Home » The Man Who Designed The Reliant Scimitar GTE, The Bond Bug, And Luke Skywalker’s Landspeeder Has Died

The Man Who Designed The Reliant Scimitar GTE, The Bond Bug, And Luke Skywalker’s Landspeeder Has Died

Tomkaren Top

I think it’s safe to say that the most beautiful car I have ever owned was my 1973 Reliant Scimitar GTE. It was a close race because I’ve also owned a 1967 Volvo P1800S (I actually traded that car for the Scimitar) but there’s something about the clean, understated lines of the Scimitar, the perfect proportions, and the novel shooting brake design that just tips things in its favor. The person who designed this car was also the person who designed some other cars that are very significant to me, like the three wheelers Bond Bug and Reliant Robin, or the landspeeder from Star Wars. The designer was Tom Karen, and while I think he’s under-appreciated in America, he was responsible for much of the fun-looking aspects of British life in the 1970s.

Karen was one of those designers like Raymond Loewy who didn’t just design cars – they designed things, and some of those things happened to be cars. Karen also designed bicycles and toys and electronics, and brought a certain competent sort of optimism and fun to everything, no matter how humble. Karen died on December 31, 2022 at the age of 96, and I just want us to take a moment to think about him.

Myscim

I have to start with the Scimitar, because that’s the only Tom Karen product I owned and cherished myself. The Scimitar started life as a concept car for the Triplex glass company, the first version designed by David Ogle on the chassis of a Diamler SP250, and the goal was to cram as much glass on it as possible, hence the glass roof sections and the wrap-over side windows. Ogle was killed in a car wreck before the car was to be shown, so the project passed to Tom Karen, who finished the design, known as the Triplex GTS (Glass Top Special).

Scim1

The car was seen by Reliant bigwigs at the Earl’s Court Motor Show, and they approached Karen about adapting the design to fit their Sabre sports car platform. Initially, a coupé was built as the first Scimitar, then Karen came back to the shooting brake concept and refined it into the Scimitar GTE.

Scim2

He did so much more than just rehash the Triplex GTS concept; Karen has a real eye for making forms clean and cohesive, and the Scimitar’s kicked-up beltline and sloping greenhouse really pull off the sports-wagon ideals of a shooting brake. His other work for Reliant retains the same fundamental aesthetics, even if the platform and target market are about as removed from a fast, premium GT car as you can get:

Robin

Yes, the Reliant Robin. A three-wheeled car that may have been the butt of jokes, but the truth was they sold an Imperial crapton of these, and they put many, many people on enclosed, weatherproof wheels instead of on motorbikes. The Robin didn’t look like a joke; it looked competent and rational, friendly but not cloying. It had dignity. Karen could also do more flat-out fun, too, as seen in the Bond Bug:

Bondbug

It’s minimalistic, but unashamed about it, and undeniably fun. Karen had a knack for making the cheapest possible cars still feel like cars that their owners chose instead of things they were forced to accept. Karen understood that cheap cars did not need to give up any dignity, they could just be the best versions of whatever they needed to be.

Landspeeder

With this in mind, it’s no wonder the 1977 Star Wars landspeeder was based on a Bond Bug. And it’s also no wonder that it had great proportions and looked fast and cheap, somehow.

Tom Karen was a really interesting automotive designer, someone who felt like they had just slightly different priorities from most other designers. His body of work was an unusual combination of fun, sleekness, and even restraint, and it all added up to a body of work I respect so much.

Rest in peace, Tom.

 

 

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on whatsapp
WhatsApp
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn
Share on reddit
Reddit

18 Responses

  1. Thank you, Jason.
    Great tribute to someone who was central to the development of industrial design in the UK from the 1960s. After David Ogle died, Tom Karen was invited to lead Ogle Design, which, besides creating some of the most iconic British products, became the jumping-off point for many British and UK-trained designers. When I started in design in the 1980s, ex-Ogle designers popped up everywhere, including the boss of the company where I did my first internship.
    Ogle also designed crash test dummies for MIRA, so Tom Karen was indirectly responsible for the life and well-being of many thousands of people.

  2. Rest in peace; sad to lose another analog creator of industrial design. The Scimitar is a beautiful vehicle & interesting styling exercise: A-pillar forward looks like a Ford Capri (one of my childhood favourite vehicles, sadly they returned to iron-oxide so quickly here), rear looks like Volvo P1800 wagon; both are icons. That his reworked design was fitted to an existing platform for production yet looks so cohesive is quite extraordinary – you would expect it to look more like a kit-car but it doesn’t. To then do the Robin shows real ability & depth of talent – making lemonade, as it were. It would seem the time of such people has passed, sadly, as everyone is now more interested in how many screens & how big they are in their transportation appliance.

  3. He was originally hired by Reliant to face-lift the MkVII Regal, but was very limited in what he was allowed to change and was really dissatisfied with the results. Karen did the Robin design on his own in the belief that it would be so much better, Reliant management would have to go for it once they saw it, he was particularly proud of getting rid of the obvious rain gutters along the roofline, for the early ’70s, it really was a crisp and tidy shape.

    Also, I believe Karen repeatedly told Sir Clive Sinclair that the C5 idea was unworkable, which led to Ogle losing the contract to style it.

  4. That Scimitar was reasonably quick and good on gas by the standards of the time period, while being relatively inexpensive to purchase.

    Sucks that Torch no longer has his. That would have been one to keep.

  5. I had to creat an account just to mention that he also designed the iconic Raleigh Chopper bicycle, which was the envy of every tween boy in the 70s.

  6. On the website Tattopian, yesterday’s shitbox showdown was Luke’s X-34 vs a surplus-auction Imperial Z-74 bike. I voted for Luke’s because it has the 3800 motor.

  7. One of my dream cars is the Scimitar. I’d be MUCH more excited by one if it had that little Daimler Dart hemi in it instead of the Ford V6 tho. What a missed opportunity.

  8. Thanks for that one, Jason 🙂

    The Scimitar really is the best looking Shooting Brake design ever! 3 of my old car friend has them. Just such a nice package. Engine and spare wheel placement a bit like on the lovely Citroën DS, so I believe it drives quite well also.

    _I_ think the Volvo P 1800 ES is a hideous creation, with that long rear overhang. I would (like you) take the original coupé one anytime. Pelle Petterson really nailed it, although heavily inspired by the Ghia Fiat Supersonic, but making it look even better than that one.

Leave a Reply