Tom Karen, designer of Raleigh Chopper and Marble Run, dies aged 96

Family and friends pay tribute to Karen, who also oversaw design of Reliant Scimitar GTE car

Tom Karen, the British designer behind the Raleigh Chopper and Marble Run has died aged 96, his family have confirmed.

His daughter Eugenie told the Guardian: “It was a privilege to have been close to such a creative person. He made things constantly and even his most throwaway creations were things to be treasured. I have a paper Spitfire that he casually made for my sons in minutes, but it captures the aircraft’s character perfectly.

“He had such an extraordinary life and found such happiness living his last couple of decades in Cambridge.”

Karen died peacefully on New Year’s Eve with his daughters, Eugenie and Josephine, and his carer, Marzanna.

Brent Smith, a friend of Karen’s, said: “I knew Tom for almost 50 years and we became good friends in our respective retirements. I admired him as a designer and free thinker but it was him being such a lovely person that attracted me to him. Kind, gentle, almost childlike.

“To see him surrounded by children enchanted by him; he had the most beautiful voice, was wonderful to experience. I enjoyed nothing more than spending time with him in this house in Cambridge, with him working away on some new idea. Every shelf, surface and wall covered with his models and pictures.”

Karen, described as “the man who designed the 1970s”, studied aeronautical engineering and took charge of Ogle Design as MD and chief designer in 1962 after previously working in the aircraft industry, and with Ford, Hotpoint and Phillips.

During his time at Ogle, he oversaw the design of the Bush Radio TR130 radio, the Raleigh Chopper, the Bond Bug, the Reliant Scimitar GTE, the Anadol A1 (FW5), a series of lorry cabs for Leyland, and the Marble Run toy.

He retired from Ogle in 1999 but continued to enjoy creating and designing.

Karen was appointed an OBE for his services to design and his sketchbooks are held at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Reflecting on his creations, he singled out Marble Run, as his “most inspired creation”.

He also recalled how during a meeting about the Chopper he hit on the idea of having “a big wheel at the back like a Formula One car or dragster”. Although the idea was initially met with some reservation, the Raleigh Chopper would go on to become a design classic and for many epitomises the era.

A Raleigh Chopper.
Karen’s idea of having a big wheel at the back of the Chopper was initially met with some reservation. Photograph: The Guardian

Born in Vienna in 1926, Karen lived in the Czech city of Brno. The family wealth came from a brickworks set up by his great-grandfather. The family fled the Nazis in 1939, when Karen was 13, travelling from Belgium and France to Portugal before arriving in the UK in 1942.

An exhibition celebrating the designer’s life and work is running at the Museum at One Garden City in Letchworth, Hertfordshire.

Its curator and heritage manager, Josh Tidy, said: “Tom was a true great. I had the pleasure of meeting him several times over the last year or so, putting together an exhibition, Tom Karen: Creations.

He added that he was “very pleased in retrospect that we were able to do the exhibition last year”, adding: “I know Tom was thrilled with it which makes me happy, at this sad time.”

Tidy said there would be a condolence book at the museum that they would pass on to the family.

Danny Hopkins, the editor of Practical Classics magazine, said: “Tom’s contribution to industrial design was huge … Yes, his showstoppers the Bond Bug and the Raleigh Chopper grabbed the headlines but far more profound were his more subtle moments of genius: the rising kick-in waistline of the Reliant Scimitar in particular … look at most modern SUVs. That’s Tom.”

Smith said the hope was to set up an archive of Karen’s models and drawings “so that they can be seen by future generations”.

In an interview with the Guardian in 2017, Karen admitted he was still designing for his own pleasure, including bird sculptures, corrugated cardboard trees and games.

“I have a butterfly mind, and I’m still flooded with ideas,” he said.


Jane Clinton

The GuardianTramp

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