Tom Karen is a softly spoken legend of British design. We invited him to inspect the Ogle SX250, now its long-anticipated rejuvenation is complete. He beams at it, yet you sense he’s playing down the sleepless nights its creation entailed. For Karen, now 85, creating the SX250 was a baptism of fire.
‘I’m not sure if I ever even drove it,’ he chuckles, squeezing himself into the thin bucket seat. ‘I had my hands full trying to rescue the company. David Ogle had been a great personality, and everything revolved round him. But this car was important: there was a client waiting for it!’ The extraordinary, fractured enterprise behind this gorgeous 2+2 – the car that would give rise to the Reliant Scimitar – was made worthwhile on its 1962 debut at London’s Earls Court. The press heralded it as an urbane new dawn in British car styling. Even Sir William Lyons came to see it on the tiny Ogle stand. ‘He said it was a very nice car,’ Karen recalls. ‘That, for me, was fantastic to hear.’
Behind the scenes, the Ogle owed its existence to face cream and transistor radios. Decades before a single pen-stroke of the SX250’s lines touched drawing paper at Ogle Design, one Boris Kogoulski was gripped by speed. In 1913 and aged 17, he competed in a 29-hour motorcycle race from Moscow to St Petersburg in his native Russia. His parents (his father was Jewish) were in show business, prosperous and middle-class, and so became natural enemies of the Revolution in 1917.Boris himself fought in World War One at the Romanian border as a gunner officer. In 1918 he was arrested for black marketeering, but escaped jail by crowning a prison officer with a heavy bowl, possibly killing him, and fled to Paris with his French-born wife Marisa. He intended to adopt her maiden name of Fortier but a paperwork error meant he ended up as Boris Forter.
Boris’s wheeler-dealing propelled him from selling fountain pens in Paris to the New York cosmetics industry, and he never missed an opportunity. He encountered ambitious potions queen Helena Rubinstein, who was so taken with his charisma and toughness she despatched Boris to London in 1938 to establish her British branch. This he did with panache, opening treatment salons and organizing local manufacture. He was probably the only beauty industry executive ever to pore over Motor Sport instead of Vogue at lunchtime, and his salary eventually ran to a brand new Austin-Healey 100/6. He was absolutely reckless, roaring the wrong way up one-way streets and round traffic islands. In one accident, he tore the entire side off his Mk2 Jag.
‘He’d ask me to fix things like that – he was a terrible driver,’ recalled Kensington Jaguar dealer Syd Creamer. ‘But he knew what he wanted in cars. He once told me he’d like a beige Jaguar but he wanted it to glitter. I said Jaguar didn’t do such a colour. He just told me to get them to tip a tin of silver paint in with beige, and that’s how Jaguar created Opalescent Golden Sand.’
Boris was very taken with the Ogle SX1000 starring at the Racing Car Show in January 1962. It was the work of David Ogle. Formerly a Murphy Radio staff designer, he set up his own consultancy in 1954, and his iconic design for the Bush TR82 of 1959 made it Britain’s best-selling transistor radio. That year, too, Ogle tackled his first car, a Riley 1.5 rebodied in fiberglass as a handsome coupe, a bit like an Alfa Giulietta Sprint. He boldly manufactured and delivered eight of them before deciding instead to rework the 1961 Mini-Cooper as a compact GT.
Ogle cut off the Cooper’s upper bodywork and ditched the interior. The fiberglass shell and interior refit was then added to the rolling floorpan, inner wings and bulkhead. The tiny Letchworth operation was bankrolled by his chums, Essex Racing team owner John Ogier (Essex, hence SX) and racing aristocrat Sir John Whitmore.
Boris Forter had long nurtured the idea of having his very own car built. Indeed, Syd Creamer suggested the Daimler SP250, with its superb V8 engine and separate chassis, could form a good basis for one. David Ogle was the obvious person to make it real, and eagerly accepted Boris’s request. There were two sweeteners. First, Boris would line up wealthy mates for five more; second, Ogle Design would get some packaging work for Rubinstein’s concoctions. David Ogle rapidly sketched out just the lithe and modern 2+2 Boris demanded, and a full-size clay model was started.
Then tragedy struck. David Ogle died in a car crash while driving an SX1000 to Brands Hatch in May 1962. That’s when Tom Karen was hired. As well as a short previous stint with Ogle, he’d done design work for Ford and Phillips. Now he had to soothe the company’s biggest client – Bush – and finish Boris’s dream car. ‘It was amazing for a design office to put a whole car together, short of a chassis, but we did it,’ he recalls.
A sheet steel structure was welded to the Daimler’s ladder frame for stiffness and to reduce stress on the fiberglass bodywork, with front and rear bulkheads. Sill covers concealed channel-section ‘risers’ that deepened at the back so the spare wheel could be stored under the boot floor. At 5ft 11in wide and 14ft 2.75in long, it was slightly bigger then the SP250.
‘The fashion then was for cars to be “pulled out” at the corners, to tend to have fins. The Ogle Daimler’s wraparound design anticipated trends and so lasted better. Boris didn’t like the front end. He came in quite often; we got on well because we were both cosmopolitan people.’ The Perspex headlight covers were dropped and Karen added an airdam. ‘I did this under-bumper fairing simply because it felt right, although it may have helped the aerodynamics. Another feature that pleased me was the shutline around the bootlid, which made an elegant detour round the fuel cap. I decided to bring the boot shutline over the edge too, which David Ogle hadn’t done.’The interior was all Karen’s work. It has a centre console, walnut-faced and angled towards the driver, and features the sunroof, reclining seats and electric windows Boris demanded. The fiberglass coachwork, stuffed with sound insulation, gained 12 coats of Sable paint with pale grey ‘Suwide’ interior trim and contrasting dark grey carpets. This car, road-registered 347 PNK on 15 November 1962, formed the template for Boris’s own example, 595 NJH, which he received in spring 1963.
Ogle Design issued a press release entitled: ‘Beauty expert supervises design of unique British car.’ Boris was quoted: ‘This celebrates 50 years on the road for me. I have owned numerous cars, many powerful and expensive, but I have always wanted to possess a vehicle completely tailored to my own requirements.’
Well, almost. Acutely aware of Helena Rubinstein’s tetchy nature, Boris had the interior executed in French Violet – ‘a colour,’ purred the release, ‘specially created for Madame Rubinstein’s sumptuous Knightsbridge flat.’
Staff within Helena Rubinstein were aware of Boris’s tangled personal life. Jean Ives worked at the main Rubinstein salon in Grafton Street, Mayfair. ‘We all called him Uncle Boris; he was lovely. But I had a friend who worked in a florist’s in Chiswick and I knew all about his women – each Christmas he would order ten bouquets and send them to completely different addresses!’
One addressee, no doubt, was a neighbor in the Chiswick mansion block where Boris, Marisa and their son Claude lived. Birgit Wolmar, a Swedish Greta Garbo lookalike, was Boris’s mistress. She fell pregnant in 1949, and gave birth to their son Christian, but divorce was a no-no for Boris – Miss Rubinstein would’ve gone ballistic. So he continued to live in Chiswick with Marisa, while Ms Wolmar moved to Kensington. An elaborate pretence was concocted with young Christian as the son of an estranged Norwegian, and Boris as a family friend who regularly drove Christian to school and took him to football matches.
‘We adored each other,’ says Christian Wolmar, today a foremost writer on railways. He was 16 when he discovered ‘Bom Bom’ was really his father. ‘It was the typical thing: someone mentions how similar you look and suddenly it dawns on you.’
But there was more. Boris lined up his first pal for an SX250. It was the first car, 347 PNK, suitably tidied up and delivered to a Mrs JM Hart of Chelsea in July 1963. Wealthy widow Jean Marianne ‘Jeanne’ Hart was another of Boris’s ladies. Years later, Christian found out his father had set up home with Jeanne, totally unknown to Marisa and Birgit. Says Christian: ‘It was aristocratic Russian bad behaviour but, then, he worked in a women’s world, and he loved them.’
Boris failed to find the other four SX250 buyers. Whitmore and Ogier had already lost their shirts on the SX1000 venture and wanted out. ‘We approached Reliant in 1963 with a view to them making the Ogle Mini,’ Karen remembers. ‘Reliant was already making a sports car called the Sabre and suggested adapting the Daimler’s body to fit this chassis. That was how the Reliant Scimitar GT coupe was born. David Ogle’s chassis were tubular with fiberglass panels draped onto them, whereas Reliant made bodies with inners and outers like a steel car. That’s where much of the modification took place.’
A long and lucrative co-operation between Reliant and Ogle began. The high point was the Scimitar GTE of 1969, also designed by Karen. ‘It broke new ground with its rising waistline and estate capability,’ he says. ‘I also adored the three-wheeled Bond Bug, which was my idea. What’s amazing is that Bugs are now worth more than Scimitars!’
As the years rolled by, Boris wanted to do it all again. He did so by ordering a Gilbern Invader through the Ace Motor Company in 1972. ‘He chose his own paintwork, seats and upholstery – he even went to the factory in Wales several times to ensure everything was to his liking,’ recalled Ace proprietor Emil Rosner.
Boris suffered an extraordinary accident in his Gilbern. While driving to Southampton to collect Miss Rubinstein (she hated flying, so always came to Britain by liner), a horse chestnut fell in through the open sunroof. It hit him in the eye and he lost most of its sight. He died of cancer in 1976, virtually penniless. ‘He was managing director of Helena Rubinstein yet only an employee,’ says Christian Wolmar. ‘He spent everything he earned.’
Boris’s Ogle, which he sold to make way for his Gilbern, went to Sweden, where it remains. Jeanne’s example was sold in December 1964 to Georges Brinkman of Surrey, and then again in 1968 to Brian Merriday in Kent. It survived a major shunt and a gold respray to end up with Billingshurst garage owner Cliff Griffin in 1989, who never completed its restoration. That duty fell to new owner Roger Bradford, who painstakingly spruced it up and lovingly recreated the headlight surrounds and front bumper, which had been lost.
Sadly, just before Octane was granted exclusive access to the Ogle, Mr Bradford died suddenly; now his son Matthew and business partner John Blackhurst are wondering what to do with it. With that notoriously bendy chassis, narrow wire wheels, lightweight fiberglass panels and 140bhp from the sweet 2548cc Daimler V8, it feels a bit twitchy on damp roads, and that’s despite the four-wheel Dunlop disc brakes. Another one of Boris’s requirements was 120mph…
Perhaps the SX250 is best admired less as a Jaguar-eater and more as the rare piece of British automotive sculpture that it remains.
Thanks to Tom Karen, whose book Ogle & The Bug is published by TK Books at £5.99 – www.tkbooks.co.uk. Enquiries about the Ogle SX250 should go to firstname.lastname@example.org.
1962 Ogle SX250
Engine: 2548cc V8, OHV, two SU carburettors
Power: 140bhp @ 5800rpm
Torque: 155lb ft @ 3600rpm
Transmission: Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering: Cam and lever
Suspension: Front: wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers. Rear: live axle, leaf springs, telescopic dampers
Weight: 1100kg (est)
Performance: Top speed 120mph (est). 0-60mph 10sec (est)