Bolwell Nagari: Australia's Greatest Sports Car
The Bolwell Nagari is one of the most successful Australian cars that you've never heard of. Even most Australians haven't heard of it. It was the eighth car produced by Bolwell and their first production car. All previous Bolwells had been kit cars. 100 coupes and 18 convertibles were built between 1970 and 74. This makes it the most popular and well known Bolwell, and makes Bolwell the second most successful Australian sports car manufacturer after racing car specialists Elfin.
Graeme and Campbell Bolwell started their company in a workshop in Melbourne in 1963. Before going to business, they built four prototype specials. Their first commercially available sports car was MkIV, named by Campbell because he believed no one would buy a guinea pig model. This was followed by the larger MkV. People had been fitting readily available six cylinder Holden Grey motors to the compact MkIV. The MkV was purpose-built to accommodate Grey motor sold alongside the MkIV until 1965, when the MkIV was retired. The MkV was replaced by the MkII in 1967. Officially the Mk VII only available as a kit car, but a handful were assembled by Bolwell. The Holden six powered Mark VII sold over 100 examples, perhaps as many as 400. Being a kit car from the 1960s, it's difficult to determine an exact production number. It's believed that there may be several kits in existence that were never assembled.
The MkVI SR6 was a one off mid engined racing car built in 1968. That's right, the MkVI came after the MkVII. The SR6 first raced in 1969 with a Repco-Holden V8 and modified Volkswagen transaxle, before receiving a 202ci Holden Red six cylinder and Hewland transaxle.
Following the launch of the Mk VII kit car, Graeme Bolwell went to the UK to work for Lotus. During his time there, Lotus made the transition from kit cars to turn key production cars. Graeme decided he wanted the same for his own company. Additionally Campbell Bolwell was concerned about badly built kit cars tarnishing the family name. Upon his return, Graeme applied what he had learned to the Mk 8 Nagari. The Nagari featured a backbone chassis and fibreglass body. The Nagari was often mistaken for a variant of the Lotus Elan, but while the two cars share a design philosophy with the same basic construction, they don’t actually share any components. The Bolwell chassis is entirely bespoke. The Lotus backbone chassis was designed to accommodate an inline four, whereas for the Nagari, Bolwell wanted a V8. To make room for a V8 engine the Bolwell backbone chassis differed significantly, with a Y shaped front section.
In their previous models, Bolwell had used Holden six cylinder engines. Their original intention with the Nagari was to continue that relationship and use Holden's new 5.0L V8, but Holden refused. They started sourcing engines and drivetrain from Ford, who were happy to sell them some of their imported V8 engines. The Nagari ended up initially being offered with a 302 Windsor from the Falcon GS, or the 351 from the GT. When Ford switched from the Windsor to the Cleveland in 1971, Bolwell followed, modifying the headers and chassis to accommodate the larger engine. With the Cleveland installed, those distictive side vents, previously used for cabin cooling, were needed to cool the engine. The four speed toploader manual gearbox and 9 inch rear diff were also taken from the Falcon. Whichever engine you had in your Nagari, straight line performance was astonishing. With the Cleveland engine it was capable of exceeding 240km/h. Imagine if they'd had access to the GTHO version. Not all Nagaris had Ford V8s, some had Holden sixes and one had a 1.5 litre four cylinder from the Ford Cortina.
Even more attractive than the performance was the styling. Where it's predecessor, the MkVII, derived heavily from the Jaguar E-Type, the Nagari had its own style. The bespoke chassis allowed Bolwell the freedom to design a beautiful and well proportioned body. Usually with this style of car, the chassis is borrowed from soothing else and the styling is comprised. It's build quality was also better than most fibreglass sports cars of the early 70s.
Along with the Falcon drivetrain, the Nagari borrowed a few other parts from other cars made in Australia at the time. The steering was borrowed from an Austin X6. The suspension was Bolwell’s own design, with unequal length double A arms up front and a leaf spring rear similar to a Torana. Various parts were taken from the Ford Cortina.
In order to give the lightweight Nagari respectable handling, the heavy V8 was mounted in the front-mid position, with the clutch behind the windscreen line. This prevented the car from being an understeering mess, but also made the cabin hot.
Much like its contemporaries, the AC Cobra and TVR Griffith, the Nagari’s handling was rather lairy. There was a fair amount of flex in the body. The relatively soft suspension, necessitated by Australia's rough roads, didn't help.
As a racing car the Nagari worked rather well. Despite their rarity, the Nagari was a popular choice of production sports car, with several of them competing in the Australian Sports Car Championship in the early 70s. The Nagari never won the ASCC, as the rules allowed for purpose-built Group A racing cars (essentially a low-budget Australian Can Am). It's best result came in 1973. John Latham drove a Nagari to seventh place in the championship, making it the highest placed production car.
In 1975, Peter Warren won the Australian Tourist Trophy, a race for production sports cars held at Melbourne's Calder Park. The competition consisted mostly of Datsun 240Zs, Lotus Europas and MGs. Nagaris won both heats, with Warren winning heat one and Steve Webb (Jonathon's dad) winning heat two. Webb was a capable gentleman driver who won the Australian Racing Drivers Club production sports car series at Amaroo Park, north west of Sydney.
The Nagari’s undoing was it’s price. When it lauched, it cost $2,795 as a kit car, or $5,490 as a turn key model. In 1970, a Holden Kingswood cost $2,593. Even if you wanted to go racing, there were cheaper options. The Holden Monaro GTS 350 and Ford Falcon GTHO Phase II were cheaper propositions at $4,181 and $4,830 respectively. A Datsun 240Z was $4,567. Inflation was rapidly rising and by 1974, the price had risen to $9,990 for the coupe and $10,200 for the convertible. That was nearly Jaguar E Type money ($11,552). Few people in Australia were willing to pay that much for a fibreglass sports car with few creature comforts, but Bolwell couldn’t make them for less. New design rules meant that Bolwell couldn’t afford to keep going. In 1973, a left hand drive prototype was built, and there was excitement about plans to begin exports to California, but that never eventuated.
Following the Nagari, Bolwell returned to kit cars with the Ikara, a mid engined car using Volkswagen Golf mechanicals. The Ikara was the last Bolwell sports car. Bolwell elected instead to focus on the more lucrative composite materials business. Australian low volume sports car manufacturers had it harder than their British counterparts. 1970s Australian roads were rough, the population was small and race tracks were sparse.
Bolwell produced a Mk 10 Nagari concept with a mid mounted Toyota V6 with an optional supercharger and six speed auto. It's construction was highly advanced, with a carbon fibre tub and a carbon fibre reinforced fibreglass body. The unusual styling wasn't very well received and would have limited the Mk X’s chances of success. Prices started at $150,000 for the NA automatic, rising to $260,000 for the top spec supercharged model with a yet to be developed manual gearbox. Only five were built, probably because that's all they could sell. With the global financial crisis about to hit, it wasn't a good time to be in the low volume sports car business. In hindsight, they probably should have left the Nagari name in the past and used a new name or revived the Ikara.
Today, Bolwell Nagaris have a cult following, but remain relatively affordable for their rarity. At the time of writing there is a 1971 302 convertible for sale for $89,500.
To see a Nagari in the fibreglass today, you'll have to go to a major classic car show. The odds of seeing one on the road or at a smaller show are extremely small. Remember there were little more than half as many Nagaris as there were Falcon GTHO Phase 3s. The Nagari is an often forgotten and unrecognised car that holds a special place in Australia's motoring history as one of our only production two seater sports cars.