Warren Pole takes an extremely rare Arnolt-MG for a romantic drive through the Alps - and lives to tell the tale.
Be careful what you wish for
Do you long for a more satisfying, more honest driving experience? Do you hanker for a simpler, bygone era of motoring when cars were cars, not mobile electrical appliances? Do you look beneath the bonnet of your car, keen to play a part in its maintenance, only to find you have no idea what anything is in there anymore? If you answered yes to any of the above, then you too could be ready for the joys of a classic car.
Because in classic land, all modern motoring ills are banished. The faceless wind tunnel ubiquity of today's body shapes disappear, replaced with a dazzling array of swooping curves and dashing lines from the imaginations of designers worldwide. Then there's the charming mechanical simplicity. Instead of warning lights and diagnostic computers, you get stuttering carbs, misfires and a well-thumbed, tea-stained manual allowing you the satisfaction of sourcing the problem - yes, you can actually see real mechanical parts under the classic bonnet - and fixing it yourself with a hammer. Can there be any better satisfaction?
Indeed there can, because driving a classic means driving, not having some computer do it for you while pulling the reins so tight on any fun that most of the enjoyment is drained from the experience. With a classic, there is no ABS, no traction control and no computer blipping the throttle for you on downchanges, and even if you drive off with the doors open, the fuel tank almost empty and every brake line leaking like a lawn sprinkler, you won't hear a single warning alarm. Bliss.
Because when you drive a classic, nothing interrupts the pure symbiosis of man and machine. Four wheels, an engine, a steering wheel in your hands and three pedals at your feet. For a neat shot of raw driving perfection, nothing can touch the experience. So why aren't we all driving them? Because they're rubbish. While in the French Alps I recently had the chance to sample a bona fide classic rarity, a car which is the epitome of classic motoring romance.
It was a 1953 Arnolt-MG coupe, which not only comes with seductive 1950s styling straight out of the drop-dead Ferrari Inter and Lancia Aurelia mould, but is also tantalisingly rare, as only 67 were ever made. If any car could conjure glorious thoughts of motoring as I'd only seen it in old movies, this was it. The car was the product of a collaboration between British sports car makers MG, which provided the chassis and running gear, and legendary Italian stylists Bertone, which supplied the exotic body and interior and assembled the cars in their Turin workshop. And the man who made all this possible was one Stanley "Wacky" Arnolt, a wealthy American industrialist, petrolhead and car importer, which is why the car bears his name.
The Arnolt-MG is a classic marvel, not only because so few were ever made - after just a year's production MG sadly withdrew from the project - but because it also marks the global take-off point for Bertone, which would go on to sculpt some of the world's most iconic sports cars including Lamborghini's Miura, Ferrari's GT4 and Lancia's Stratos. Better still, not only is the Arnolt as rare as an honest politician, but being based on the MG TD - a car sold in its thousands - its exotic looks come with reliability and a spares network that even today means just about any part is only a phone call away.
True, these parts will need to come from a man called Clive in an oily shed just outside Birmingham, but believe me, in the world of serious classics, this is infinitely better than most cars, where a dead spark plug can see you off the road for several years as you scour the globe for a replacement. Knowing all of this only made my anticipation of the drive ahead sweeter. The Arnolt's burgundy leather interior was immaculate, the red of the dash just so, and as for the spoked wheels, gorgeous. I opened the door and the first thing to hit me was -
The smell. If pushed, I would describe it as "museum meets old people's home". But then, if I'd spent most of the last 50 years in a field, I'd probably smell the same. I hopped in, turned the key and flicked the starter switch as the motor clunked, whirred and burbled into life. I say "burbled" because, although sold as a sports car, the Arnolt has just 54hp, 15 less than a modern, entry level Fiat Panda.
Pulling away, the engine note was banished, drowned out by the loudest transmission whine I have heard since being in the back of a fully laden Moroccan army truck. With second gear, the whine disappeared, replaced by a new issue. Despite the Arnolt's brochure proudly proclaiming synchromesh from second gear on, it clearly isn't the kind us pampered modern drivers are used to - ie, the kind that does anything - and the gear change came with an audible grinding of cogs.
Double-clutching my way to fourth, I was able to get my breath back and savour the experience as Alpine mountains slid serenely past above and the river flashed by to my side. But it was no good. My classic dreams were already badly shot through. They weren't sunk yet but they were listing badly to one side, especially as I peered around my right hand to get a look at the speedo - tellingly both this and the rev counter are obscured by your hands on the Arnolt's wheel as the car will never go fast enough to need either - and saw I was doing 32mph. I also noticed my knuckles were white.
And it was about to get worse. Ahead of me the road banked sharply left, swooping from the valley floor and up a mountain in the kind of zigzagging road normally reserved for hardy rally drivers, mountain goats and over-zealous German hikers. Hauling the Arnolt's wheel left to make this turn brought two new surprises. The first was that it felt like the front wheels were stuck in wet concrete, as power steering hadn't been invented by 1953, and the second was ending up on the other side of the car thanks to the Arnolt's seats having all the support of an old deck chair.
Repositioning myself, I dug in for the ascent ahead. Every straight heralded a flurry of double-clutched gear changes as I fought to maintain momentum on the steep pass, and every hairpin saw me working the wheel harder than the captain of the Titanic when someone shouted "iceberg", while alternately resisting being flung into the driver's door or the passenger seat depending on which way the corner went.
By the time the summit arrived, I was dazed, sweating and my heart was pounding like I'd just run a marathon. Forget the gym, if you want perfect abs and biceps to make women go weak at the knees, buy a classic car instead. It was at this point the notoriously fickle Alpine weather chose to envelop the summit in cloud so thick the car next to me all but disappeared. A part of me wished it had. The subsequent drive back down in the pouring rain made the ascent of moments earlier feel like a dream. Here, I was introduced to new and exciting classic charms, including the futility of non-assisted drum brakes, wipers that didn't wipe (open a window and wipe the screen by hand instead), and ventilation that made the windscreen look like a laundrette's window before I'd even closed the door.
Falling back into my hired Nissan Note at the end of the day, a car I would normally cross the road to avoid, I was at peace. Steering, stopping and going with a seamless perfection, it felt like a works racer and proved that, while classics may be often gorgeous objects of desire we'd all love in our garage, in reality they are only for the committed. Perhaps in both senses of the word.