1966-72 Bolwell Mark VII: Buyer's guide

By: Cliff Chambers, Photography by: Ellen Dewar

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Looking back: Unique Cars cranks the nostalgia to yesteryear, with Cliff Chambers' tips on buying a used 1966-72 Bolwell Mark VII. Back in 2010, he said that while scarce, the '60s Aussie kit cars were worth tracking down.

 

Bolwell Mark VII

The rare Aussie sports car legend that lives on in the hearts, minds and garages of very few lucky people.

A significant number of the 400 or so Mark VII coupes sold in kit form during the late 1960s have never been presented for registration or appeared in modified form on racetracks. Some will already have been taken to the tip by frustrated constructors but there are almost certainly others just waiting to be brought to life nearly 50 years after leaving the Bolwell brothers’ Melbourne factory.

Campbell and Graeme Bolwell founded their kit-car business in 1963 and within three years were building a fastback two-seater that could hold its own with more expensive products from major manufacturers.

The Mark VII was attractive from any angle. Among its distinguishing features were vertically stacked mudguard flutes, inset headlamps and an open-mouth air-intake that was sometimes fitted with a grille to provide protection from flying stones.

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Unlike early Bolwells with their tilt-front engine access, the Mark VII bonnet was conventionally hinged and incorporated a bulge which provided clearance for the twin Stromberg carburettors used by early versions.

The body is fibreglass, the Bolwell brand’s speciality, and bolted to a Lotus-like steel backbone chassis. A wrecked HD-HR Holden would provide most mechanical parts, including the engine, rear axle assembly, front suspension and disc brakes. The kit was designed for easy completion with basic tools and only moderate levels of mechanical talent.

Weighing around 850kg and with more than 100kW from a 3.0-litre Holden 186 ‘red’ engine, the Bolwell would manage 200km/h and 0-100km/h in nine seconds.

Holden’s four-speed transmission was still a year away so an all-synchromesh Triumph 2000 gearbox was recommended. As time progressed, Mark VIIs appeared with virtually any transmission that could be bolted to the back of a 1960s Holden engine.

Tail lights came from a Toyota Crown, and the Austin 1800 steering rack, plus various other items, were available over the local BMC dealer spares counter. Rear and side window glass and the laminated windscreen were purpose-made for the car.

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Any Holden stud pattern wheel could be used but those owners who wanted to wrap their rubber around something really stylish could opt for a set of Bolwell’s own steel and alloy two-piece rims.

The Mark VII was shown to agog members of the motoring press in 1966 and deliveries of ready-to-build kits were soon running at three per week.

That success encouraged Bolwell to push ahead with plans for a V8-powered derivative that would be factory-built and known as the Nagari. Mark VII production continued into the 1970s and incorporated a number of Nagari-inspired improvements including a more organised dash layout and Valiant-sourced collapsible steering column.

ON THE ROAD 

The appeal of a Mark VII doesn’t end with engineering brilliance or mechanical simplicity. They were versatile kit-cars and were able to be personalised to significant degrees.

While most can still be found with in-line Holden engines, several cars have been fitted with V8s and a few turned into Nagari-style roadsters.

Ventilation was always a critical issue and heat transferred from a V8 can be stiffling. Insulation fitted between the engine bay and cabin and surrounding the centre console helped to a degree but the cabin heat issue wasn’t solved until owners like Ron McPherson (whose car we’ve featured) began fitting air-conditioning.

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Bolwell’s initial idea was to feed cooling outside air through the seats but the vertically-stacked mudguard vents expelled more air than they captured and the trunking system was so complex that few owners bothered.

The original semi-reclined driving position won’t be to everyone’s liking and the gear lever when wearing old style three-point harnesses can be a stretch unless the seat is moved uncomfortably close to the steering wheel.

Later seats with head restraints and inertia reel seat belts make a major contribution to occupant comfort and the cars’ driveability. Ron has also replaced an array of 1960s-style toggle switches with easy-to-reach column stalks.

A more significant concession to practicality that’s been made by some owners is hinging the rear window for easier access to the spare wheel and whatever soft baggage can be accommodated by the rear luggage platform. Standard cars force owners to wrestle the spare between or over the seats.

With the engine sitting well back in the chassis, weight over the front wheels isn’t a major problem but wide wheels combined with a small-diameter steering wheel can require some muscle at parking speeds.

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Typical Mark VII handling on skinny standard tyres tended towards oversteer, but modern rubber, shock absorbers and bushings help tame the early versions’ behaviour.

The standard disc/drum brakes are adequate but replacing the standard single circuit hydraulics is recommended. For vastly improved brake performance, discs from an early 1980s Commodore can be adapted to replace the rear drums.

Performance was the Mark VII’s forte and even today these light, low-slung coupes will deliver thrills without generating big bills.

BOLWELL OWNER: RON McPHERSON

Ron McPherson is a Life Member of the Victorian Bolwell Club and virtually a life-long Mark VII owner.

He bought his first in 1966; owning and racing it until the mid-1970s. In 1979 he discovered this 1968-build car that had lain neglected for some time. The past 30 years have been spent renovating and upgrading it into an outstanding example.

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"They aren’t a hard car to work on and virtually everything you need is pretty easy to find," Ron advised. "The cabin heat is the main problem but air-con fixed that. Externally, modern polyester coating instead of the original gel coat means you can get the paintwork looking extremely good."

Ron believes that cars built to the original six-cylinder/live rear axle formula are better suited to their task than those with V8s and independent rear suspension.

"The simpler you can keep these cars the better," he said. "Depending on who built them the big-power cars can be okay but as a car you can comfortably use the six-cylinder has got plenty of performance and few problems."

A glance under the bonnet reveals replacement of the original carburettors with fuel injection and a MoTec engine management system. The rear brakes have been replaced by discs with dual-circuit hydraulics and the wheels are 14 x 7 Globe alloys. 

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HOW MUCH?

Cars that were intended to be built in somebody’s garage offered lots of creative freedom, so there is no ‘standard’ by which a Mark VII can viably be judged. A range of engines – predominantly Holden – are likely to be found, with Holden, Triumph and a variety of Japanese-sourced gearboxes possible.

The most sensible approach to tracking down an available car is contact with the Bolwell Car Club which has branches in several states and plenty of expertise available to members and potential owners.

"You can certainly pay $20,000 for a car with problems or $40,000 for one that’s nearly perfect", Ron McPherson says. "The question is whether the cost of getting the cheaper car to the standard of the good one will be more than what you save and usually it will be."

History – especially within the Club – is useful since a former owner will be able to confirm what changes or improvements have been made to the car and when. If you do happen to stumble across an ‘unknown’ Mark VII, assuming the worst and paying an appropriate price is recommended.

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BUYER'S CHECKPOINTS

Body/Chassis

Bolwells rank with the better-built early fibreglass designs and well-kept cars shouldn’t create major problems. Poor-quality repairs are reflected in paint flaws, cracks and mis-aligned panels. Look carefully at the vulnerable nose for patch repairs or starring. Check the door hinges don’t droop. Reinforcing the door shells is also recommended. Access to a hoist is essential when examining a Mark VII as the chassis’ rear box section needs close inspection for rust and cracks and the remainder of the underside for impact damage. Paint quality is variable with recently-restored cars likely to remain problem free for longer than those with old fragile ‘gel’ coatings.  Seriously damaged bodies can be repaired via the Victorian Bolwell Club branch which has the original moulds. Fibreglass repairs and professional repaint can spike the cost $10,000 on an ostensibly cheap Bolwell.

Engine/Transmission

Mechanical simplicity means even major problems shouldn’t deter you from buying an otherwise sound Mark VII. ‘Red’ Holden engines were built for almost 20 years and parts are still available and cheap. Exhaust and engine breather smoke indicate imminent internal work, also beware carburettor fuel leaks and overheating. M21 Holden transmissions are perfectly suited in terms of gear ratios and durability but make sure that the clutch isn’t slipping. 

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Suspension/Brakes

Uneven tyre wear is the most obvious indication of suspension problems. In the worst scenario the sub-frame may have been damaged and require replacement, so inspection while checking other areas of the underbody is recommended. Worn ball joints are common and easily replaced. Modern shocks and quality tyres sharpen steering response. Fitting ultra-low profile tyres will seriously affect ride quality. Replacing the original master cylinder with a tandem unit will reduce the risk of catastrophic brake failure. 

Interior/Electrics

Door seals often don’t, so check for mouldy carpets and other signs of water entry including electrical connection corrosion. Original seats are scarce but can be replaced by a range of aftermarket items. Make sure that the spare hasn’t been rattling around and causing damage. If fitted, check the lift-up rear window seals properly and locks. Replacement glass and laminated windscreens are available via the Bolwell Club of Victoria.

 

SPECIFICATIONS

Number Built: 400 (approx)

Body: fibreglass with steel frame two-door coupe

Engine: in-line six-cylinder (2.9, 3.0, 3.3-litre) with overhead valves and twin downdraft carburettors

Power & Torque:  108kW @ 4600rpm, 248Nm @ 2200rpm (3.0-litre twin-carb)

Performance: 0-100km/h 9.0 seconds (approx) 0-400 metres 15.5 seconds

Transmission: four-speed manual (five speed on some)

Suspension: Front – independent with coil springs, upper & lower wishbones and telescopic shock absorbers Rear: live axle with coil springs, trailing arms and telescopic shock absorbers

Brakes: Disc front, drum rear power assisted

Tyres: 175SR13 radial

Price Range: $15,000-45,000 (July-August 2010)

Contact: Bolwell Car Club    www.bolwellcarclub.com.au

 

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