Veteran to Classic - Arnolt-Bristol

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Wacky-Bristol

The Arnolt-Bristol was the brainchild of a shrewd American entrepreneur known as Stanley Harold Arnolt, or ‘Wacky’ as he preferred to be called. In keeping with the great American ideal ‘Wacky’ was a self made man. He had a peculiarly perceptive insight into the trends and market demands of the future, and was able to make his fortune by anticipating the industrial demands that the second world war would cause.

He left university in 1930 with a degree in science, and after a series of short term jobs he joined the Waukesha Engine Company. The main product of the company was a 1.1 litre four cylinder flat-head marine engine. However the company went bust, and Arnolt managed to gain the manufacturing rights for a very small sum of money.

With the advent of the war in 1939 Arnolt hastened to Washington to negotiate a deal on the supply of his engine. He believed that America would eventually join the war, and consequently there would be a huge demand for a suitable marine engine with which to power the small craft of the US navy. He returned to his new home in Warsaw with a considerable contract.

By the end of the war Arnolt had acquired a large fortune, and he was soon able to fulfil his long standing ambition of starting his own make of car. In December of 1950 he established S.H.Arnolt Incorporated, with show rooms at 155 East Street, Chicago. From here he concentrated on the sales and distribution of foreign cars. Most of the cars were sporting or luxurious and included MG, Aston Martin, Bentley and Bristol, but he also purchased one thousand Morris Minors and was appointed distributor of the British Motor Corporation for North West America.

In 1952 he visited Italy and met Bertone, the head of the Italian coach building company. The Bertone firm was in dire straits financially, but Arnolt was able to do a deal with them. He became vice-president, and his financial investment revitalised Bertone. One product of this investment was that Bertone made bodies for the MG Midget and these were sold in Chicago as the Arnolt MG. They were the cheapest Italian coach-built cars available. In 1953 Arnolt became Bertone agent for North America and special bodies were fitted to Aston Martins and Bentleys.

In April of that year he met James Watt, the sales manager of the Bristol Aeroplane company, at the Motor Show in New York where Bristol had a stand. They discussed the Bristol 404 that was to be launched in London that autumn, and Arnolt stated that at £6,750 the car would be too expensive for the American market. He proposed building a sports car that used a Bristol engine and chassis, but with Bertone bodywork, and marketing it for under $4,500. It is said that a deal was struck even before Mr Watt had received permission from Mr George White, managing director of the cars division. This is not unlikely since it has been said that Mr Watt was an expansive man in more ways than one; he was physically huge, but was also inclined to allow himself considerable freedom of speech. That he was so sure that White would agree was daring to say the least. At first Bristol Cars were loathe to agree, partly because of their unfortunate experiences with foreign coachbuilders in the past. Bristol Cars were, and still are, exceptionally quality conscious, and cars at Filton are built to more exacting standards than anywhere else in the world. With the first models, after the war, Bristol had allowed one or two chassis to go abroad to Touring of Milan, and other coachbuilders. Some of the cars were sold in England and bore the Bristol name. Bristol were obliged to put right many of the problems that resulted from poor quality work, and were understandably hesitant when Arnolt approached them with his idea. However Arnolt was a very persuasive man and the one attraction of the idea for Bristol was that it was relatively easy to supply a chassis and engine rather than to manufacture cars in addition to the 404 and 405. George White eventually agreed, and in April Watt headed for Turin to discuss the design with Bertone. In May Arnolt came to Filton, and an official contract was signed. By the end of May the first prototype had left for Italy and was back several months later for testing. The first model, the most spartan of those produced, was called the Bolide. It was shown at the Bristol stand of the Earls Court Motor Show in the autumn of 1953, and would be sold in Chicago for a mere $3,995. From conception to realisation it had taken approximately six months for the Arnolt-Bristol to take shape.

Production figures for the Arnolt-Bristol are something it is difficult to be precise about, but the 142 cars that it has been assumed to have been made is far from being an accurate figure, says Bristol managing director Anthony Crook. Bristol have a record of all the chassis that it sent out, and although they are unwilling to disclose that figure, it is less than 100. The mistake in calculating the number of cars produced seems to have been in assuming that the chassis numbers ran in a continuum with the number of cars actually sent out. Although the chassis numbers run from 3000 to 3141, there are gaps in this progression where no cars were sent out, or where they were allocated to other cars on the production line at Filton.

Considering the relatively small number of cars that were produced, it is a tribute in itself that several contemporary car magazines chose to review the Arnolt-Bristol. There were two in depth reviews: one was called “Driving around with Walt Woron”, and the other was a review by Griff Borgeson in Sports Car Illustrated. Both articles offered highly amusing accounts of how the testers drove the cars, and both praised nearly every aspect of the Arnolt-Bristol. The handling was particularly praiseworthy as a result of the well thought suspension. Front wheels were independantly suspended with wishbones at the top and a transverse spring at the bottom. Torsion bars were used at the rear, running fore and aft, with a triangular stabilising bracket that anchored the final drive housing to the frame, and located the rear axle. Double acting telescopic shocks were fitted all round, with two at the front and four at the rear. There was also a fabric sling at the rear in order to prevent excess axle travel during rebound.

The rigid chassis was built from box section steel of 6.5 inches depth. The two longitudinal pieces were linked by three cross sections. Welded in sheet steel the wheel wells gave the chassis extra rigidity. In addition the bodywork structure was actually welded to the chassis, and the result of this emphasis on stiffness and strength was a car that handled well but that was also safe and cheap to repair. Sports Car Illustrated reported; “you can haybale an A-B and pay for the damage without too much strain. For one reason or another two of these cars have been rolled in west coast races. They came to rest on the high points of their fenders and the repair cost, including the paint, ran between $150 and $175.”

They were similarly impressed with the standard of the bodywork, which was excellent in terms of both build quality and design. The tester was dissappointed in his search for body putty and lead, and found nothing but paint and well formed metal.” The Arnolt body was a fine piece of craftsmanship, and the fact that the razor edged wing tips were formed by skillful sheet metal work alone says alot for the quality of the Bertone product.

The styling was also in keeping with Italian standards of excellence in this field. The Arnolt is probably more eye catching than its cousin the Bristol 404, but each car perfectly represents the traditional qualities of design of their respective countries of origin. Like the 404 the Arnolt was designed as a whole and not in parts placed incongruously next to each other. Each line was counterbalanced or echoed by another. The shape of the radiator intake was repeated in the airscoop in the bonnet, and balanced by the curve at the top of the windscreen. The air outlet behind the front wheel formed a balance with the front wheel arch. The front of the car was designed with the rear in mind, and vice versa, and the curve from front to rear and from side to side was unashamedly feminine. It’s a shame that the car only went to America, but they seemed to be equally appreciative: “No matter from what angle you view the Arnolt-Bristol it has beauty, harmony and integrity of line.”

Although the Arnolt did not look traditionally Bristol it nevertheless complied with Bristol philosophy in one important respect: that aerodynamic form leads to beauty, and a beautiful shape is aerodynamic. The Arnolt looked as though it meant to slice effortlessly through the air. The overall shape and inconsiderable windscreen adequately protected the driver and passenger from the usually rapid flow of air.

Occupants were also adequately cared for in terms of comfort. The bucket seats gave excellent lateral support, and meant that one was willing to use the car’s handling capabilities to the full. There was ample leg room with five different length adjustments for the seats, and the gearstick and handbrake were well positioned. The gearstick was the long type fitted to the 403, and was slightly inappropriate for such a sporting car, but it was possible to order a remote stick from Arnolt. Instrumentation comprised of a speedometer, a tachometer, oil and water temperature,oil pressure and fuel gauges, and an ammeter.

The steering was by rack and pinion, with three turns from lock to lock. It was quick and accurate. The gearbox was the BW CR5 as used on the type 403, and the braking system was also from the 403. The American road testers praised the gearbox, but both commented on the low ratio of the first gear. This meant that time was lost in acceleration from standstill, but that it was useable as a gear whilst on the move, and especially whilst racing. Of course the fact that there was no syncromesh on first gear necessitated double de-clutching. The gearbox was smooth and silent but could not be hurried. The brakes were also good, although they were not of the latest specification. They did not suffer from fade and were adequate for competition purposes.

The six cylinder, two litre Bristol engine was known as the BS1/2, fitted with a sporty camshaft, and it had a compression ratio of 9:1. It was said to have produced 130 bhp at 5,500 rpm, but this is yet another figure that Mr Anthony Crook says is not wholly accurate. Bristol would test the power of the engine with most of the engine extras, for example the fan, actually in place. The horsepower for one car fitted with a Bristol 403 exhaust was 101.6 bhp at 5,500 rpm. However an engine fitted to another car, tested without fan and dynamo, and fitted with a twin exhaust similar to that of an early Cooper, gave out 127.3 bhp at 5,500 rpm. The engines breathed through three Solex carburettors. Typically for a Bristol engine the low down power was not significant, and the engine and gearbox had to be worked hard to fully extract the very impressive performance of the car. It is as likely as the sun rising tomorrow that if you give the Americans an agile car with a small but lively engine, they will suggest shoe horning a Chevy or Ford V8 into it, just to see what happens. Walt Woron suggested just such an operation for the Arnolt, and in fact four owners specified a Chevrolet engine. It would be interesting to know what the result was: although, as Mr Woron suggests, it would give one more acceleration out of a turn, I suspect that the turn might not be so easy in the first place.

The handling of the Arnolt was universally praised as being predictable and controllable. The fore and aft weight distribution was very nearly equal, the tread was wide, and the wheelbase was short. The Arnolt’s normal cornering behaviour at speed was steady and neutral, but its controllability under adverse conditions is thus illustrated by Mr Woron: “I forced it into a turn, cramped the wheel hard over and hit the brakes to really make it brake loose. Then off the brake, full on the throttle and I was back into a controlled drift.”

The Arnolt’s acceleration was tested in an equally exuberant manner by Gruff Borgeson for Sports Car Illustrated. “I reved the engine to 5000 with clutch in and shift lever in first cog, popped the clutch and stood on the throttle . . . The tach needle crept round to 3000. Suddenly the racing cam effect came in. Within two seconds the needle was swinging past 5000, the speedometer read 40 and the valve gear was screaming its tension.

“With foot hard on the throttle I punched the clutch, whipped the shift lever down to second and snapped the clutch out again, keeping the revs above the thrusty 3000 mark. . . Now the tach read 5000 and as it approached 6000 at 65 mph I popped another shift still keeping the throttle pinned to the floorboards. I wound it out in third at 6000, indicating about 95 mph and threw the final shift into fourth.”

With all this good performance and handling it was not surprising that the Arnolt-Bristol proved successful in competition. Arnolts were first imported in 1954, and by the end of that season Freddie Wacker of Chicago was joint winner of the SCCAE modified national championship. When Arnolt saw the competition potential of the car he established a works racing team. Once 25 cars had been imported the Arnolt became eligible for limited production series sports car racing. Arnolt approached his racing as seriously and professionally as he approached any business. The three car team was supervised by Reg Collins, the service manager, and managed by Walter Inai. Juan Lopez was the chief mechanic. Arnolt had his eyes on the Sebring twelve hour race, and he managed to recruit the services of Rene Dreyfus, once France’s champion driver. Although, at fifty, Dreyfus was rather old for a racing driver, Arnolt believed that his experience would be invaluable, and more importantly he would provide good publicity. Except for Dreyfus the drivers were amateurs, and Arnolt himself co-piloted a car with Bob Goldrich

Three transporters were made so that the cars and mechanics could travel to Sebring in truly professional style. The race itself proved an almost too easy success. Apart from some trouble with brake lining the team had an undramatic event, and came home in first, second and fourth places for the under two litre category. Dreyfus had brought home the fourth place car, but he afterwards retired from the team despite the persuasive efforts of Arnolt to keep him on.

In the 1956 event the team gained second and third in class. Arnolt was forced to retire after a minor accident, and probably resultant suspension problems.

The 1957 Sebring meeting was to end much less happily and caused Arnolt to pull out of racing for three years. Arnolt was once again co-piloting with Bob Goldrich. At sunset all was going well. Arnolt pulled into the pits for a change-over and warned Goldrich that the brakes were grabbing. However Goldrich left the pits intent on making up some lost time, and minutes later his car veered sideways under braking and overturned. The car was not equipped with roll bars or a safety harness and Goldrich died before it could be moved. Arnolt was deeply shocked by the event, and the team did not enter the Sebring race again until 1960.

For the 1960 meeting he prepared a team of new cars, one with an alloy body and right hand drive. This car, driven by Ralph Durbin and Max Goldman, finished first in class at an average speed of 71.93 mph. The other two cars finished fourth and sixth in class, and all three were awarded with the team prize. It said much about exactly how competitive the cars were, that they were still winning the event six years on from first production. The team, slightly revitalised by the Sebring result, completed in nine and won six mid-west meetings. But this success was short lived because Arnolt gradually lost interest in the racing programme, and very quickly production of the Arnolt-Bristol ceased.

Arnolt died on Christmas eve 1963, and without anyone to take over his business concerns the commercial empire and car dealership, that had once been Arnolt’s dream, soon fell apart.

Because very nearly all of the Arnolts were sold in America we had a certain amount of trouble tracking down any examples of the car in England. So far as we know there are only two, and one of those is being restored. John Harper of Retrosport, at Blockley, is the owner of the second Arnolt, and he invited us up to Oxfordshire to drive and have a look at the car.

In bright red this Arnolt really is as beautiful as the American reviewers claimed they were. It is in good condition without being preciously immaculate, and the state of the engine bay definitely signifies that this is a car to be used. What is so appealing about the car is that it is so uncompromisingly functional. There are no serious concessions to creature comforts, and so it has the uncluttered beauty of being single mindedly suited to one purpose; it is a fun sports car for a hot country. The dashboard is simply a continuation of the bodywork with the necessary instruments inserted into an oval panel. The seats hold you adequately without offering pampered luxury. The steering wheel is not adjustable, but since designers were of human proportions in those days it is in the correct place anyway. The less said about the gearstick the better. It is the windscreen wipers that are the best part: they summed up the whole car and announced, as soon as you turned them on, “don’t drive this Arnolt anywhere it is at all likely to rain.” Unfortunately we were in Oxfordshire at the time where it rarely does anything else, and could only laugh resignedly as they smeered the water about and obscured the view even further.

The exhaust note of the Bristol engine was gorgeously throaty. Despite the engine’s reputation for all the power being at the top end I was not at all unimpressed by the low down pull of the unit. It was generally able to move the car along very quickly indeed. The handling and steering were also very good, but you will have to take the American’s word for it so far as the sideways acrobatics go: I was not about to about to risk going farming in this lovely machine. Even so it felt surefooted on some very wet and muddy country lanes.

The gearbox, being a Bristol unit, I am sure was excellent, but the gearstick, although it came from the Bristol 403 was a completely different matter. I think that Gruff Borgeson must be a special man indeed, for anyone who can “pop,throw or snatch a shift” with that thing must be able to pull a gun faster than the Sundance Kidd. Changing gear is much more akin to stirring chicken soup than actually using a gearstick. Then again it was great fun for all that, and in fact I am being slightly unfair, because once used to it the change is easy, only one has to be very light handed and move the gear knob an awfully long way.

Our brief excursion was terminated by some heavy rain, and since we had left the hood behind we headed back, peering anxiously over the top of the windscreen. MOTOR SPORT are very grateful to John Harper for it really was a great car to drive. It had all the performance and road holding one could wish for, and the styling of the Bertone body is so distinctive and beautiful. In a car like this who cares about luxury? And if you had really been that bothered you could have always bought the coupé. CSR-W

Arnolt came along through contacts in America and asked us to sell him chassis and engines. We were already fully extended building the 404 and 405, and Arnolt was going to arrange to have the bodies built by Bertone. This matter was then referred to the main board of the Aeroplane company. To start with we were loathe to agree because of the bad experiences we’d had with sending chassis abroad on our earlier models. The bodies were to be made in steel which was another concern with us, but fortunately nearly all the Arnolts were sold in warm countries. Only one was sold in England, and several were sold through our French agent.

I drove one Arnolt-Bristol but simply up and down a runway. It was like the 404; the weight distribution was similar, but it was heavier because it was a steel bodied car. At that period, because I was so called works driver for Frazer-Nash I compared it with the Frazer-Nash Mille Miglia, although the Nash was lighter. Our American friends raved about the handling, but of course they would have done then. Anything that handled better than rice pudding was wonderful. It did handle very well of course.

Arnolt used to order the chassis in batches of five, but production of the car dwindled several years before his death in 1963. The story goes that he lost interest because one of his drivers was killed at Sebring. I think really, having met the man, that he was a person for whom getting into the motoring industry was the glittering prize. But once he got in the bug bears showed themselves and eventually put him off. A lot of cars came along to provide competition with the Arnolt, and I think that eventually he simply lost interest.”

Anthony Crook, Managing Director of Bristol Cars Limited.

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