The Arnolt-MG Was an Amalgamation of MG Power Under a Bertone Body

Photography by John Webber

On a stormy autumn morning in 1938, when wiser boatmen chose to stay on land, Chicago industrialist Stanley H. Arnolt attempted to cross Lake Michigan in a tiny open vessel. It was powered by a Sea-Mite engine, one of his company’s marine products. According to the story, as Arnolt finally approached Navy Pier after a 4-hour journey through treacherous waves and fog, someone shouted, “Hello, Wacky!”

The nickname stuck, and a headline in that day’s Chicago Daily News read, “Wacky Comes Through in Fog: Crosses Lake in 13-Foot Boat.” The compact Sea-Mite engine became a huge moneymaker. The government even used it to power small boats in World War II.

Although folks called him Wacky, this business tycoon was also an organizational genius. His successful, widely diversified manufacturing companies, based mostly in the Midwest, designed and built dozens of products, including tubular frames for casual furniture, marine products, boat trailers, material handling tools, and landing gear components for aircraft.

Later in his career, fueled by the same flair and enthusiasm that took him across Lake Michigan, Arnolt dove into the auto business. He became one of this country’s first importers of British cars, distributing marques like Riley, MG, Morris Minor, Aston Martin, Rolls-Royce and Austin-Healey. Another of his companies manufactured and sold auto accessories, and was the country’s sole distributor of Solex carburetors. 

In partnership with Italian coachbuilder Bertone and four British automakers, Arnolt became an automobile manufacturer himself. During a 15-year span, more than 250 Arnolt-badged cars were built on chassis by MG, Aston Martin, Bristol and Bentley. 

He also loved to race, and his racing teams picked up several class wins in international competitions, including the 12 Hours of Sebring. Not one to stay in the pits, Arnolt also proved himself to be a competent driver.

Conversion

Arnolt’s fascination with sports cars started in 1949, when he bought an MG TC. According to an Arnolt Corporation newsletter, his passion for the sporty TC “soon put his Lincoln Continental under wraps in his garage.”

Within the next few years, S.H. Arnolt, Inc., was the leading importer of foreign cars in the Midwest, with an empire that included some 30 dealerships. For this entrepreneur, the next logical step was building his own cars. 

The Arnolt-MG was the first of his coach-built collaborations. In 1952, at Italy’s Turin Auto Show, he spotted two sleek prototypes—an open car and a coupe—each crafted on an MG TD chassis by Bertone. The design came from the pen of Giovanni Michelotti.

This new automobile was intended to be a practical family commuter, but Arnolt’s passion for sports cars shines through in the Arnolt-MG’s handsome proportions and swoopy profile curves.

As the story goes, Arnolt approached Bertone and, with typical American gusto, ordered 100 of each. By all accounts, Bertone’s Torino-based coachwork business was teetering in the post-WWII economy, and this huge order saved the company.

Arnolt brought the two prototype cars to the U.S. and introduced them at the Elkhart Lake Road Race in 1953. The first production examples premiered at the New York Auto Show the same year and generated a modest buzz in the motoring press, gracing the cover of Motorsport in April 1953.

Advertised as “the family car with sports car styling and performance,” the Arnolt-MG was pleasing to look at and a joy to drive. Its long hood, elegant profile and perfect proportions exuded Italian charm. Inside, it offered many coachbuilt features, including leather upholstery, a telescoping steering column, roll-up windows, map compartments in the doors, and ample storage space behind the seats. Most cars were equipped with the 54-horsepower TD engine, while a few later models were ordered with the larger TF engine. Radio and heater were optional, as were wire wheels.

Bertone crafted the doors, bonnet and boot lid from aluminum and the rest of the body from steel. With these light alloy sections, the coupe weighed only about 40 pounds more than the standard TD. The body was welded, not bolted, to the frame.

A 1.25-liter engine from the TD was standard, though the TF’s 1.5 was available later on.

MG contributed its waterfall grille, while headlights and spot lamps came from Marchal. This car wears badges from MG, Bertone and Arnolt.

Arnolt-MG sales lagged, and the factory needed to free up production capacity for its new model. As a result, MG began phasing out the TD for the TF. It was unwilling to supply more chassis to Arnolt, and production of his cars soon ceased altogether. Records are spotty, but most experts agree that 103 Arnolt-MGs were built: 36 open cars and 67 coupes.

To fulfill his commitment to Bertone—by then he was a member of Bertone’s board of directors—Arnolt crafted an agreement with Bristol, and the Arnolt-Bristol was born.

A Coupe With Connections

Dennis Day, who lives in New Port Richey, Florida, loves cars of all kinds, with a special affection for the old British variety. He’s been involved with sports cars all his life and started racing in the SCCA 50 years ago. 

These days he races a Triumph Spitfire in vintage events and is also building a TR6 for competition. Dennis’s vast shop is crammed with restoration projects, some his own and some for customers. He’s always on the lookout for interesting cars, and over the years he’s run into some strange deals.

This Arnolt-MG rides on elegant 15-inch Borrani wire wheels shod in the old General tires that replaced the original rubber.

Until the Arnolt-MG coupe, however, he was never involved in a car transaction that centered on timepieces. “Last year, Jeffery Hess, a friend of mine from Indiana, called me,” Dennis explains. “He had bought three rare and expensive watches at an estate sale, and with them was an old car. He’s not into cars, so he asked me if I wanted it. When he told me what it was, I told him to ship it on down to me.” 

Dennis says that Hess didn’t actually know the car was bundled in the particular watch lot he was bidding on, or how the car came to be included. 

As it turned out, the lot was composed of items from the Arnolt family, and this coupe belonged to them. An Indiana certificate of title came with the car, documenting that this Arnolt-MG had remained in the family since it was built. Apparently, this leftover car went from display in Arnolt’s dealership to his personal garage. There it resided, rarely venturing out. 

“When I saw that title, I was floored,” Dennis says. Also with the car was a trove of never-used promotional pieces from the Arnolt dealership, including neckties, key fobs, driving gloves and scarves.

Auxiliary gauges take center stage on the colorful dash, and tiny pedals protrude from the floor.

Call it six degrees of separation or call it chance, but many other threads connect Dennis to Arnolt and his British auto empire. (Cue spooky music here.) Dennis was born and raised in Chicago and knew all about S.H. Arnolt. In fact, Dennis’s father worked briefly at Arnolt’s Erie Street dealership—where this car came from—which was located only two blocks from Dennis’s grandmother’s house. 

Dennis’s dad and Arnolt were both pilots and Civil Air Patrol wing commanders. As a kid, Dennis attended CAP meetings with his dad and even met Arnolt at one of them. When he grew up, Dennis opened a British car parts store in Chicago and bought parts from an Arnolt company. After his move to Florida, Dennis owned an Arnolt-Bristol that he rescued from a junkyard. And in his shop today, Dennis has a metal lathe and drill press made by Atlas, an Arnolt company. We could go on, but you get the idea: Maybe this man was destined to revive this car.

Survival Mode

“At first,” Dennis says, “I thought the car would be a great candidate for a restoration. But the more I got into the car, the more I thought it should just be preserved. It’s darn near the way it came off the assembly line.” 

With 2383 miles on the odometer, this coupe is a time capsule from 1953. It’s in virtually the same condition as when it left the Arnolt dealership. According to records that came with the car, it’s been driven 44 miles in the past 54 years.

Naturally, that hibernation had taken its toll. Dennis gently sorted through the problems, replacing deteriorated rubber parts, fuel and brake lines, the battery and engine gaskets. He gave the engine a tune-up, changed the oil and filter, cleaned the carbs and overhauled the brakes. Then he rubbed out the oxidized paint and polished the chrome. “The paint is checked in places, but appears to be about 80-percent original,” he says. “The more I work with this car, the more impressed I am,” Dennis adds. “It has given me no surprises.”

Dennis has taken the car to several shows, where it draws a lot of attention. Most observers have no clue what it is, so Dennis spends much of his days explaining about Stanley H. Arnolt. Naturally, the car’s Arnolt family history adds to the appeal. “Eventually, I’d like this car to go to a museum, or to someone who really appreciates Stanley Arnolt’s contribution to the industry,” Dennis says.

No doubt S.H. himself would be delighted at how well his car is preserved nearly 60 years after it arrived at his dealership. It’s easy to imagine him sitting behind this wheel as he once did—maybe wearing an Arnolt necktie and driving gloves—enjoying a leisurely drive. But according to those who knew him, this man’s energetic mind never operated in a leisurely fashion. He’d be planning a sports car venture. Or maybe another trip across Lake Michigan.

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