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A British-Italian-American Coupe?

In the '50s, Arnolt-Bristol combined two different car companies to make one very unique and now extremely rare line of sports cars

In 1955, Road & Track described the Arnolt-Bristol as "American designed, British powered and Italian styled." Offered as a coupe or roadster, it combined the talents of designer Arnolt from Chicago, the car division of Bristol Aircraft in England, and the body-building talents of Bertone in Italy.

The coupe, like the roadster, was powered by a 130-hp, overhead-valve, inline 6-cylinder engine, fitted with three Solex carburetors. The Arnolt-Bristol was capable of a 0-60 time in the nine second-range, a standing start quarter mile of 17.2 seconds at 82 mph, and an estimated top speed of 125 mph.

The Arnolt-Bristol coupe was not the result of simply grafting a hard top onto the roadster. Although they shared similar, distinctive front-end styling, the front fenders of the coupe were creased, almost fully exposing the front wheels. The dramatically sloping hard top featured a wide C-pillar and large rear window, while a trunk lid allowed full access to the rear storage area. Most people find the unique styling of the coupe more striking, which was a good thing, considering it sold for $5,995 in 1955, compared to $3,995 for the roadster.

The Arnolt-Bristol coupe was the rarest model, and this example is known worldwide as the best of them all. Automotive writer L.J.K. Setright insisted only two were built, but others are adamant there were three and maybe even five. With a completely known provenance and history, this scalloped fender coupe is also known and accepted as the only original-bodied example to feature this unique fender treatment. It was purchased new by Academy Award-winning actor Lee Marvin from the Arnolt stand at the Paris Salon.

Records indicate the car was originally finished in green and red, but today it is resplendent in red with saddle leather interior. All the Smiths instruments remain in working order and the Arnolt aftermarket wood wheel has been refinished. The car features chrome plated Borrani knockoff wheels, including a spare, and these are believed to be one of only three to five sets still in existence.

With minimal wear since its restoration, this Arnolt-Bristol coupe is a prime candidate for show or vintage racing. With unquestioned provenance, outstanding and distinct features, and worldwide acceptance of its importance, there is no better example than the ex-Lee Marvin coupe.

The SCM Analysis

This car sold for $451,000 at the RM Ponder Collection auction in Marshall, Texas, April 20-21, 2007.

The description of this model in the auction catalog is reasonably accurate. The Arnolt-Bristol was produced in three models: Bolide (stripped-down roadster), deluxe (soft top, side curtains and bumpers) and coupe. I believe that five or six coupes were made; I have personally seen more than the three claimed by everybody else. Regardless of what the exact number is, the coupe in Ponder's collection is unique. It is the only coupe with pontoon fenders. It was the seminal work of Franco Scaglione, then a young designer working for Bertone.

I missed some flaws when I bought it

As I seem to recall, word was that this coupe and a prototype roadster were the only two Arnolts with pontoon fenders. The pontoon fenders were obviously rather costly to manufacture, and were not used on production cars. The last time I owned this car was in October 1996, when I bought it at "The Auction" in Vegas. I paid the exorbitant sum of $42,500 because I had had a bit too much to drink. I missed some flaws, like the windshield made out of Plexiglas. I advertised the car in several publications at $59,000, I think, and to my surprise received only one call from a colleague who said, "Good luck, I had a hell of a time getting rid of mine."

A day before Thanksgiving, a local dealer called saying that he wanted it for himself, which in dealer speak means on the cheap. But he was the only money, and I ended up with a check for exactly $45,000. I watched the taillights disappear and was happy.

My dealer friend refurbished the car, raced it, lowered it, and replaced the fragile Borrani Record wheels with steel units. A few years ago, he sold it to Gene Ponder for $150,000.

I looked at the coupe in detail (this time around), and I am sorry to say it looked tired, and too low to the ground. I wondered which Fiat model had donated the original windshield -- no one else had been able to figure it out either, because the old Plexiglas was still there. The car was resplendent with brand new-looking Borrani Records, chrome plated or hopefully only polished. But overall, somehow the car just did not look right to me. Maybe it was the sour grapes syndrome that I was experiencing; I easily would have paid $250,000 but felt that it was going to sell much higher, and it did.

Greatest attraction as a coupe

Let me try to be objective. It is a very rare car, a tour de force that established a young designer. I think the car is pretty. The coupe was really never raced then, unless one considers an outing that included a nasty spin by Marvin at Pomona in a minor Cal Club event. As a make, Wacky Arnolt's cars dominated various production classes here, and the Bolides did well at Sebring one year, but in the scope of prestige vintage events, that's a bit like kissing one's sister.

I personally think that the greatest attraction of the car is that it is a coupe -- ideal for vintage tours and rallies, offering protection from the elements with a respectable amount of luggage space. These virtues are greatly appreciated, especially by the ladies.

Was it well bought? Well let me first tell you a funny story. A few days ago, I picked up a copy of Architectural Digest in my optometrist's office. Right at the beginning there was a black and white ad showing a bed. Yes, a plain bed. I read the copy, which proclaimed that it was the best bed in the world (because the copywriter said so?), made by some company that was Sweden's oldest bed maker, and it was only $59,750. As SCM is a family magazine, I won't ask some obvious questions. But if a bed is worth that much, I can now say with clear conscience that this Arnolt was very well bought.

Years Produced: 1954-57

Number Produced: 142, but only 3 to 6 coupes

Original List Price: $4,300 for roadsters

Tune-up Cost: Most shops estimate net worth & bill accordingly

Distributor Caps: Three years ago I paid $250 for one.

Chassis #: 404X3120

Chassis # Location: Right front near the suspension

Engine # Location: Several places on the right side of engine

Alternatives: 1953-55 Fiat 8V Berlinetta, 1951-58 Lancia B20, 1954-60 AC Aceca Bristol

Investment Grade: A

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