If you grew up in 1970s Britain, you lived in Tom Karen’s world. If you were a child, you may have played with Karen’s ingenious Marble Run toy, which is still in production today. If you weren’t cruising the streets on a Raleigh Chopper, you envied the kid who was. And you were waiting for the day they invented a levitating landspeeder like Luke Skywalker’s in Star Wars (and possibly still are). If you were slightly older, you might have driven in a sleek new Scimitar GTE, like Princess Anne did. Or, if you were a little harder up, maybe a three-wheeled Reliant Robin. Karen, who has died aged 96, had a hand in all of these and many more products.
That so many of Karen’s designs speak of their era is no coincidence, but nor was Karen purely interested in style or novelty. Trained as an aeronautical engineer, he was also extremely practical, but he recognised that good design was not only a matter of form and function, but also fantasy.
Take the Chopper. Raleigh’s marketing director approached Karen’s Ogle Design in 1968 to come up with a bike specifically for children, and Karen seemed to know just what his junior – predominantly male – audience wanted: high handlebars and an L-shaped saddle from an Easy Rider-style chopper; a centrally mounted gearstick from a 70s muscle car; a giant back wheel, like a drag racer, complete with make-believe springs and disc brakes. It was radical and outlandish and playful, but with its straight-tubed frame, the bike was also elegant to look at and practical to manufacture. Raleigh sold an estimated 1.5m of them.
The adult products were no different. The Scimitar GTE, designed in 1968, was never a world-beating performer, but in terms of postwar aspiration and fun, it certainly looked the part, with its high, rising waistline and then-radical “hatchback” – innovations that would soon become fixtures of car design. The bright orange, three-wheeled Bond Bug tapped into the youthful, poppy aesthetic of the Mini, but also into the sci-fi futurism of 1960s designers Archigram, with its fibreglass body and lift-up canopy. No wonder George Lucas turned to him to design the Star Wars landspeeder (which was adapted from a Bond Bug).
The Bond Bug’s more enduring successor, the Reliant Robin, became associated with the naffer side of 70s and 80s Britain, though Karen resented the fact that the Trotters’ famous vehicle from the sitcom Only Fools and Horses was actually a Reliant Regal, from the 1950s, not the sleeker Karen-designed Robin. Admittedly the Robin was still a bit naff – “For people who can’t afford a proper bike”, Jasper Carrott joked – but again, it was practical: economical, adaptable, and technically it qualified as a motorcycle, meaning you didn’t need a full licence to drive one.
In his long career Karen designed plenty more – everything from domestic appliances to toys, planes, trucks, crash test dummies, games and sculptures. He was a genuine all-rounder. Speaking about his Marble Run, which he judged to be his most inspired creation, he wrote: “My mind seems to be programmed to enable me to juggle around a number of ideas at the same time: the function, the form, the way to make something. I let ideas percolate in my mind and when they took a certain shape, I would record them in my sketchbook (was never without one). This would clear my mind before tackling further problems.” Needless to say, he got through a lot of sketchbooks.
Having come to Britain from Czechoslovakia, aged 16, halfway through the second world war, Karen must have experienced Britain during one of its grimmest periods, but in his own playful yet practical way, he seemed committed to providing future generations with joy.