Tom Karen: a life in design

As one who spent his formative years careering down hills on a metallic-blue Raleigh Chopper, with quieter moments devoted to trying to construct a marble run that stretched from one side of the living room to the other, I can attest that the exhibition of work by Tom Karen opening in Cambridge this week seems to perfectly encapsulate an early-‘80s childhood.

As well as designing the Chopper and Marble Run, Karen, who headed up Ogle Design from 1962 until 1999, also worked on rather more grown-up projects, including the Bush TR130 Radio, the Bond Bug and the Reliant Scimitar. Hence the show – A Life in Design: A Phantasmological Collection of Work by Tom Karen at the Clare Hall Gallery, will be much more than simply a nostalgia-fest.

Tom Karen
Tom Karen

Karen, who is currently installing the show, says, ‘I’ve never actually had this kind of exhibition before – it will feature everything from toys and T-shirts I designed for my grandchildren to concepts for aircraft and cars of the future. There will be quite a serious section where I suggest how life could be made easier by making travel easier. The show will be a great big mishmash.’ Other delights promised by the show include waddling penguins, safety research dummies and ‘The Little Book of Bottoms’.

The gallery is also promising a special children’s day on 5 March, where children will be able to play with the exhibits. Karen says, ‘I so hate the fact that chidren aren’t allowed to touch things in exhibitions. I’ve got a lot of things that people will be able to play with.’ These interactive exhibits will include an original 1970 Marble Run, toy rockets and a dog who wags his tail and snaps at a ball when you crank his handle. ‘I’ll tolerate people cranking his handle,’ says Karen.

So time to dust off the Chopper or get the Bug out of the garage and hit the road for Cambridge.

A Life in Design: A Phantasmological Collection of Work by Tom Karen is at Clare Hall Gallery, Cambridge, from 11 February-27 March.

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  • Rob Taylor November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Tom Karen , a consumate self publicist , Didnt actualy design the Raleigh Chopper . Ogle design was sub contracted by Raleigh Industries to submit designs for the “Mustang replacement project” , the in house name for the Chopper design . Karen submitted various designs, non of which were taken up by Raleigh as the final design for the chopper. Raleigh did use the seat from one of Toms design sketches, and the 20/16 wheel size format , but Im afraid that was all. The Design department supervising the design of the Raleigh Chopper was run by Alan Oakley , and as department chief and showrunner, he deserves the title of the man who designed the Raleigh Chopper.
    Rob Taylor, chief historian, Raleigh Chopper owners club.

  • tom karen November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am


    Good to see the Chopper in The Independent magazine. It was quite an icon, now celebrating the fortieth anniversary of its launch.

    It was a busy time for us at Ogle around 1970 – the Scimitar GTE, Bond Bug, Aston Martin Sotheby Special, Kiddicraft Marble run all came out then – so it took time before I caught up with the claim that Alan Oakley was responsible for the concept of the Chopper. I challenged this, working my way from the Chairman down until a person in marketing admitted to me that their department had concocted the story.

    I wrote to Alan twice with my version of events inviting him to correct it but he chose not to do so.

    Alan and his team had designed the Rodeo which didn’t fly I suspect, which is why their Marketing Director, Peter Seels, came to see us looking for a better proposal to compete with the American Schwinn bike. We offered several designs, all with the large and small wheel and other features which became part of the final model. We prototyped some part as well as doing other work for Raleigh.

    Alan Oakley was a very good Technical Director and got the Chopper into production and developed the later variatants. What he categorically did not do was to jot down the concept for the Chopper on the back of an envelope as claimed.

    Enclosed is a copy of one of the concept drawings for what became the Chopper.

    Tom Karen

  • Ivan Smith November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Isn’t it time the Wikipedia site and the Chopper sites put the record straight on this ?

    Give Tom Karen the Credit he is due.

  • Pete November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Will someone please show a picture of the revalutionary raleigh MUSTANG. of the late 60s it’s about 42 years ago when I & two of my mates had these we can’t find a correct image of one of these anywhere
    Yours hopefully

  • Prechopper November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    There is a Rodeo & a Fireball from Raleigh?

  • JOHN November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I have in my possession a BOYSTOYS 23cm Formula 1 wooden race car by: TOM KAREN. Was Mr. Karen involved in the design of this toy?

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