Tom Karen: Designer behind 1970s’ cult classics dies

Get real time updates directly on you device, subscribe now.

This video can not be played

To play this video you need to enable JavaScript in your browser.

A prolific designer who had a hand in designing a host of 1970s creations including the Raleigh Chopper, Bond Bug car and marble run toy has died.

Tom Karen, who lived in Cambridge, died aged 96 on New Year’s Eve surrounded by his family, a statement said.

The industrial designer was born in Vienna, Austria, and arrived in England in 1942 during World War Two.

A museum in Letchworth, Hertfordshire – currently hosting a dedicated exhibition – called him a “true great”.

In the statement confirming Mr Karen’s death, Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation – which runs the town’s Museum at One Garden City – said he had overseen some of the UK’s most iconic designs.

Boy pedalling a Raleigh Chopper


For years, Mr Karen’s role in designing the Raleigh Chopper bike – manufactured in Nottingham – sparked controversy.

It was originally said that Raleigh’s design director Alan Oakley had been on a fact-finding trip to the USA and was solely responsible, but Mr Karen said the firm later credited his contribution in helping create the children’s classic.

His 1968 sketches of the bike – which sold 1.5 million units – have been stored in the archive of the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Karen, who was appointed OBE in 2019, was the managing director of Letchworth’s Ogle Design from 1962 until 1999.

Bond Bug

Getty Images

During this time, he helped design the Reliant Scimitar car, the Reliant Bond Bug – a two-seater, three-wheeled sports car that was launched at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire in 1970 – and Leyland lorry cabs.

The Bond Bug’s unusual chassis formed the base of Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder in Star Wars, while Ogle Design’s association with Leyland resulted in Mr Karen designing one of the Popemobiles after the lorry firm was commissioned to manufacture them.

Ogle director Philip Martin said the firm was “deeply saddened” to learn of Mr Karen’s death.

“He was an exceptionally talented designer and a very special man,” he said.

“He was such an integral part of the Ogle success story. He pioneered so much of the work that we continue to do today, overseeing our progress from automotive designs, through the thrill of Star Wars and into aerospace.

“The company owes him a great debt of gratitude.”

Young boy plays with a marble run

Getty Images

However, Mr Karen said one of his greatest achievements was devising the plastic marble run after watching his children play with a wooden one.

Josh Tidy, heritage manager at Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation, described it as a “simple idea, perfectly realised and enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of children for decades”.

Museum at One Garden City has been running a retrospective of the inventor’s career called Tom Karen Creations, which will continue until 10 March.

“The happy clacking sound of the marbles plopping down the latest creation has been the wonderful soundtrack of this exhibition, and filled Tom with so much joy,” said Mr Tidy, who has curated the exhibition.

“His designs, artworks and sheer joie de vivre will continue to be remembered fondly for many years to come.”

Tom Karen has been making toys for 50 years.

A condolence book is to be opened at the museum.

presentational grey line

Find BBC News: East of England on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. If you have a story suggestion email

Around the BBC

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.