Tom Karen, one of Britain’s most original industrial designers, who has died aged 96, will be remembered for colourful, headline-stealing products that caught the spirit of their age, including the Raleigh Chopper, the Bond Bug, Marble Run and the Reliant Scimitar GTE. In Karen’s case, the age was the fecund 1960s propelled optimistically into the economically challenged 70s, the decade, in the popular imagination, that style forgot.
The radical Chopper children’s bike, launched in 1969, rescued Raleigh from financial disaster. Now any 10-year-old could ride the cul-de-sacs of Britain like Peter Fonda astride his Easy Rider “Captain America” Harley-Davidson. With its high-set handlebars, outsize rear wheel, wedge-shaped frame, bright colours – Golden Yellow, Flamboyant Green and Brilliant Orange – long padded backrest saddle, central gear lever, dummy disc brake and motorcycle-style stand, it represented a world removed from that of staid sit-up-and-beg postwar children’s bikes. Raleigh’s chief international designer, Alan Oakley, also claimed credit for its design, having sketched an early image of the bike on a flight home from a research trip to the US.
The Bond Bug, an eye-catching three-wheeler car available in any colour as long as it was bright orange, was, Karen liked to say, a “Ferrari for 16-year-olds”. A Bug owner needed only a motorcycle-plus-sidecar licence to power (29bhp) this wedge-shaped resin rocket (75mph) along Britain’s Cortina-crowded main roads. The Kings Road, Chelsea in London was, perhaps, the Bug’s spiritual home, one advert for the car depicting a fashionable young architect stowing a cardboard tube of drawings into the fibreglass cabin, another a mini-skirted model looking laconically cool.
A Raleigh Chopper children’s bike at Tom Karen’s home in Cambridge. Photograph: The Guardian
Where the Chopper and the Bug were, at heart, toys for children and young adults, the trendsetting Reliant Scimitar GTE of 1968 was a revolutionary sporting estate car, highly resolved in terms of Karen’s subtly curved, upswept styling, and with performance to match its innovative good looks. Sales were boosted in 1970 when the Queen and Prince Philip gave Princess Anne an air force blue GTE for her 20th birthday. Philip had driven a one-off Triplex glass-roofed Reliant Scimitar, an earlier model redesigned as a promotional special by Karen, between 1965 and 1967, and had been greatly impressed.
These three highly individualistic designs were shaped when Karen was managing director and chief designer of Ogle Design, a company founded in Letchworth by David Ogle in 1954. Eight years later, Ogle crashed at speed and was killed at the wheel of one of his fibreglass Mini-based sports cars. Karen was offered his job, and stayed with the company for 37 years.
Throughout this time, free-spirited yet practical, unexpected …….