1954 Arnolt-Bristol Convertible Review

1954 Arnolt-Bristol Convertible - Chicago was home for Arnolt's Wacky Italian-designed sports car.


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The auto world was filled with colorful characters in the 1950s in America, where sports cars were considered a wonderful new type of auto. One of the most offbeat characters -- Stanley Harold "Wacky" Arnolt -- came up with one of the most rakish sports cars and sold it from his British car showroom in downtown Chicago right off Michigan Avenue.

S.H. Arnolt's largely hand-built, race-winning car was called the Arnolt-Bristol. It had a proven British chassis and exotic-looking Italian body from the Bertone auto design outfit's new designer/aerodynamicist Franco Scaglione, who became famous for designing Alfa Romeo's wildly futuristic B.A.T. concept cars. The Arnolt-Bristol, with its sharply creased fender lines and such, resembled the B.A.T. autos and looked like nothing else before or since.

A total of 142 Arnolt-Bristols were built for America. All, except for two (or three) coupes, were open-air roadsters. The powered chassis was built in England, and the body was fitted by the prestigious Bertone design outfit in Italy. Final assembly (fitting of options, prep work and occasional paint and upholstery changes) were done in Wacky Arnolt's facility in Warsaw, Indiana -- of all places -- where he built a variety of products.

Built from approximately 1954 to 1959, there were four body styles of the Arnolt-Bristol. First, came a stripped road racer, then a slightly better-equipped Bolide racer with a cut-down windshield. Then there was a Deluxe version with side windows and a convertible top and a glove box. Then came the coupes, with pop-up headlights.

Don't fall in love with an Arnolt-Bristol unless you've got lots of extra cash laying around because median prices for the convertibles today range from $332,500 to $425.500, says the Sports Car Market price guide. The 1956 prices were $3,995 for the competition model, $4,245 for the Bolide, $4,995 for the Deluxe and $5,995 for the coupe. That's when a Corvette cost $3,149, and everybody knew what it was. The Arnolt-Bristol? Only hard-core sports car buffs had a clue.

Virtually all Arnolt Bristols had a 2.0-liter Bristol sports-racing inline six-cylinder engine with three carburetors. The Bristol engine -- originally developed by BMW -- produced 130 horsepower. It gave the car strong acceleration because the Arnolt-Bristol only weighed about 2,100 pounds. Importantly, the Arnolt-Bristol had incredibly good balance and handling, which gave it a leg up on more powerful cars at race tracks and helped make it a delight on roads.

Rare limited-production foreign sports cars such as Aston Martins and Ferraris were mostly sold on the East and West coasts. Most Chicago residents had never seen one in person, although mass-produced, affordable British sports cars such as the MG, Triumph, Austin-Healey and Jaguar were occasionally seen, although even then in mostly wealthy Chicago suburbs. There also were a few of the new 1953-55 Chevrolet Corvettes and 1955-57 Thunderbird two-seaters, although they were considered mainly stylish boulevard cruisers, not genuine sports cars.

Arnolt's S.H. Arnolt Co. set up shop in Chicago in 1950 to sell British MG, Riley and Morris Minor autos. Arnolt loved MGs, so he was drawn at the Turin auto show in Italy to Bertone's custom body MG coupe and convertible. They had MG parts and that car's distinctive grille, but looked much like a Ferrari. Bertone was down to his last lira in a post-World War II slump when Arnolt approached him at the show, attired like a Texas millionaire in cowboy hat, silk suit and boots. He told Bertone he wanted to buy the cars. Bertone was delighted because sales of the two cars would keep him in business for at least a few months. "No, you don't understand -- I want to buy 200 of these cars," Arnolt told Bertone, who nearly fainted dead away from the offer.

The nifty "Arnolt-MGs" were fast sellers when they reached Arnolt's Chicago showroom. The Arnolt-MG inspired Wacky Arnolt to create an even more stylish, faster car, which was fairly affordable. It turned out to be the Arnolt-Bristol. Arnolt liked to race cars before the Arnolt-MG project, and it was in his nature not to stop with the rather slow Arnolt-MG.

Who was this guy? He was born Stanley Harold Aranoff in 1906 to wealthy Hyde Park, Chicago, bookbinders. He took college engineering courses with the goal of working for a car company, despite the Great Depression. He changed his name to the more easily pronounced "Arnolt" in 1936 when he couldn't find an auto company job and looked around for business opportunities.

The "Wacky" nickname was mentioned in a Chicago newspaper when Arnolt came to Chicago from St. Joseph, Mich., in 1938 in a 13-foot rowboat with a Sea-Mite marine engine. Arnolt had bought rights to the engine for practically nothing, but it made him a fortune during World War II because it was used to power small U.S. Navy boats.

MG changed its car design in 1954 and that caused production of the Arnolt-MG to prematurely end, with 103 built. But Arnolt was the U.S. distributor for England's Bristol auto operation, which made beautifully engineered high-performance coupes and convertibles. So Arnolt talked with executives from Bristol's car operation about making an "Arnolt-Bristol" with Bristol components. Bristol's new 404 model wasn't selling well, so it was happy to supply Arnolt with the 404 rolling chassis.

Bertone was dismayed when he saw the Bristol chassis because the tall engine and carburetors seemingly would make it impossible to give the Arnolt-Bristol the required low-slung look. But Bertone's Scaglione managed to disguise the tall engine by giving the car a raised hood scoop and swooping front fenders that curved into a grille area with closely set headlights that flanked a small grille.

Arnolt put together an Arnolt-Bristol racing team and was one of its drivers. The car was so successful that it won its class three times at the famous 12-hour Sebring, Florida, race which drew top European cars.

About 85 Arnolt-Bristols are believed to have survived. S. H. "Wacky" Arnolt was in his 50s when he died in Chicago. His cars were a beloved sideline, compared with his other enterprises, and it's a shame he didn't live to see them become prized collector's items.

Dan Jedlicka

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Dan Jedlicka joined the Chicago Sun-Times in February 1968 as a business news reporter and was named auto editor later that year. He has reviewed more than 4,000 new vehicles for the Sun-Times--far more than any newspaper auto writer in the country. Jedlicka also reviewed vehicles for Microsoft Corp.'s MSN Autos Internet site from January, 1996, to June, 2008.

Jedlicka remained auto editor at the Sun-Times until October, 2008, and continued writing for the newspaper's AutoTimes section, which he started in 1992, until February, 2009. While continuing his auto writings at the Sun-Times, he served as assistant financial editor of that newspaper from 1970 to 1973, when he began his automotive column.

He has appeared on numerous radio and television shows, including NBC's "Today," ABC's "20/20" and "The CBS Evening News." He was a host, consultant and writer for Fox-TV Channel 32's 1991 New Car Preview show and that Chicago-based station's 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1995 Chicago Auto Show Previews.

Jedlicka's auto articles have been printed in national magazines, including Esquire and Harper's. His auto columns have been reprinted in U.S. government publications and economic textbooks and he is profiled in the "World's Greatest Auto Show" history book about the Chicago Auto Show. In late 1975, Jedlicka was host and technical advisor for three one-hour television specials, "Auto Test 76," which aired nationally on PBS and were the first nationally televised auto road test shows.

In 1995, Jedlicka was the recipient of the Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois Inc.'s Consumer Education Award, given annually to a person who has gained distinction in the field of consumer education. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award in the Media category and inducted into the Legends of Motorsports Guild at the Carquest World of wheels custom car show in Chicago in January, 2006.

Jedlicka was a member of the North American Car and Truck of the Year jury, composed of a select number of auto journalists from throughout the country, from 1995 until 2009. From 2010 to 2012, he was a member of Consumer Digest magazine's auto experts panel that gave Best Buy new vehicle recommendations.

He is a 1987 graduate of the Bob Bondurant Race Drivers School and later of the BMW "M" and Skip Barber Advanced Driving schools. He was a member of the U.S. team that participated in the 1987 1,000-mile Mille Miglia race/rally in Italy and has been a race winner at the Chicago area's Santa Fe Speedway.

Jedlicka has owned 25 classic cars, including 1950s and 1960s Ferraris and 1950s and 1960s Porsches, a 1965 Corvette, a 1967 Maserati and a 1957 Studebaker supercharged Golden Hawk. Jedlicka resides with his wife, Suzanne, in the Frank Lloyd Wright historic district of Oak Park. They have two children, James and Michele.

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