Bolwell Nagari at 50

By: Mark Higgins, Unique Cars magazine, Photography by: Unique Cars Archives

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Motorshow sensation in 1969 and still a stunner to this day

A couple of months ago, we featured Holden’s GTR-X, that would have been the marque’s first venture into fibreglass bodied cars in 1970.

By this time a Melbourne-based Australian car maker by the name of Bolwell already had the runs on the board when it came to making sportscars from the same material.

Bolwell started in 1963 with its MK IV kit car, a spaceframe chassis powered most commonly by Ford’s Kent motor that was to become the powerplant of Formula Ford for many years.

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Following that a series of fibreglass bodied Bolwell kit cars were produced and built in sheds and garages by enthusiasts around Australia.

| 2020 Market Review: Fibreglass cars & replicas 1966-2010

But the marque’s most successful and most recognised model is their turn-key, in-house production built Nagari that captivated the media and attendees at the 1969 Melbourne Motorshow.

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Standing slightly taller than the famed Ford GT40, the car commenced production with Ford 302ci V8 power in 1970. Over the next four years the company built around 100 coupes and 18 convertibles.

In keeping with its Australian roots, Bolwell chose the name ‘Nagari’ being an indigenous word meaning flowing.

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The Nagari is widely regarded as the pinnacle of Australia’s home-grown sports cars and featured a Bolwell-penned backbone chassis, under a stunning two-door fibreglass body and bespoke componentry. In addition to the Ford V8 in its nose, other FoMoCo parts included Falcon uprights, shockers, coil springs and sway-bars, front brakes and rear axle assembly.

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The combination of a brawny V8, manual gearbox, and featherweight body meant exceptional performance and 160km/h could be reached in around 18 seconds with a quarter mile taking 14.8 seconds.

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Ford V8 powered the Nagari

During its production run, the Bolwell Nagari was modified to take an even more powerful engine, once again a Ford but this time a Cleveland 351ci elevating performance further.

On the racetrack the Nagari was a popular choice for competitors in the Australian Sports Car Championship, with Peter Warren winning the 1975 Australian Tourist Trophy. Sydneysider Ross Bond was one of the most successful Bolwell Nagari racers and in 1978 he came within a whisker of claiming the national sportscar championship. Steve Webb was another who tasted a great deal of success in the Nagari.

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A perfect storm lobbed in 1974, marking the end of Nagari production. The global oil crisis negatively beamed the spotlight on cars with ‘gas-guzzling’ V8 engines and major car makers scrambled to make low consumption, low emission small econo cars. At the same time the introduction of ever-changing Australian Design Rules added enormously to the complexity and cost of manufacturing. Pressure was also mounting on Bolwell to crash-test the Nagari, a hugely expensive exercise in its own right and something the brand couldn’t afford.

Along the way the Bolwell Nagari almost became an export success with a Nagari being exported to South Africa, under a licencing agreement to manufacture and sell the Aussie sportscar, but local legislation stymied that and no cars were produced.

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There was also a left-hand drive Nagari built after interest from an American investor, but that didn’t proceed and the funds dried up.

That really was a pity as, if you look at the history of the Bolwell brand, it isn’t that dissimilar from that of Shelby, who also used Ford components in his Cobras.

Following the cessation of Nagari production, Bolwell turned their expertise in composite materials to diversify. That included producing truck bodies for Kenworth and Iveco, playground equipment, wind turbine blades, caravans, flight simulator cabins and outdoor furniture from its Australian and Thailand factories.

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Luxurious sporty interior

In an interview with Tony Davis of the Australian Financial Review Campbell Bolwell revealed he built his first car at 16. He began working at Coles as a management trainee, but his mind was elsewhere. "I was a petrol head and when I got to the age of 20 I sacked my boss." With just £200 in the bank, he told his headmaster father he was going to build sports cars. "He rolled his eyes. But he’d always told me, ‘Campbell, whatever you put your mind to you can do.’ That was his philosophy, so he couldn’t really say no."

Petrol still flows strongly through the veins of the Bolwell name and, using the same recipe that made the original Nagari so successful, a big powerful V8 in a lightweight body, an all-new Nagari 500 was unveiled at the 2019 Motorclassica.

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Today the original Nagari is highly sought-after and owned by a band of very keen enthusiasts. You will often spot them at displays and historic race meetings.

Happy 50th anniversary to Australia’s most highly regarded sports car.

 

From Unique Cars #448, January 2021

 

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