designs for Aston-Martin and Bentley cars.
Arnolt’s enduring interest in everything automotive is typified by his 1957/8 purchase of 20 LHD Meadows FriskySports, innovative fiberglass microcars made in Wolverhampton, England, powered with 342cc Villiers 2-stroke engines. Wacky is described as picking up the builder at LaGuardia Airport in a FriskySport, zipping through traffic towards the Pierre Hotel! Apparently American gasoline was not compatible with the Meadows fuel tanks, and they leaked badly. But at least 7 LHD FriskySports survive, so presumably Arnolt sold all 20!
Arnolt died in 1963, and without his driving force, the manufacturing empire was gradually wound down. An unidentified newspaper obituary neatly sums up Arnolt’s accomplishments: “While he was an engineering, sales and organizational genius — a serious-minded businessman who built an international industrial and sales empire, he never lost his boyish enthusiasm, the flair of showmanship, and the daring to try the unknown.”
* An Interview With Nuccio Bertone
By Mike Riedner and Ulrich Bethscheider-Kieser (Originally published in German Motor Klassic magazine in April 1994 and translated from German by Peter Pleitner)
**Griff Borgeson, Motor Trend, 1969