His name probably won’t ring a bell… However, Tom Karen is a very eclectic designer who is still active, even though he is 95 years old! None of the cars he designed is a “masterpiece” in automotive history but they all had something unusual. His aim was never to design ‘fashionable’ cars but rather to make them practical and functional. (Text: Dimitri Urbain)
Thomas Josef Derrick Paul Karen (Kohn) was born in Vienna in 1926. His father was a well-off building contractor. He loved cars and owned a Bugatti, among other things. As a child, Tom was given a Bugatti Baby, a 35 scale model powered by an electric motor. Aged 13, he had to leave Czechoslovakia to escape the Nazis. A Jewish family name saw to that, even though his parents were not religiously-minded, they had no choicen unfortunately. At first, the family moved to Prague, hoping that the city would be a safe place for them. Soon, they realised it wouldn’t the case. Tom’s father had contacts in the Czech Air Force that helped him to escape to Poland, then Sweden and, finally, to Britain, in 1942.
Accompanied by his mother and brother, Tom was granted a visa to travel to Belgium and then to Southern France. From there, another trip through Spain and Portugal would eventually allow them to be reunited with his father in Great Britain. Money was very tight and Tom went through many jobs while studying aeronautical engineering at Loughborough College. After that, he also attended Central St Martins in London, to become a commercial and industrial designer.
From industrial design…
Tom began his career in the 1950s, at first in the aeronautical industry, before joining Ford in 1955. Like many penniless car enthusiasts of the time, he dressed up a good old Austin Seven with his own body design. Elements of his future cars, such as the smooth sides, were already present. In 1959, he changed jobs again and went to Ogle Design. At the time, the company was moving into car assembly. Ogle-designed bodies were made in reinforced fibreglass and received Riley 1.5 engines.
Three years later, these design principles were adapted to Mini mechanics: the Ogle SX 1000 was born. It was a very original little coupe. The untimely death of David Ogle stopped the small in-house coupé production in 1962. Tom Karen took over from him and was appointed design manager at Ogle. Bush, a radio and record players manufacturer, was one of Ogle’s biggest customers. Tom designed the TR130 receiver for them. It was a huge success during the 1960s.
… to cars
After his stint at Ford, industrial design kept Tom busy. He returned to the car industry somewhat by chance, when Reliant signed a major contract with Ogle. His trademark is a rearward-facing beltline, seen on a multitude of models. It’s a bit of a dragster look, with a stern that’s higher than the bow, suggesting power surging through the rear wheels.
Design ingenuity is another of his trademark features that makes his automotive designs easy and cheap to manufacture. Being first (and foremost) an industrial designer, easiness and reduced assembly costs were always more important to him than aesthetics. Eventually, any “beauty” emerging from the object would be a welcomed bonus. On paper, all this seems pretty harsh… yet, Tom Karen designed various cars in which fun and a playful side can be felt through and through.
The Reliant Scimitar
Reliant used the Daimler SP250 Dart as the basis for their SX250. This one evolved into the Sabre, a two-door, six-cylinder coupe. The Scimitar GT was derived from it, just like the glass-roofed Scimitar GTS Triplex. Back in 1965, it was just a prototype showcasing Triplex’s automotive glass expertise. The Duke of Edinburgh fell in love with the car and used it for at least two years. During this time, Karen returned to his drawing board and developed the design further. By 1968, the Reliant Scimitar GTE was complete. At the rear, it uses flat windows that rise up and follow the beltline while the tailgate is a single flat window.
The bodywork was made entirely of fibreglass and fitted with Ford mass-produced mechanical components. This car is without doubt Reliant’s greatest achievement. Four generations and several thousand units were produced between 1968 and 1986. After the brand ceased trading, production continued between 1988 and 1990, this time under the Middlebridge name. On top of Prince Philip, Princess Ann also contributed to the car’s success. She got her first one as a birthday present and loved so much that she owned several examples and a Middlebridge is still in her garage! Reliant also called on Tom Karen for other projects. In 1965, he designed the Anadol for the Turkish market.
The three-wheelers: Bond Bug and Reliant Robin
Tom Karen’s other great automotive success is a three-wheeler! Reliant had built up a loyal customer base for its three-wheeler range. They were cheap to buy and to run, as well as benefiting from a reduced tax and they were very popular for many years. Bond was Reliant’s main competitors and eventually bought it in the late 1960s. Reliant wanted to preserve its identity and develop it to attract a new, younger customer base. The Bond Bug was launched in 1970 and is without doubt one of Tom Karen’s most successful projects.
It was intended to be the British equivalent of the American buggy, with a distinctive plastic body and a flashy orange colour. By the way, it was the only one available… just because… it was the cheapest! It was a strict two-seater with just one door : the whole front swings up and down. Just in case, canvas side doors allow passengers to get out. A few years later, in 1973, Tom Karen designed the Reliant Robin. This one uses a modified Bond Bug chassis.
Of course, the body was still made of plastic. It is a very light car, weighing less than 450 kg! It can carry four people in quite acceptable comfort. Innovation is in its details like the roof gutters. Sheet metal bodies mean the sides and roof are simply connected in the right place, ensuring roof gutters are straightforward and even over their whole length. This is not the case with fibreglass, which can be subject to differences in thickness.
Tom Karen solved the problem in an easy and efficient way: the Robin gutters are located in the door frames… design ingenuity, simplicity and low cost. For the record, Giorgietto Giugiaro took up this idea a few years later and used it on the Fiat Uno!
A prolific mind
The following decades were just as prolific for Tom Karen, the grown-up kid. He designed toys and games for his own children and thousands of others. He designed the Raleigh Chopper bike, the very one a whole generation dreamed of in the 70s. He also designed games like Marble Run. Fun and educational, this 3D puzzle allows you to develop a technical logic and mind. Different circuits allow marbles to move along various paths, some sort of a complex pinball, in a way.
At about the same time, he designed … Luke Skywalker’s Land Speeder, for the first episode of the Star Wars saga! During the 80’s, he also designed several truck cabs for Leyland: the C40 and T45. He also designed the Range Rover-based Popemobile in 1982. Tom took a well-deserved retirement in 1999.
Since then, he has been designing, creating more games and lecturing on design at the Royal College of Art in London… being over 95 years old doesn’t stop him in the least! Back in 2018, he became Officer of the British Empire, a reward for his contribution to the industry. A belated recognition, certainly, but one that crowns an massive and little-known work.