Motoring Memories: Arnolt Bristol, 1953 1960 motoring memories classic cars
1961 Arnolt-Bristol. Click image to enlarge

Review and photo by Bill Vance

The Arnolt-Bristol was a truly international car. It was conceived by an American, built on an English chassis, powered by a German designed engine, and bodied in Italy.

The Arnolt-Bristol was the brainchild of Stanley Harold “Wacky” Arnolt of Chicago. Arnolt graduated in mechanical engineering from the University of Wisconsin in the late 1920s but during the 1930s Depression found him bouncing from job to job.

His break finally came when he bought the rights to a small marine gasoline engine from the Waukesha Engine Co. of Waukesha, Wisconsin. He got it for a song, and during the Second World War his Warsaw, Indiana-based company prospered selling engines and other equipment to the armed forces.

Arnolt successfully converted his wartime enterprises to peacetime prosperity and became a millionaire. Then in the late 1940s he was smitten by the post-war English MG TC sports car that was starting to arrive in North America. He set up S.H. Arnolt, Inc. in Chicago to distribute MGs and other British Motor Corp. products in the Midwest. He soon added a variety of marques and a line of automotive accessories.

At the 1952 Turin, Italy, auto show Turin-based coachbuilder Bertone was displaying a stylish coupe and convertible mounted on an MG TD chassis. Arnolt attended and was again smitten by an MG. He was so taken with the little cars that he ordered a hundred of each on the spot. Nuccio Bertone was taken aback by this big American’s bravado but delighted to have the business for his cash-strapped company.

Bertone began building the pretty Arnolt-MGs (only approximately 100 would be made), and Arnolt began selling them. But he had even more ambitious plans. In addition to distributing British Motor Corp. products he was the U.S. distributor for high quality, high performance Bristol cars that were based on a pre-war BMW design and made by the Bristol Aeroplane Company of Bristol, England. Arnolt conceived a plan for his own Bristol-based dual purpose sports car suitable for racing and everyday use.

Arnolt contracted for the use of the Bristol 404′s sturdy chassis and overhead valve, inline six BMW-derived engine whose genesis went back to 1933. For the BMW 328 it had been upgraded with hemispherical combustion chambers and clever cross-over pushrods. Front suspension was independent via a lateral leaf spring while the rear was a torsion bar-sprung solid axle.

Arnolt had Bristol ship their 404 chassis to Bertone where they were fitted with Bertone bodies. Vertical intake runners made the BMW/Bristol engine very tall, a real challenge to the Bertone stylists which they overcame by crowning the hood and adding a hood bulge.

The Arnolt-Bristol featured swoopy fenders with sharply creased tops, and a wire-mesh rectangular grille with the headlamps tucked into each end. The rear end was totally clean right down to the inset taillamps. In spite of somewhat stubby dimensions (it was only 4,166 mm, or 164 in. long), its tight, trim appearance made the Arnold-Bristol a handsome car.

The Arnolt-Bristol was introduced late in 1953 and deliveries began in the spring of ’54. Prices were in the $4,000 to $5,000 range. It came as the spartan racing Bolide and the better appointed Deluxe (folding top, side curtains and bumpers) for regular use. Performance was excellent for a two-litre car. Road & Track (2/56) tested a performance model and reported that the 1,971-cc, 130 horsepower Bristol six could push the 991 kg (2,185 lb) roadster to 96 km/h (60 mph) in a quick 10.1 seconds; top speed was 172 km/h (107 mph). This was, said R&T, “…the best we have ever recorded for a two-litre machine…”

Not surprisingly the Arnolt-Bristol was the pride of the two-litre racing class for several years. Its old, long-stroke engine was still robust and excelled over long distances. An Arnolt-Bristol won its class in the 1955 Sebring, Florida, 12-hour race. They were second and third in class in ’56 and would go on to post many class wins, mostly in the Midwest.

Disaster struck Arnolt-Bristol at Sebring in 1957 when one of its team cars crashed, killing the driver. One of their cars finished fourth in class but the tragedy pretty well extinguished Wacky Arnolt’s enthusiasm for racing; he had already been cooling on the Arnolt-Bristol.

There would, however, be one last try at Sebring in 1960. Although the Arnolt-Bristol had been by-passed by other two-litre cars such as Porsche and Triumph, a lightweight version managed to post a class win at Sebring.

Wacky Arnolt continued to sell Arnolt-Bristols until production ceased in 1960 when Bristol discontinued the 404 model. As a specialty car, Arnolt-Bristol production was never high. Only 142 had been built of which 12 were lost in a warehouse fire. Some cars develop a legend out of all proportion to their tiny production and the Arnolt-Bristol was one of them.