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Tom Karen: the inventor who had designs on your childhood



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There were two kinds of children in the seventies - those who had a Raleigh Chopper bike and those who desperately wanted one.

Its dragster looks, with a large back wheel and design touches such as fake disc brakes to make children feel they were riding a powerful machine down the street all came from the imagination of designer Tom Karen.

The 94 year old, who has lived in Cambridge for the past 20 years has just brought out his autobiography, Toymaker, which reveals the stories behind his greatest creations.

Because Tom didn’t just design the Chopper, he is also the inventor of the Marble Run, the Bond Bug car, Luke Skywalker’s Land Cruiser in Star wars as well as the bulletproof Popemobile, the revolutionary Scimitar GTE, aeroplanes, buses and trucks.

Tom Karen designer of the Chopper bike amongst other things at home in Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell. (43027271)
Tom Karen designer of the Chopper bike amongst other things at home in Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell. (43027271)

Of his most famous product, Tom says: “I always meet people who either had a Chopper or badly wanted one. I'm arguing in the book you need to make things simple and easy to manufacture, that simplicity is a virtue. But if you analyse the chopper it wasn't a very good bike by those standards, it was very heavy and the saddle had a chrome spring underneath which did nothing and at some stage i thought that the bigger rear wheels needed a bit of furnishing so I put make believe disc brakes in and the mud guards are well off the wheels to look as if there was suspension and that they needed that room and of course there's no question of that. Some purists could say I wasn't doing the right thing but it all added up to a very successful product.

“We owe the Chopper ‘s success really to an American company called Schwinn they had developed this rather butch bike that looked a bit more like a machine than a bike.

Raleigh needed to compete with it but their marketing director came to see me and explained that he wanted to get a product that appealed to the same kind of market but had a different flavour. The Schwinn had curvaceous tubes. I gave mine very straight tubes and the big thing was the big wheel and the small wheel . A dragster gets all the power from the rear wheels so I immediately thought I must put a big wheel on the back so that ended up being a very successful bike.”

Tom, who has four grown up children and seven grandchildren admits that he nonetheless had no need to consult his own family about any of his designs. He is just very good at knowing what children enjoy in toy, perhaps because of things that happened in his own childhood.

Designer Tom Karen at home in Cambridge with his marble run. Picture: Keith Heppell. (43027241)
Designer Tom Karen at home in Cambridge with his marble run. Picture: Keith Heppell. (43027241)

Tom says: “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 says: “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.

“I think for the last year or two before 1939 my father was deeply worried not knowing what he could do about it. And one night on the 15th March I was woken up and told to get dressed and pack what toys I wanted. We got in a car and drove up to Prague because there was some idea that Prague might be spared and then of course we watched the Germans walking down Wenceslas Square.

Designer Tom Karen's landspeeder design. Picture: Keith Heppell. (43027280)
Designer Tom Karen's landspeeder design. Picture: Keith Heppell. (43027280)

“But then we were extremely lucky. My father had connections with the Czech air force and they had a secret route taking people into Poland across the hills to Sweden and then through to this country so he was OK. And then some amazing people got some visas for my mother and for my brother and sister so we got to Belgium and then went to the south of France. We had periods of being hungry and at some stage we were staying in a dreadful unhygienic place. The challenge then was you had to get permission to leave Vichy to get out then you had to get the visa for Spain to go to Portugal and the visa for coming to this country and they all had to line up like dominoes. And if any one of them got out of date you had to start all over again - so that was a worry.

“We eventually the right paperwork to travel from Lisbon to Bristol. And 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.”

Tom Karen: pic by Mick Walsh (43027206)
Tom Karen: pic by Mick Walsh (43027206)

Arriving with no money, Tom describes in his memoir how he took a series of jobs before realising he wanted to become a commercial designer and retraining at Central St Martins in London.

He went on to work at Ford and Hotpoint before taking over Ogle Design, when its founder, David Ogle was killed in a car accident. It was at Ogle where Tom reached the top of the design game. Tom Karen is responsible for some of our most cherished inventions such as the Raleigh Chopper bike, the Marble Run, the Scimitar GTE (featured in The Crown series 2) and the Bond Bug, amongst many other cult transport vehicles, toys and games loved by kids the world over.

Designer Tom Karen's Bond Bug design. Picture: Keith Heppell. (43027262)
Designer Tom Karen's Bond Bug design. Picture: Keith Heppell. (43027262)

Tom says: “When poor David Ogle was killed in a car crash and on the Monday I had a phone call asking me if I wanted to talk to them and then they offered me a job. And that began my 40 years there.

“When I got there survival was the only thing on my mind. David Ogle was a very good designer who had designed radios and record players and he designed the TR82 radio. I'm sure you would recognise it. It had a big round dial and it was a real icon. Anyway Bush was the biggest client and they gave us six months' notice so potentially we were in big trouble but I designed this radio called the TR130 and that became the bestselling radio of the 1960s."

He then went on to design cars for Reliant as they became a client of Ogle, and this led to the creation of one of Tom’s less well known but extremely influential designs.

Walking down the street towards his Victorian terraced house in central Cambridge, I couldn't help noticing the design element that has become part of almost every car since he designed the Reliant Scimitar GTE, which came out in 1968. It’s a simple rising line from front to back, which is called ‘the waistline’ and is the dividing mark between bodywork and windows on a car. It is a motif immediately recognisable once you know to look out for it.

Designer Tom Karen's Scimitar GTE design. Picture: Keith Heppell. (43027265)
Designer Tom Karen's Scimitar GTE design. Picture: Keith Heppell. (43027265)

Tom says: “Before that people only had horizontal waistlines on cars. Some people in my office even though it was the wrong thing. But it gave the attitude that the power came from the back. To create a sporting estate car was unheard of in 1968 but now everyone sees that line.”

In his memoir he adds: “I've always had a thing about power being generated from the rear. That’s why my Electrolux vacuum cleaner had mimicked the big back wheels of the racing cars I loved in my childhood. Now, finally, I could apply my foible to a car that would really benefit from it. The waistline of this new model would go up and up, all the way to the back.No one had ever thought of doing this, yet the advantages were dramatic. At a stroke, it made the car look exciting and powerful, giving it a pouncing, nose-down look. There was loads of headroom and luggage space at the back, and a great big back window, which was actually the hatch for loading. But it also had a sleek profile

Designer Tom Karen at home in Cambridge, one of his favourite things to design now is birds. Picture: Keith Heppell. (43027247)
Designer Tom Karen at home in Cambridge, one of his favourite things to design now is birds. Picture: Keith Heppell. (43027247)

“The funny thing is that, these days, it is almost impossible to think of a car that doesn’t have a rising waistline. All Cars are designed that way. The only exception I can think of is the Rolls-Royce, and perhaps a Mercedes model or two. Yet back then this simple adjustment, which anyone could have thought of, was unthinkable. Perhaps that's a characteristic of good design: it leaves other designers kicking themselves for not having thought of it first.”

However, this wasn’t his favourite car - that honour goes to the Bond Bug, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Fewer than 3,000 of the bright orange wedge shaped two seaters were made but they have become beloved collector’s items today.

Tom says: “It is one of the most creative things I have done. Reliant bought out their competitor Bond and suddenly they needed a new car to put into the range. I had discussed with them before the possibility of the three wheeler sporty car so they said I could have a go. The reaction from people was tremendous. Three wheelers never had a great image but I liked this wedge shape because ergonomically it is quite good

“It only had one door and a flat windscreen. I also insisted every car was orange, another simplification so it became a kind of orange Ferrari for the 16 year olds who could drive it. I think people could appreciate all the creativity that had gone into it so that people never made fun of the bond bug. There is still a very lively bond bug club. It is celebrating its 50th anniversary and I even designed a mug for them. It’s an amazing little vehicle.”

Tom Karen: pic by Mick Walsh (43027204)
Tom Karen: pic by Mick Walsh (43027204)

Arguably his most successful design, as it has been played with by millions of children, is the Marble Run.

Tom explains: “I found my children sitting in front of a wooden marble run which was made of wood all you could do is put the marble in at the top it dropped down a zig zag line and then you put the marble back in the top. I was amazed at the satisfaction they got from it and I thought well if you could make something where you could build different configurations of the marble run that would be more fun and there's a certain amount of challenge doing that.

I could easily imagine what it would look like and quickly sketched it in my notebook. We sold it to Kiddicraft and it turned out to be so successful that if we had got the copyright issues sorted I could have retired on the profits and never made another thing.

"Children love being able to put it together and get a lot of satisfaction from throwing in a handful of marbles at the top and watching where they go. After I retired I would run art and design workshops at schools and if I asked the children whether they had ever played with a Marble Run every hand shot up. Now I hear that people are putting them away in their attics to give to their grandchildren, which means it is not a throwaway toy. I love that about it but I suppose toy manufacturers would not be so pleased.”

When Tom retired from Ogle after nearly four decades, he was able to indulge in art and craft activities, run workshops for children and make toys for his grandchildren. Tom has given many talks on design, has his work featured in The RA Summer Exhibition and tutored at the Royal College of Art. He has honorary degrees from Loughborough and Hertfordshire Universities. Although retired, he still sees opportunities for improving many designs.

Tom Karen: with the Bond Bug (43027212)
Tom Karen: with the Bond Bug (43027212)

He says: “At the end of the 90s two things happened. One is that I retired from Ogle and I was no longer designing products and the other it so happened that I got divorced which was a bit overdue. My children had grown up and gone in various directions so there's no way I could stay in the village of Ashwell where we had lived as a family. so I was so lucky I landed here in Cambridge in this house which I'm so pleased about.

“The people around here are so friendly and helpful and for my 94th birthday they celebrated outside my house which was very touching.. The other great thing is that because of my fondness for children I started doing workshops with children in primary schools, Kettle's Yard and the Sainsburys Centre and in museums. I did a lot of those and that was lovely and then my grandchildren came along and so I had a new reason for making toys and I could see how they liked them. So I'm saying the last 20 years of my life are not very well covered by my memoir but they were very satisfying ones for me.”

His home is crammed with his own inventions, designs and art. There is, of course, a Chopper bike and a Marble Run in pride of place. But there are also many wooden toys, including an aeroplane that drops a peace bomb, a racing car, flying paper ballerinas, models of birds and a large cardboard tiger looking at the back of the living room.

Designer Tom Karen at home in Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell. (43027256)
Designer Tom Karen at home in Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell. (43027256)

There are also cabinets of beautiful junk models made for his children’s art workshops. Even though he has retired, his toy designing has never stopped and his sense of fun infiltrates every design.

Tom says: “I often get ideas spontaneously. So one occasion I went to the builders yard and chose a long beam of pine wood and I cut it into large bricks in the same proportions of house bricks and so far nine pounds I got 30 bricks and then I got a rubber stamp made with the words Big Brix. And the satisfaction my grandchildren got out of it was enormous because they are nice to handle and you can build amazing things out of them. And Louis, one of my grandsons, was here on Sunday immediately started making things with the brick and he has been doing that for years and the fact it cost nothing is great.

“Another bit of satisfaction is when you knock it down it makes a fabulous noise it crashes down. Whoosh it is so great.”

Tom Karen: Toymaker cover (43027200)
Tom Karen: Toymaker cover (43027200)

After a long and successful life his only regret, he says, is that none of the products he created have been displayed by the V And A Museum. But he still has his sights on one more achievement. His Ladies in Waiting sculpture featured in the 2010 RA Summer Exhibition. It was a silhouette in metal of women queuing outside a ladies toilet.

“It highlights the way that these facilities are not designed for women. I think it would look rather good on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.”

Toymaker, From Blink Publishing, an imprint of Bonnier Books UK is out on November 12, Priced £20



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