After all the revelries of the festive season, the first few days of January always come as a bit of shock as we all reluctantly return to our regular routines, whilst coping with the dark early mornings and evenings, plus the cold, wind, rain and generally bleak January weather, and our depleted post-Christmas bank balances!
Remembering the man behind the Scimitar GTE and the Raleigh Chopper | Axon's Automotive Anorak
The opening weeks of 2023 really haven’t got off to an encouraging start with strikes galore, no signs of a let up in the on-going cost of living crisis, plus the senseless Ukraine war still raging. The year had barely got going when we heard the tragic news of the untimely death of extraordinary rally stunt driver and friend of Goodwood Ken Block in a dreadful snowmobile accident. Outside of the specialist automotive media, the terrible loss of Ken Block barely raised a mention in the mainstream press, which was dominated by the funeral of Brazilian footballer Pele. With so much going on, the very sad loss of the talented industrial designer Tom Karen, on the 31st December 2022, virtually went unreported.
Although never really a household name, Tom Karen remained something of an unsung creative hero. His designs and influence will be familiar to many. He passed away at a respectable age of 96, with a full life mostly well lived. Born in 1926 into a wealthy family in Vienna, Austria, under the family name of Kohn, Karen’s mother was a catholic and his father Jewish. Tom was baptised and raised as a catholic, but his Jewish father’s connection inevitably raised the attention the Nazis, and his family was soon left pauperised at of the outbreak of WWII. His father was imprisoned by the Gestapo, and despite being raised as a catholic Karen was also classified as being Jewish, so his passport was confiscated.
He was smuggled into England via Poland and Sweden by the Czech Air Force though some helpful Belgian contacts, under a fake passport. Eventually arriving and settling in Bristol, young Tom studied aeronautical engineering during the hostilities, before entering a ten-year spell in the aviation industry.
He then went on to study industrial design at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, during which time him and a friend created and built a tiny one-off three-wheeler prototype microcar, named the Vimp. Though very promising and contemporary, the Vimp amounted to nothing commercially, although it attracted the attention of Ford, which invited him to joined its design depart at Dagenham. From his stint at Ford, Karen then briefly joined Ogle Design in 1959 – an independent industrial design agency based in Letchworth, Herts - from where he was soon headhunted by British white goods maker Hotpoint, via Phillips
The eponymous David Ogle Design was founded in Letchworth in 1954 as a pioneering British industrial design agency. One of its most widely-known creations was the Bush TR82 portable radio that was widely popular in the early 1960s.
Keen to expand his faltering design agency to encapsulate cars, David Ogle designed an attractive and highly acclaimed fastback Riley 1.5-based Coupe in 1960, going on to sell half-a-dozen or so. From this in 1962 Ogle revealed the characterful little SX1000, a charming Mini-based Coupe, which held much promise, with around 66 built and sold, until David Ogle was killed in a road traffic accident in 1962 behind the wheel of his own SX1000.
It was shortly afterwards that Tom Karen returned to Ogle Design to head up its design department. After Ogle’s death, an attractive modern re-body of the challenging-looking Daimler SP250 ‘Dart’ V8 that David Ogle had begun work on with Boris Fortner, the high-profile head of British cosmetics company Helena Rubenstein, was presented on Ogle’s maiden display stand as the SX250 at the 1962 Earls Court London Motor Show, exhibited alongside an SX1000.
These two cars caught the eye of the Reliant Motor Company’s management, which was looking to replace its unfortunate Sabre sportscar, plus introduce its first affordable four-wheeled family car to sit alongside its established three-wheeler range.
Fortner had no luck in selling six SX250s to his wealthy friends as was initially hoped, and as Daimler had just been taken over by Jaguar, it had no interest in Ogle’s attractive rebody of its ugly SP250 V8 sportscar, which Jaguar now saw as an unnecessary in-house rival to its own E-type.
With no takers to claim the attractive design, rather than waste it, Ogle cunningly offered its SX250 shape to Reliant when the Staffordshire three-wheeler maker directly approached Ogle post-Earls Court Show. Tom Karen at Ogle subtly reworked the Daimler-based SX250 for Reliant to create the first Scimitar (SE4) coupe model, which debuted to great acclaim at the close of 1964.
Ahead of this though, Karen also revealed his (and Ogle’s) very first vehicle production design for its welcome new client; the Reliant Motor Company. The car named Rebel, was an entry family four-wheeler, named and positioned very ambitiously against BMC’s popular Mini. The rear-wheel-drive Rebel was a modern GRP-bodied two-box four-seater saloon and estate, powered initially by its three-wheeled Regal sibling’s all-alloy ex-Austin Seven-derived engine. The 1964 Reliant Rebel lived a long life most modestly successful, not being replaced until 1975 by the cute Karen-styled Kitten four-wheeler, but failing to have any commercial impact not the Mini with only around 3,500 Rebels sold over eleven years.
With the new Ogle-designed Reliant Scimitar Coupe and Regal models firmly established, Ogle was approached by specialist car glass producer Triplex, to create and build a one-off prototype to showcase its glass making capabilities. Based around Ogle’s Reliant Scimitar coupe, the sporting ‘shooting break’ Ogle Triplex Special GTS (Glazing Test Special) of 1966 was the styling work of Karen, and its versatile third-door extended tail inspired him to go on to create one of his seminal designs; the influential Reliant Scimitar GTE of 1968. Incidentally, the airy Triplex GTS attracted Reliant’s first Royal patronage when the car caught the attention of Prince Philip, who later went on to ‘borrow’ the one-off prototype for his own personal use. His daughter, Princess Anne, would go on to become a huge fan and advocate for the Scimitar GTE, having owned a number of them plus, bizarrely, a Robin three-wheeler for her use with her horses around her premises.
Ogle/Karen’s next styling job for Reliant was the inspired TW9 three-wheeled light commercial vehicle, a.k.a. the ’Ant’ (due to its distinctive ant’s head-shaped cabin design). Launched in 1967, the TW9/Ant proved to be a popular and useful tool to have around with local authorities, for park maintenance, waste collection, road sweeping, snow ploughing, and so on. Some expending export markets, such as the Middle East and Greece where the model was also assembled under license by Reliant’s local associate, Mebea, were keen takers of the three-wheeled TW9 Ant, which lived on into the late 1980s.
In addition to Mebea in Greece, Reliant also had strong car making connections overseas with Autocars in Israel and Otosan Otomobili Sanayii AS in Turkey, offering Ogle and Tom Karen’s design talents to these foreign associates. Having already designed cars for Autocars, Ogle asked Karen to style a series of Reliant-developed vehicles under the Anadol marque name for Otosan, kicking off with an attractive two-door Ford Cortina-based 1.3 sedan. Karen went on to design a range of Anadol cars for Turkish motorists, including a stylish SV Station Wagon, plus the appealing 1973 STC Coupe. Today the remnants of Otosan and its Istanbul plant now builds the Ford Transit Connect (not styled by Karen).
In October 1968, Reliant introduced its landmark SE5 Scimitar GTE (Grand Touring Estate), arguably Tom Karen’s most influential creation. By grafting a sporting kicked-up ‘shooting break’ rear end, adding individually folding rear seats and an opening glass hatch onto an updated Scimitar SE4 Coupe bodyshell (sharing that model’s same centre section, but also incorporating an entirely front design), Reliant created a whole new concept in aspirational up-market cars. The Scimitar GTE quickly became the fashionable car to be seen in and helped to reposition Reliant’s image, and its credible pricing point. Although not the very first original sports shooting break concept – the mid-1950s Chevrolet Nomad and long-forgotten Tornado Tempest SW lay claim to that – Karen’s simple GTE vision went on to inspire a host of copycat rivals, including the Volvo 1800ES and Lancia Beta HPE (High Performance Estate) plus the desirable coachbuilt Lynx Jaguar XJS Eventer.
At the 1968 Earls Court Motor Show Ogle displayed its own ‘concept car’ a 3.0-litre version of the Scimitar GTE that incorporated a number of subtle design differences. It featured neater rectangular headlamps at the front with hide-away covers, plus an unusual windscreen (provided by Triplex) that swept up into the roof section over the front seats – an innovation that was to make production many years later as an option for some Vauxhall Astra GTE and Citroen C3 models.
Given the exceptional success of the SE5 Scimitar GTE and its evolutions, Reliant asked Ogle to create an updated SE6 Mark 2 version of the model for 1975, with Karen revising his 1968 original by modifying the GTE to make it larger (being both longer and wider), more modern and upmarket. In 1980 Reliant also added a soft-top GTC version of the Mark 2 SE6 Scimitar using a substantial Triumph Stag-style of T-Bar roll over hoop. Reliant finally abandoned production of its successful Scimitar GTE/GTC range in late 1986, selling the rights to the car to Middlebridge Engineering, which continued to offer an updated version of the GTE until 1990. An Ogle/Karen SE7 proposal to update the GTE again, including an extended five-door derivative, sadly never became a reality.
In 1969 Reliant took over control of its main three-wheeler rival; Bond Cars of Preston. Reliant soon cancelled production of the rear-engined Hillman Imp-powered Bond 875 to take it out of the market and give Reliant a monopoly of the niche for three-wheeled vehicles. Reliant briefly continued production, however, of the pleasant Bond Equipe 2.0-litre four-wheeler coupe and convertible models, to act as a less expensive alternative to the Scimitar GTE, even getting Karen to style a facelift for the model with an obvious Scimitar family resemblance. Reliant chose not a develop this revised sporting Bond though, instead deciding to use its new marque acquisition to introduce a radical youth-orientated three-wheeler, inspired by the enthusiasm and concept proposals by Tom Karen.
The car in question was the now famous Bond Bug. Intended by Karen to be ‘a Ferrari for 16-year-olds,” he had first thought of the concept for his youthful three-wheeler in the early 1960s, and just needed to convince somebody to build it for him. Reliant’s takeover of Bond gave Karen the perfect opportunity to build such an extreme vehicle, and in 1970, his new ‘any colour you like as long as it’s tangerine orange’ Bond Bug creation was presented to a stunned public. Looking like a motorised wedge of Leicester cheese, the wild tri-wheeled Bond Bug made jaws drop with its dramatic tilt-up lifting canopy, affording entry into a snug and sporty two-seater cockpit, with a dramatically truncated rear end. The Bug quickly became a cult car, if not a huge seller, given its limited practicality and relatively high purchase price. In 1970 a Bug was even displayed in London’s Design Centre in Piccadilly as an example of cutting-edge contemporary British design.
Tom Karen followed his daring Bug with a more mainstream three-wheeler for Reliant; the infamous Robin, which was launched at Goodwood in the summer of 1973. Unfairly nicknamed the plastic pig, the Reliant Robin replaced the Reliant Regal, with Karen cleverly ‘borrowing’ a Scimitar GTE family look with its pert modern styling, even incorporating a GTE-esque opening glass hatch.
The Robin quickly became Reliant’s strongest seller, the three-wheeler spawning a four-wheeled derivative in 1975, appealingly named Kitten, and cunningly introduced at the same time as the new Scimitar GTE SE6 Mark II as its smaller and charming sister. The Kitten shared much of the Robin’s three-door bodyshell, plus its tried-and-tested 850cc engine. It sold steadily but slowly, facing tough competition from the well-established Mini, plus younger ‘supermini’ hatchbacks such as the Fiat 127, Ford Fiesta and Renault 5.
With senior management changes, Reliant fell out favour with Ogle as its preferred design consultants, later turning to Bertone, Giovanni Michelotti and William Towns as it outsourced stylists, so Tom Karen’s distinctive look wouldn’t grace any further Reliant products, with some of his secret Reliant prototypes sadly never revealed in public, such as his pre-Triumph TR7 wedged FW7 twin-seat sportscar and charming Robin Coupe.
Karen did apply his skills to other wheeled vehicles though. In 1972 his wild Ogle Aston Martin V8 Sotherby’s Special broke cover. With an ultra-modern wedge profile, two examples of this striking Aston Martin were constructed by Ogle, the car featuring a fully-glazed roof, a shezlong rear seat, plus a cluster of 22 small round tail lights, more of which cleverly illuminated under heavy braking. He also designed an advanced one-box (pre-Renault Espace) electric Lucas Ogle Taxi in 1975, plus a rugged modern take on the VW Kublewagen for Dinky Toys with a full-size (plus reduced scale model) Dinky Mogul.
Arguably Tom Karen’s most familiar wheeled vehicle though was not a car at all, but rather a bicycle. His Raleigh Chopper bike of the early 1970s is commercially his best-selling vehicle. Inspired by the extreme chopper motor bikes of the ‘far out’ late-‘60s, as popularised in the cult biker road movie, Easy Rider, the Raleigh Chopper bike was an instant hit. With its funky metallic colours, high-backed padded seat and (originally) red T-bar gear selector, the Chopper was the must-have dream peddle bike every kid wanted in the 1970s.
The Raleigh Chopper was my initial personal connection with Tom Karen as I was very lucky to not only have one of his bikes as a kid, but my father also owned a number of Karen-designed Reliant Scimitar GTEs. I didn’t know at the time that my bike and my dad’s car were created by the same chap, but as a young lad my Christmas Day birthday wish came true when my parents bought me a brand-new Raleigh Chopper Sprint; the Sprint arguably being the ultimate (and rarest) sporting version of the ‘regular’ Chopper. With lower saddle and racing handlebars, and painted a vivid metallic funky orange, I was the envy of many of my school friends as a kid, and my Father’s smart Scimitar GTEs were also much admired as well, these both remaining a couple of Tom Karen’s most familiar, inspired and successful creations.
When well into his seventies, the irrepressible Tom Karen eventually packed away his pen and drawing board, having gone on post-Ogle to successfully work as a freelance design consultant. He helped to style other vehicles (such as a future Renault Trafic van concept with Renault’s charismatic design director Patrick Le Quement), as well as create innovative children’s games and writing popular kids’ books. One of the most influential vehicle designers the UK has ever seen, the originality and charm of Tom Karen will be sadly missed.
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