There was a time in the '60s and early '70s when Australia’s car manufacturing industry had an unshakeable self-belief.
This was the time when Holden, without permission from GM Detroit, went ahead and produced the Monaro.
It also, at the same time, produced the astonishingly prescient rear-engined Hurricane concept car as a platform to showcase its locally developed 253 V8.
This was when Chrysler/Valiant designers here started toying with an antipodean two-door ‘Charger’ and when Ford in Broadmeadows set out to produce the fastest four-door production car in the world.
That was among the big players - the big three whose histories we know so well.
But this series is about the smaller players.
And some of these, once-grand marques that have now faded entirely from view, also had the self-belief and design and engineering capabilities here to produce ‘out-of-the-box’ world-class products that, but for Australia’s geographic isolation, would have arguably run rampant in Europe.
It was also a time for the niche players; the unique Australian badges and the vehicle engineers and entrepreneurs behind them who took themselves out on a limb in pursuit of the dream.
As we commented at the outset, for some, the brilliance in the cars they conceived and engineered still shines.
Elfin Sports Cars, still surviving today, was founded by champion race driver and engineer Garrie Cooper in 1957.
Currently owned by the estate of British race driver and entrepreneur Tom Walkinshaw, Elfin continues to design and manufacture sports cars for the road. (www.elfin.com.au)
Elfin is a byword for successful track cars in this country, and is the oldest continuous sports car maker in Australia.
Cooper’s Elfin enterprise built a vast number of stylish and capable race cars from Formula 5000 to Formula Ford and Formula Vee.
In all, Elfin has won 29 Championships and major titles in Australia and overseas.
It lists among its drivers F1 champion James Hunt, Didier Pironi, Aussie F1 drivers Vern Schuppan and Larry Perkins, as well as a long list of Australian champions.
The Elfin Streamliner remains one of the most beautiful track cars of ‘60s racing, and is a highly valued Australian classic.
Elfin is still going; still producing small numbers of potent and superbly engineered road and track cars.
Originally based in Adelaide but now in the Melbourne suburb of Braeside, it manufactures the MS8 Streamliner and the MS8 Clubman, each with a 245kW 5.7 litre GM V8 muscled into the snout.
It has also begun production of a four-cylinder turbo Clubman, the T5.
Garrie Cooper died prematurely in 1983, but his world-class race cars were brilliant and the Elfin badge has secured a place among the revered in Australian car manufacturing history.
What were you doing at 16? Probably not building your first car.
But that is what Campbell Bolwell was up to; he built it and sold it, a stripped-down Ford V8 special that he called the Mark 1, and immediately started work on his next project, the Mark II.
By age 20, in June 1962, he had a sign outside his parents’ Frankston home that read ‘Bolwell Cars’, and proceeded - over the next 12 years - to build a line of stylish coupes and track cars that culminated in one of the most collectible of Aussie classics, the amazing Bolwell Mark 8, the Nagari.
He was joined by his younger brother Graeme in the mid-sixties who had been working in the UK under Colin Chapman of Lotus.
Having already produced a Lotus-like Holden-engined Mark IV track car, a kit-based road-going Mark V Coupe (which achieved more than 200 sales) and a track-focussed Mark VI, the young brothers then set to designing the Mark 7, which they launched in 1967.
It was, and remains, a beautifully balanced design and, with a Holden six set into a backbone chassis (similar to Lotus chassis designs), it was also remarkably well-balanced on-road. (The yellow Mark 7 above belonged to the writer.)
It was sold as both a kit and factory-built car, achieving some 400 sales, and is now a sought after classic.
Then came the Mark 8, the astonishing Nagari with a Ford V8 in the nose, and the Bolwell brothers - still just in their twenties - were suddenly part of Australian automotive manufacturing history.
More than 100 Nagaris were sold before production ceased in 1974; it was becoming too difficult to meet increasingly stringent safety laws, and the entrepreneurial brothers had also moved into other more profitable fibreglass manufacturing.
In 1979, Campbell released a new rear-engined Bolwell, the Ikara, but, though achieving some sales, it failed to get established.
And now, more than 40 years after the Mark 8, there’s a new Bolwell Nagari, the Bolwell Mark X. There are only five, they have a mid-mounted V6 engine, and retail for $149,000.
You can find it here: www.bolwellcarcompany.com
High achievers? The original Nagari is an icon; a rare appreciating collectible snapped-up at Auction and commanding premium classic prices.
Not a bad effort for a pair of brothers in their twenties. You have to wonder what Bolwell may have become had the brand been based in the UK or France with access to the huge European market for bespoke sporting cars.
Volkswagen Country Buggy
Volkswagen Beetles, and later sedans and Kombi vans, were built at Clayton in Victoria from 1954 to 1976 (when the factory was sold to Nissan).
In the beginning, the factory was an assembly operation only, but, after Volkswagen Australia Ltd was formed in 1957 (jointly owned by Volkswagen AG and Australian interests), it began the manufacture of engines and components and also began pressing its own panels.
It was a relatively simple matter then to come up with an all-Australian Volkswagen model. And that’s what they did.
The result was the 1967 Volkswagen Country Buggy. It borrowed components from both the Beetle and the Kombi and was in production for just two years.
With a wall-eyed look and flat military panels, Australian buyers were mostly bemused by the unconventional Country Buggy. Which was a problem, because it was unique to this country.
Quite possibly now among the rarest of all Volkswagens, it’s a monty as a collectible. If you can find one for sale, beg, borrow or steal the wherewithal to get it into your garage.
(I am closely acquainted with a slightly deranged brother who drove a Country Buggy right through the guts of Australia. It only let him down when the chassis started to split.)
So, yes, a kind-of orphan, even a lost soul, but now a genuine Australian classic.
Austin Kimberley and Tasman
Morris, Austin, Wolseley, and later British Leyland, were as British as a stiff upper-lip and a Morris Dance troupe. In 1950, British cars accounted for around 70 percent of sales in the Australian market, BMC alone held 30 percent.
By 1960, however, Holden, with "Australia’s own car", had decimated that figure, leaving BMC clinging to a declining market share of 9.8 percent.
But BMC - with Mini, Morris 1100 and the Austin 1800 ‘landcrab’ in its stable by the mid-sixties, and a large manufacturing operation in Zetland, Sydney - wasn’t prepared to go down without a fight.
In 1965, it notched up a competitive 37,978 sales of the Mini, 1100 and 1800 (but the HD Holden sold 170,000 cars that same year).
The solution, as far as the BMC boardroom was concerned, was in its long-term goal of an all-Australian car.
It started on this project in 1967, but, to carry it through in the meantime, it set about developing Australian versions of its existing FWD British models.
The target demo was family buyers. So, a six cylinder was called for, as was stretching-room in the cabin for a growing Australian family.
Thus, in 1970, BMC Australia launched the Austin Kimberly and Tasman, each with a locally-developed ‘X6’ transverse OHC 2.2 litre inline-six in the snout (a world-first in a mass-market production car).
The Kimberley and Tasman sat on an expanded frame developed from the Austin 1800 but with the “strongest box body in the world” (a factory brochure claim).
Australian family buyers found astonishing room inside and a level of luxury and ride comfort unmatched by ‘the big three’.
The issue was a perception that the more complex FWD six was going to be ‘trouble’, and costly to repair.
Conservative family buyers stuck to the more rudimentary, but bullet-proof, iron sixes from the US brands. (The Kimberley and Tasman were actually unfairly maligned.)
This pair of advanced FWD family cars was unique to Australia, and, arguably, the best of their type produced by BMC anywhere.
In fact, the 2.2 litre six developed here was introduced in 1972 into BMC’s British ADO17 range and formed the basis of a long line of cars in the British market (Wolseley Six, Austin 2200 etc).
Certainly better than they are given credit, the Australian Austin Kimberley and Tasman were lost souls, and later overshadowed by the debacle of the P76.
But, yes, a product of an unshakeable self-belief and wholly unique to this market.
Coming next: High Achievers, Orphans And Lost Souls: Part 4.
Leyland Force7, Giacattolo, OKA, Blade