Bolwell Corporation – 55 years on

The Bolwell marque is an acknowledged legend in the Australian automobile industry as much for the advanced composites used in its construction, as for its unique design features.

Written by Kerryn Caulfield, Executive Director, Composites Australia Inc.

Starting their business initially by building kit cars in the early 1960s, brothers Campbell and Graeme Bolwell moved into full production of the Nagari sports car in 1969. The Nagari earned a unique position in Australian history and the Bolwell marque was an embodiment of the entrepreneurial flair and commitment of a dedicated and inspired group of individuals.

Bolwell’s early success led to its prominence as a quality composites manufacturer and laid the foundation for the company’s reputation for effective design solutions in the creative application of composite materials. Importantly, thissuccess in car manufacturing led to the formation of the composites industry in Australia, with Campbell Bolwell acknowledged as a founding father.

Fifty-five years on this year, Bolwell is still a family company, headed by Vaughan Bolwell, an Industrial Designer. Co-founders Campbell Bolwell and his high school friend, Linley Hughes, remain company Directors and are still active in the business.

The first Bolwell Nagari was a single piece monocoque construction, the first in the southern hemisphere (and the second in the world) to have such a design quality. Today, this design methodology has been adapted in the Bolwell Edge – the new fullymoulded composites-based touring caravan with lightweight, aerodynamic properties.

According to Vaughan, key to the company’s survival over the years has been its flexibility, commitment to continuous improvement and a willingness to reinvent itself at intervals.

An early influence was the automotive and transport industries which led to the adoption of Lean Manufacturing principles, particularly the Toyota Production System (TPS). The company utilises Kanban to schedule work throughout its facilities for efficient and highly visible tracking of orders and it regularly undertakes Kaizen activities to review and optimise its processes and systems. In recent months, Bolwell has installed a specialised, long arm robotic trimmer as well as light scanning technology to its stable of advanced manufacturing capabilities.

The light scanning technology and associated specialist software are already delivering a step change quality improvement in line with the company’s Kaizen ethos. Parts large or small, complex or simple, can now be easily reverse-engineered using the 3D surface measurement digital light projection technology. The systems computational power is also used as a quality control method to verify that the parts produced match the initial CAD data and technical specifications from the customer. Bolwell says that the speed, accuracy, resolution, portability and ease of use is especially useful for PPAP and ISIR requirements where 2D technical specifications are often limited in assessing the complexity of real-world objects.

Adding to its original ISO 9001:2015, the company recently adopted environmental best practice by way of attaining ISO 14001:2015 accreditation. Bolwell says that the decision to become ISO 14001 accredited was driven by as the company’s use of the most challenging raw materials in manufacturing and by the increasing expectations of international client companies. “The ISO framework has also helped us improve our environmental performance through increased plant reliability and process control; efficient use of resources and reduction of waste,” says Vaughan. While he is proud of the company, its legacy, workforce and intellectual property, he is quick to point out that the past 55 years have not been all plain sailing. “We have had our fair share of setbacks, but looking back, the setbacks, although painful at the time, were a catalyst for unity, innovation and advancement. Each time we were forced to assess the company and refresh our values and direction.”

An electrical fire started on an early April morning in 2014 and quickly swept through the 2000 square metre factory, exploding resin drums and requiring 80 fire fighters some 90 minutes to bring under control.

Bolwell said that the emotional cost was much higher than the cost of the damage: “But the whole experience was unifying for our team, with everyone coming together to create minimal impact on our customers. Importantly, rebuilding forced us to rethink the way we manufacture, our production flows and equipment.”

The company’s international ventures in Mexico, Vietnam, Canada and more recently Thailand, have all enjoyed varying degrees of success.

The Canadian wind turbine blades industry is one that owes its origins to the resin infusion process developed by Campbell Bolwell who was called upon in 2000-2005 to relocate to Ontario to set up an industry that still thrives today. For a number of years, the Canadian company Polymarin Bolwell Composites produced blades for 600 kW and 750 kW wind turbine machines as well as large flight simulators for Boeing. Sadly, the company did not survive the catastrophic economic effects on North America and aviation arising from the September 11, 2001 attacks.

But the strategic decision in 2014 to establish Bolwell Holdings (Thailand) Co. Ltd, in which it manufactures advanced composites components and products for its major transport client and the global market has thus far been a success. The facility is centrally located to service both the European and North American markets and, unlike other ventures, is fully owned by Bolwell.

The company’s venture into its own recreational vehicle in 2010 was the result of a long evolution in industrial design, composites  engineering, tooling, CAD systems, RTM and aerospace bonding technologies for Bolwell Corporation. The Edge caravan rides on an independent trailing arm suspension, making it stable, safe and economical to tow. The body is bonded, creating an extremely strong, one-piece waterproof structure . The Edge went on to win the Automotive Engineering Excellence Award from the Society of Automotive Engineers, and the JEC Asia Pacific Award for Transport Innovation. The Edge also won the Australian Good Design Award in 2010. 

Today Bolwell’s advanced manufacturing technologies and world-class designs have been instrumental in creating opportunities both at home and abroad. The company is now known as an advanced composites innovator providing engineering and industrial design services and making and supplying composite components to some of the world’s biggest heavy transport manufacturers for over 36 years.

It is difficult to quantify the years of innovation, investment (both human capital and financial) and trial and error in materials and processes. The qualities of persistence, mentoring and determination – from experimenting with chicken wire and early resins in a garage to developing a carbon fibre composite monocoque shell for a  supercar – have been part of the Bolwell success story.

Vaughan says: While business can be challenging, I am confident that the company’s DNA of raw entrepreneurial spirit, courage,  adaptability and resilience will continue.

The Nagari – then and now

In 1962 Campbell Bolwell and his brother Graeme transformed their hobby of building special sports cars into a business. Utilizing their knowledge and expertise, the Bolwell brothers produced over 200 Nagaris on a steel backbone chassis, before ceasing production in 1974. The Nagari has a fibreglass body and powerful V8 engine at the heart of the ‘Aussie’ exotic sports car coupe. During these years of production, Campbell transformed his knowledge of composite fabrication and transport innovation into a diverse global business.
But the pull of the creative process of designing and producing a high performing unique vehicle has never left, and after three years of research and development in its Mordialloc headquarters, the Bolwell Company released a prototype carbon fibre-bodied car, the Mk10 Nagari 300, at the 2008 Melbourne International Motor Show and 2008 Sydney International Motor Show. The Mk II is a mid-engined twoseater coupé with a carbon-fibre tub, front and rear subframes and a carbon-reinforced composite body. Power comes from a fettled 2GR-FE 3.5L V6 engine sourced from the Toyota Aurion. The car was designed to accelerate from 0-100 km/h in 4 seconds due to the extensive use of composite materials. Unable to quell his creative spirit, Campbell will be releasing a new Nagari  within the next 12 months. “The Nagari has been a passion, a dream and a journey that started in the ‘60s and progressed and evolved into the breathtaking 2008 and now the 2019 model that is a testament to the extraordinary application of advanced composites and construction techniques,” concluded Campbell Bolwell.