'Sir Clive may seem an unlikely candidate for the Henry Ford of the 80s but if nobody ever took those risks, we would still be riding horses. There is a lot to praise in the C5, and many questions which only experience can answer in full. In the meantime, you have to admire his nerve.' Sinclair User review, Issue 36.
The tenth of January, 2005, saw the 20th birthday of the Sinclair C5, a revolutionary electric vehicle. Looking at the technology behind the C5, the vision that was the foundation for its creation, it's hard to believe the simple truth: The Sinclair C5 was a complete commercial disaster.
Let's go back to 1985. Sir Clive Sinclair was considered to be a genius. His entrepreneurial ventures into the world of electronics had quickly brought him to the attention of the world, and his products were, in a nutshell, intensely popular. Calculators, watches and miniature televisions were introduced, often in kit form, from Sinclair Research as early as 1975. By 1980 he had branched out into microcomputing, and 1982 saw him branch into home computing. The ZX Spectrum, hot on the heels of the ZX80 and 81, had already changed the world.
By 1985, Clive was into a new game. Recent changes to the British road laws included legislation concerning electrically-assisted cycles. Provided the vehicle was incapable of exceeding 15 miles per hour, anyone above the age of 14 was welcome to drive it on British roads. No insurance, no tax, no crash helmet and no driving licence required; a tempting prospect for some, that's if you didn't mind piloting a milk float. But, no - classed as a 'pedal-assisted tricycle', the Sinclair C5 was designed to fill that niche, whilst netting the newly-created Sinclair Vehicles as much money as possible in the process.
Advance speculation was rife. Woolworth's lent backing, as did the Electricity Council, for whom the idea of a rechargable electric vehicle was more than a little exciting. The occasional leak provided rumour-mills with enough information to speculate with admirable accuracy, and a much-publicised launch took place.
The result? Utter disaster. Held in the middle of winter, the C5's batteries performed badly in the near-freezing temperatures, and its wheels skated alarmingly in the snow. Safety and advertising standards bodies rose to the challenge, and the press were not slow to indulge in a frenzy of mocking. To this day, the C5 is ably villified at a moments notice, and even the enthusiastic user groups that still exist today are hard pressed to defend its many flaws. It was quickly noted that the manufacturers of the C5's motor also produced large volumes of washing-machine motors, and since nobody cared to mention that the company in question also produced the motors which power torpedoes the C5 was all too easy to mock.
Sales took a nosedive and production followed suit. After only a few months, with an impressive-sounding but ultimately disappointing 17,000 units sold mainly within the UK, the C5 project came to an end. Sir Clive took the 8.6 million pound loss squarely on the chin, shut down Sinclair Vehicles and moved his attention and enthusiasm to other projects. The intended follow-ups, the C10 and C15 were, sadly, never to see the light of day.
The Sinclair C5, at its simplest, was a 99lb, battery-powered, one-seater tricycle with a white, plastic body. Original specifications called for a radical new form of battery, since a heavy, traditional battery would be a considerable proportion of the vehicle's overall weight. In the end, the C5 shipped with a traditional 33lb lead-acid battery, doubling the weight of the vehicle instantly, and reducing battery life (and thus range) considerably. According to Sinclair Vehicles, twenty miles was the maximum range, though practically this did, of course, vary.
The sleek, futuristic design of the C5s body was the result of a collaboration with Lotus, providing room for one passenger and space for a handlebar steering system, situated beneath the passenger's thighs. The braking system provided had much in common with a standard cycle, and a button on one of the handlebars controlled acceleration, up to the maximum speed of fifteen miles per hour.
Measurement-wise, the C5 was 76cm (2'6") wide, 76cm (2'6") high and 2m (6'6") long. It featured a boot with a cubic capacity of one foot (approximately 28 litres); little more than a rucksack's-worth of space. A light at the front and rear of the vehicle completed the range of standard features, save for a liquid crystal display, described (at the time) as 'futuristic'. This basic package would set one back £399, and was only available via mail order. (Notably, the price dropped sharply to £199 as desperation set in.) Woolworth's did, initially, intend to stock the vehicle, but pulled out smartly when the road became too rocky for the C5 to comfortably travel...
Deluxe options, for those with the cash, included wing mirrors, a lengthy pole with a red flag attached, described by The Royal Society For The Prevention Of Accidents as 'essential': the low height of the C5 caused one reviewer to note that his '...head was on a level with the top of a juggernaut's tyres, the exhaust fumes blasted into my face.' Pressure from consumers and consumer groups alike forced Sinclair to include the high-visibility aerial as a standard option before long, though this did little to enhance the beleaguered tricycle's status.
C5s are now considered to be collector's items, selling for up to £900. Rumours of turbo-charged C5s are common, and one stuntman is said to have accelerated his to 70mph, at which point it is, apparently, suitable for racing through tunnels of fire.