Talking design with Tom Karen

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Author: James PagePublished:

Each year, the Royal College of Art puts on a display of the final-year students' work, including those on the Vehicle Design course. Although we naturally tend to concentrate rather more on past models than future, I readily accepted an invitation from celebrated designer Tom Karen to go and have a look.

Karen's background is remarkable. Born into a wealthy family in Brno, Czechoslovakia, he inherited a keen interest in cars from his father and can recall seeing the Mercedes and Auto Unions racing at the Masaryk circuit. The Karens fled across Europe when the Germans invaded in 1939, eventually arriving in England in 1942.

Coincidentally, his flight to the UK took him from Lisbon to Bristol, landing at Whitchurch Airport – a location that I have written about before.

Karen studied aircraft engineering and worked in that area, before leaving to enrol in London's Central School of Arts and Crafts. He wasn't there long before Terence Beckett recruited him and a couple of others to Ford's Styling Studio.

"There was no training for car design at that time," he says. "People thought that 'styling' was merely superficial."

While he was at Ford, he was responsible for interior fittings such as instruments and dashboards, and worked on the 105E Anglia. After leaving in 1959, he joined Ogle Design, where he would really make his name. His work for Reliant included the Scimitar GTE, a model of which he remains intensely proud.

"It was a hugely influential car and is too often overlooked. At the time it was quite daring. No one did sporting estates. Only travelling salesmen and families had estate cars!"

"I like low waistlines on a car, and I think that Scimitar's works well. I'm not sure that Volvo resolved it quite as well on the 1800ES. People want to be seen. Modern cars with high waistlines hide them away. If you look at the students' models, you'll see that no one puts a model person in them."

Karen asks me if I have seen any of these displays in previous years, and smiles when I say no: "Some of them are really 'up in the clouds'! I'm more of a practical person – I like things that might actually become reality…"

That would discount quite a few of the designs we look at – and which, incidentally, I am not allowed to take photographs of. One is intended to be better seen during the night, and features glass that changes tint in different light. It's black, though, which seems to put it at an immediate disadvantage.

Not surprisingly, most are of the sleek, low, sporting variety, but of more interest are those that hint at city cars to come. I point out one in particular, a single-seater that Karen agrees is, "Nicely resolved but it's much too big."

Another features a dimpled rear end in the style of a golf ball, with the intention that it cleans up the airflow.

Modern interpretations of classics include a new take on the Reliant Sabra, plus an updated Jaguar D-type that neatly incorporates the high fin.

While I take in the models, Karen goes instantly to the accompanying sketchbooks: "Most of this is done on computers now, but I still like to see people who can draw. I tend to think that they understand form – they have a better eye."

As we are walking around, Peter Stevens strolls over to say hello. Stevens – who penned the McLaren F1, among many other cars – now does some work with the RCA, and was an early student of Karen's when Tom was one of the tutors here. He went on to join Karen at Ogle.

Stevens agrees that some of the designs are somewhat left-field, but argues that practicality is not the object of the exercise: "By this point, they are already automotive designers - their sketchbooks are full of cars. These displays aren't examined, they're not part of the course. It's really their last chance to show off."

The two men quickly fall into catching up, and their continuing enthusiasm is infectious – not just for cars, but for toys, models, and countless other things.

Karen mentions that he still has a number of handmade Corgi models given to him by the late Marcel Van Cleemput, who used them to present ideas to the board before a model was put into full production. Stevens, as a youngster with a keen eye for detail, once wrote to Van Cleemput to point out that a front-wheel-drive Citroën DS shouldn't have a propshaft. He received a reply, too – plus an early version of the correct, modified DS.

Cars made up only one part of Karen's varied career. He also came up with the Kiddicraft Marble Run, and even now designs and builds toys for his grandchildren. One of the most refreshing things about meeting him is that this is not a man who dwells on the past. He talks passionately about the next big steps in commercial-aircraft design – Ogle submitted proposals to Airbus in the 1990s – as well as a city car that he sketches for me.

"It has standard front wheels, but rears that are paired very close together. You could seat three people in a staggered arrangement, and the engine would be at the back. It would have a tubular chassis and a fabric outer that could easily be ordered in different styles and colours. You could create something really individual."

"We have to consider the use of resources and energy, and be ecologically friendly in terms of the materials that we are using."

An afternoon spent listening to Karen discuss all aspects of design – not just automotive – is fascinating. Let's hope that some of the students whose work we have enjoyed follow his example.

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