Legendary designer Tom Karen dies aged 96
Designer Tom Karen, who is best known as the creator of the Raleigh Chopper bike, the children’s favourite Marble Run toy and the Bond Bug car, has died at the age of 96.
He had lived in Cambridge for more than 20 years since his retirement from Letchworth’s OGLE Design, where he worked from 1962 until 1999.
While at the helm of OGLE, he was also the design genius behind Luke Skywalker’s Land Cruiser in Star Wars as well as the bulletproof Popemobile, the revolutionary Scimitar GTE car, plus aeroplanes, buses and trucks.
Tom was born in Vienna in 1926 and grew up in Czechoslovakia. He later settled in England in 1942 after his family fled the Nazis and following a long and glittering career was appointed OBE in the 2019 New Year Honours. He passed away peacefully surrounded by his family on New Year’s Eve 2022.
Tom especially loved designing children’s toys - even calling his memoir Toymaker - and after retirement continued to make quirky creations for his own grandchildren. He explained that he knew instinctively what children enjoyed in a toy. He told the Cambridge Independent in an interview two years ago: “I didn’t talk to any children about it. I just knew what children wanted. I had a peculiar feeling that my childhood in Czechoslovakia influenced that. When we had to run away one night when the Germans walked into Czechoslovakia, even though I was 13 I don't think I was quite ready to finish my childhood and playing with toys. There is something about that.
“I have a very good hunch as to what will amuse children and of course I did lots of design workshops here in Cambridge for children and that was so satisfying because children are such enthusiasts and are so creative. I adore watching them.”
Tom’s memoir describes his early life in the former Czechoslovakia, and his terrifying journey fleeing Nazi Germany across continental Europe, which had a huge influence on the rest of his life, and his empathy for refugees all over the world.
He said: “Our family name was Kohn, which is a Jewish name. Both my parents were totally irreligious but with that name we didn't stand a chance.”
His family travelled across Europe, heading through France, Spain and Portugal before eventually sailing to Bristol. Tom said: “We were treated like welcome refugees, we didn't drown in the channel. It was a different attitude from what is happening at the moment. It was so nice. And I have never been hungry since then and it was heaven arriving here.
“I feel so sorry for every kind of refugee. I know what it is like but they have it much worse than I ever did. It is terrible that families and children are drowning in the channel; it is just appalling.”
A retrospective of Tom’s career – Tom Karen Creations – is currently open at the Museum at One Garden City in Letchworth, where OGLE Designs was based. The museum confirmed the designer’s death in a statement on its website.
The exhibition was curated by town historian, Josh Tidy, who said in a statement: “Tom was a true great. I had the pleasure of meeting him several times over the last year or so, putting together the exhibition which celebrates his life and work, and runs until March 10th, (we will have a condolence book in situ, which we’ll pass on to his family) I’m very pleased in retrospect that we were able to do the exhibition last year - timely as it turned out, and as we feared. I know Tom was thrilled with it which makes me happy, at this sad time.”