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.
And here romance may well diverge from facts. The oft-repeated story dictates that, desperate to cling to what little business could remain, Carrozzeria Bertone acquired two used MG TD chassis on which to build last-gasp custom cars. The source of these two chassis is still unclear; some say that two wrecked TD’s were obtained from the local MG dealer. But facts suggest that the two chassis were sent from the factory new as bare chassis, and that the two prototype cars may actually have been commissioned by Nuffield distributors Fattori & Montani of Rome, on whose stand they were exhibited in Turin in 1952. (Bertone himself exhibited a production coupe at the 1953 Turin Auto Show.)
A variation of this genesis is revealed in an interview with Nuccio Bertone in Motor Klassik magazine* (1994, here translated):
“Your first successful project after the war was the custom-bodied MG that you joint ventured in 1952 with that American — S. H. Arnolt.
We could not live for long dependent on Italian dealers and their new business practices. So I tried to build relationships with foreign manufacturers and importers. First I bought two chassis from MG, just to see if there was a possibility to work with foreign concerns. And right away at the opening of the Turin Auto Show in 1952, I found myself standing next to an American, a typical Texan complete with cowboy hat and boots, and a blinding ring stone on his finger. This Mr. Arnolt approached me and asked: “You are Bertone, right? I want these two cars.” Gladly I would have sold both. But I was obliged to tell him that there might be a problem. My objective was to get MG to commission a couple of hundred examples.
How did you get this English-Italian project off the ground?
I drove with Mr. Arnolt to England, to convince the reluctant MG management of my idea’s merits. The English were concerned about my model competing with theirs, but Mr. Arnolt’s salesmanship convinced MG management that my production of a small series based on their chassis could in no way detract from the demand for their own product. We brought gifts for all, clocks for the secretaries, and a fantastic Gorgonzola in the trunk. But the cheese lover at MG was not there. We had to leave it in their refrigerator, even though there were many protests about the smell. Eventually and in consort with Arnolt I obtained an agreement with MG to produce a series of my models…”
Patriarch Giovanni Bertone (the “international maestro of Italian design”), his son Nuccio and the designer Giovanni Michelotti (NOT Franco Scaglione, as often stated) designed and constructed coupe and convertible bodies in the prevailing Italian style, as purely speculative demonstrations of their skills. No matter their origin and back-story, the design of these baby-Ferrari-like cars clearly caught “Wacky” Arnolt’s eye. It is impossible to know just what was discussed, but Bertone must have been stunned to realize that not only did Arnolt wish to purchase the two custom sporting MG’s he had made, but that Arnolt was prepared to give Bertone an order to build a further hundred of each!
Arnolt’s fervent belief that there was an American market for custom Italian bodywork on a familiar MG chassis pulled Bertone back from the brink of bankruptcy, and enabled him not only to survive, but to flourish. “Nuccio was saved from probable ruin by a purely experimental design which was daringly distinctive, aesthetically pure and functionally valid.”** Arnolt claimed he was given a seat on Bertone’s board and others suggest that he was a financial investor in Carrozzeria Bertone, but no confirmation of that has been found. Bertone continued as a leading automotive designer for the next 35 years, working with multiple Italian car manufacturers to design and construct production prototypes.
In December of 1952, the MG factory began supplying Bertone with rolling chassis (between 4 and 6 at a time) with the MG’s stock 54HP 1250cc engine and 4-speed transmission, with instruments and the central dash panel, but without any body parts or interior. These chassis were sent by ship from Great Britain to Genoa, and were then trucked overland from Genoa to Turin. Contemporary workshop photos show that Bertone produced the custom bodies using traditional wooden bucks to hand-form and panel-beat the aluminum (hood, trunk and doors) and steel (body) panels. To save money the designers cleverly inverted the TD’s central dash switch-panel in front of the driver, spacing the tachometer and speedometer on either side. Rather than making every switch and fitting custom, Bertone used normal Italian procedures of the time by using parts from the broader auto industry. Unfortunately that makes finding parts for Arnolts difficult – it is believed, for instance, that the small front parking lights were used by Vespa in its Ape 3-wheel delivery scooters! (One Texas restorer learned, to his horror, just how unique and hand-made these cars were – a door of his Arnolt was unrepairable and he was delighted to locate a used door in Australia, but when he fitted it he found that it was a full 6” too short!)
Bertone constructed and supplied Arnolt with complete cars with leather tuck and roll upholstery, a headliner, and door panels with pockets, roll-up windows and pull handles. It took almost six weeks for Bertone to build and weld his custom body to a TD chassis, although it was claimed in advertising that ten cars a week could be produced. When completed the Arnolt-MG cars were returned by truck to Genoa, loaded onto freighters bound for various ports (Miami, New York, San Francisco, New Orleans and Vera Cruz, Mexico), and were then shipped on to Chicago. “Wacky” was very proud of his arrangements, and to make it possible Arnolt was granted an automobile-manufacturer’s license by the state of Illinois. In Chicago assembly was finalized and extra-cost customer options were added: these could include fresh-air and heater systems, a radio, badge-bar, Borrani wire wheels, alloy engine covers, and even a Shorrock supercharger (all of which he manufactured or distributed)!
The first American showing of the two prototypes was at the Elkhart Lake races in Wisconsin in September of 1952, and the first reveal of production cars (with some subtle design-changes from the prototypes) was at the New York Auto Show in March, 1953. In January, 1953, the coupe was priced for sale at $3,585 FOB Chicago in a brochure re-printed from the company’s house-journal, Arnolt Soundings (v. 8, no. 1), but due no doubt to slow sales, prices were significantly reduced to $2,995 for the coupe and $3,145 for the convertible, by 1955. The engine, drive-train, suspension and steering were stock MG TD, so the performance of the Arnolt-MG car was advertised as sporting and very much like the open sports car – the Arnolt coupe was listed as weighing only 40# more than a stock TD, the convertible only 20# more. One might think a car with a combination of steel and aluminum bodywork would offer an advantage, but it is safe to say that these cars were raced unsuccessfully. This is no doubt because – despite the advertising claims – Arnolts actually weighed about 300 pounds more than stock TD’s, with a higher center of gravity. No doubt due to its unique character and appearance – and novelty – the Arnolt was selected as the official pace car of the Ohio Sesqui-Centennial National Sports Car Races held on August 9, 1953, at Lockbourne Air Force Base Columbus Ohio.
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 was growing faster than they could produce them. 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, 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 Arnolt offered the larger 1500cc XPEG engine as an optional extra, installed in Chicago. 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 it is reported that Arnolt did not sell the last car until 1957, or perhaps even in 1958.
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 true.
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
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