Interviewing Tom Karen
From the classic Chopper bike and the Marble Run toy to the quirky three-wheel sports car called the Bond Bug, there’s something playful about all Tom Karen’s work as an industrial designer. For 37 years, he headed up Ogle Design, steering it to become the country’s leading independent design house for transport and products.
Now in his 80s, Karen shows me around his Cambridge home, a combination of gallery, workshop and prototyping centre. Toys-in-progress cover his workbench, and he demonstrates several models to me. “I try things out on my grandchildren – they love coming to visit,” he says. You can certainly see why.
From his earliest years, Karen remembers models as important to him. “As a child I had Meccano, but an aircraft made out of Meccano was full of holes and didn’t look anything like the real thing,” he says.
What got him much more excited was a Westland Lysander aircraft model, which his parents brought back from London to their home in Czechoslovakia. “That was a really good model and I adored it.” Karen shows me a photograph of his parents. His mother was a hobbyist pilot, and his father managed the family brickworks.
Another childhood toy was an electric replica Bugatti racing car that Karen and his brother loved. We look at a childhood photo of his brother sitting in this car – a relic of times lost. The family were forced to flee their comfortable life to escape from the Nazis in 1939.
On arriving in Britain in 1942, Karen took an aeronautics diploma at Loughborough College. “During the war, aircraft were much more topical than motorcars,” he explains. He joined aircraft manufacturer Hunting Percival as an aeronautical engineer. But he loved models far more than maths, it turned out, and so he shifted away from stress calculations and towards technical illustration.
Motor vehicles were never far from his mind or his sketchbook, however. Karen bought an Austin 7 and put a new body onto it, and started building a three-wheeler novelty vehicle he called the Vimp.
Ten years went by in the aircraft industry, and then, with money he received as compensation for his family’s wartime losses, he sent himself back to college. This time it was to study industrial design at the Central School of Art and Design in London. “It was heaven,” he says. “I landed where I should have been all along.”
Ford was recruiting and Karen got a job with the firm at Dagenham. “At the time, designers weren’t specifically trained to work for the motor industry,” he says. “Ford recruited artists, industrial designers, even photographic re-touchers.”
These were innovative times at Ford, with management that really understood the potential of design. “I loved being in that atmosphere, I had a great time,” Karen says. A concept car he designed for a national competition, the Rascal, won first prize.
Four productive years with Ford had a very practical outcome. “I always thought automatically in terms of manufacture. Good design makes virtues out of necessities.” Within the parameters of the production process, Karen aimed to design things that were “gorgeous”, a word of which he is fond.
This goal went with him to his next job, at Hotpoint. Tasked to produce some graphics for the launch of a top-loading washing machine, he balked at its poor design. “A little hole to stuff your laundry in, expensive die-casting, an enamel top likely to end up a different colour to the body…” He asked if he could propose an alternative, but was refused.
With his manager away on holiday, however, Karen came up with a more elegant design and had a model made in the company workshop. It was a hit with both the marketing and manufacturing departments, and ended up in production – but Karen could see that it was time to move on. “My manager got a design award for my washing machine – but by then I had a better job at Phillips.”
Karen’s subsequent, and most significant, career move was brought about by tragedy. David Ogle, a bright and rising star in industrial design, was killed in a road accident in 1962. Karen had worked briefly with Ogle after leaving Ford, and knew him to be a great designer. “It was terribly sad, he had four children,” he recalls.
The following Monday, there was an unexpected call from one of David Ogle’s fellow directors with an invitation to meet. By the next week, Karen had been offered the role of chief designer and managing director at Ogle. It was all very unexpected, but an irresistible opportunity.
Karen swung straight into action by completing a project for Daimler. “I had to finish the design, put the whole prototype together and get it to that year’s Motor Show. It was a very nice car, and well-received.”
Bush was a long-term client, for whom David Ogle had created the best-selling radio of the 1950s. Karen had no experience in designing radios or televisions, however, and Bush wavered until Karen produced the TR130 for them. This quickly became the hit radio of the 1960s.
Despite Karen’s obvious talent, David Ogle was a hard act to follow. “He had been in the Fleet Air Arm, flying Spitfires off aircraft carriers. He was larger than life, and very outgoing – I wasn’t like that,” recalls Karen, who was only in his early thirties when he took up his role. But his quieter approach seemed nonetheless to nurture a creative atmosphere. “People’s motivation was very high. I could always rely on quality, and I adored the model-makers and the way they meshed in with design so creatively.”
Karen’s ideas about car body design complemented those of Ogle. “Instead of pulling cars out at the corners, like big American models with fins, the idea was to wrap the sides into the back and the front.” After Karen added British manufacturer Reliant to Ogle’s books in 1963, first the Reliant Scimitar and then the Regal received the Ogle treatment.
1968 was a big year for Ogle. Reliant commissioned Karen to work on what became the Scimitar GTE. “I had a vision of making an estate-type sports car, with what we called a rising waistline,” he says, describing the line between the car body below and the greenhouse above. “It went up and up. Now all cars are designed that way.” The car’s aerodynamic credentials were confirmed when Princess Anne was caught speeding in the Scimitar GTE she had received for her birthday. “That got into the papers, it was good stuff!” recalls Karen.
By now married and with a growing family, Karen found design inspiration at home. “My kids were playing with a fixed wooden marble run and got a remarkable amount of satisfaction from it,” he says. “But I felt it would be even better if you could build the run in different ways, and still get the sounds and the sights of the marbles.” At Ogle, they prototyped the Marble Run and sold it to Kiddicraft to manufacture. Today, Karen’s grandchildren play with the iconic toy. “I am perhaps more proud of doing the marble run than any car; it’s a great product,” he says.
Another success for Ogle was the Raleigh Chopper, a bike that holds fond memories for those who owned one in the 1970s and pangs of envy for anyone who didn’t. Raleigh came to see Ogle with a desire to make a new children’s bicycle and Karen immediately sketched up a bike inspired by a dragster. “I wanted a big wheel at the back and a small one at the front,” states Karen. “I worked with a colleague called Jimmy English who loved motorcycles. I put in a make-believe disc brake at the back, springs for the saddle and the gear shift on the frame, and even though it was heavy and pretty expensive it was dead right for its time.” A Chopper stands boldly in the workshop of Karen’s home, just begging to be ridden off down the hallway.
Reliant’s next request of Ogle was a new three-wheeled car, as they had bought up a specialist company called Bond. “It was bliss,” says Karen. His early ideas for a two-seater, three-wheeler vehicle with a flip-up windscreen came into play in the form of the Bond Bug. Karen prototyped it with an easy-to-make fibreglass body, and suggested making all the Bugs the same colour. Reliant went with a groovy bright orange and the car launched in 1970. Production was hampered by industrial action, however, and only 2,400 were made – giving them a scarcity that today only adds to the car’s cult following.
Ogle won work from London Transport in the 1970s, specifying a new Routemaster bus that could run with a single operator. Most of Ogle’s design work was still done on traditional drawing boards, but for ergonomics projects like this, computers were coming in. “We spent two years doing human factors work, to find out how you could spend less time boarding and ticketing. We ended up making a full-size double decker bus with all the details, and bringing in rent-a-crowds to test the different entrance designs.”
Karen’s opinion of the 2013 Routemaster? “It looks great, but Boris should have plugged into what we found out then. He would have produced a much more economical bus.”
In the 1980s and 90s, Karen renewed his aviation industry ties with commissions to design aircraft interiors including the Jetstream 41, a regional aircraft for British Aerospace introduced in 1992. Ogle’s site in Letchworth gave scope to build full-scale models. “We built the fuselage and the interior – even the cockpit was fully detailed,” recalls Karen. “I tidied up the shapes, lightened the colours, carried through the logo colours to the seats and just made it gorgeous.”
Work from Westland followed and then an invitation to contribute ideas for what would become the Airbus A380. “I suggested changes to the entrance, so it doesn’t become dead space once the aircraft is airborne. Also we did some work on separate ladies’ and gents’ toilets, showing that they are practical and actually space-saving. I also wanted Airbus to consider putting in a lift for people using wheelchairs to access the first and business class – although they said no.”
Many of these thoughts are still with Karen and he has continued to develop them since his retirement from Ogle in 1999. “I believe now that the next generation of aircraft will have a wide fuselage, made effectively from three horizontal bubbles meshed together to produce lift and less drag, with box wings. There will be open spaces so you can stretch your legs, and no more of those lousy overhead bins.” There’s a model of his craft, which he called the Aircruiser, among the drawings and artworks in his kitchen.
Other ideas he is playing with are a tiny town car, powered by petrol or electricity, in which an adult could transport two other adults or three children. “The body would be tubular, so as not to waste resources, and it would be covered in fabric.” And there’s a concept drawing of a floating city, made by ship builders, that would rise with sea levels and be naturally earthquake resistant. “You could build them for residents or tourists, without having to reclaim land.”
These proposals capture the spirit of the age, as Karen’s designs have always done. And for those thinking of a career in industrial design, Karen has some advice: “You might make more money from graphics and packaging than from designing products. But we need men and women who enjoy form, who can draw and who under’stand the materials like craftsmen do.”
For Karen, it all comes together in models and toys. “I would love toys, whether or not I had children and grandchildren,” he says. Today, most toys are designed to prioritise the paying adult rather than the playing child. But for him, a toy or model with beautiful details and correct colours, designed and tested with children in mind, is really what merits his highest accolade: “gorgeous”.
Published 2014 in Engineering And Technology, the magazine of the Institute of Engineering and Technology. Photographs (c) Rebecca Mileham.