Sinclair C5: Sir Clive’s motoring mis-step

Sinclair C5

The Sinclair C5 came in a cardboard box delivered to your door, it was built in a Hoover washing machine factory and it was narrow enough to drive down your hallway. Which many concluded was the best place for it.

This was a cheap new revolutionary vehicle for the masses, reckoned millionaire computer whiz Sir Clive Sinclair, whose qualifications for this forecast were founded on his successful launch of one of the earliest pocket calculators and the famous ZX Spectrum home computer. Well, the Sinclair C5 was certainly cheap compared to a normal car, and it certainly looked revolutionary. But not in a good way.

Genesis: 1979

Sinclair C5

Its emergence was the result of Sinclair’s long-running interest in electric cars, which lead to the start of the C1 project in 1979. Sinclair asked a former Radionics colleague Tony Wood Rogers to consult on the project, and design specialists Ogle to style it.

Ogle subsequently revealed that they never believed in the project, their concentration on its aerodynamic properties – critical for an electric vehicle, even with the modest 30mph target top speed of the C1 – resulting in an unhelpful weight gain that probably undid all the aerodynamic wins. That made the C1’s 30 mile range a near-impossible goal, despite a lightweight polypropylene body built only for one.

Better than a moped?

Sinclair C5

Sinclair’s aim was to build a better vehicle than a moped, and at a price vastly undercutting a car’s. But by spring 1983 he abandoned this project to raise more funds, undeterred by Ogle’s prophetic view that the C1 wouldn’t sell because its range was limited, it wasn’t weather-proof and it was too slow.

Sinclair raised £12 million by selling shares in Radionic, over £8 million of it dedicated to the newly formed Sinclair Vehicles. Within months the project was back on, and the Hoover domestic appliance company contracted to build the vehicle, as Sinclair preferred to call it, at its Welsh factory. And at the staggeringly optimistic rate of 8,000 a week – quantities to rival Ford.

Lotus engineering

Sinclair C5

The project got a boost of sorts when the government introduced legislation, lobbied for by bicycle-maker Raleigh, that allowed electrically-assisted two and three wheelers onto UK roads. But only at speeds up to 15mph. That the electric motor could only be as powerful as 250 Watts and the vehicle weigh no more than 60kg also had an unhelpful impact on Sinclair’s motor-assisted recumbent tricycle.

But within these limits, it was well-engineered, Lotus hired to develop the C5 from Wood Rogers’ prototype. Like a Lotus it had a backbone steel chassis, a welded composite two-piece body and it was built down to a weight. An electric fan motor drove a single speed, belt-driven gearbox and it was steered by handlebars that lay below you, where they were easy and relaxing to reach, an ingenious solution devised by Wood Rogers.

Sinclair C5 engine: you

Sinclair C5

But the main source of drive was not so much the motor as you, and the Sinclair’s big, square pedals. The C5 was simply a tricycle with a part-time 12-volt motor, and it should have been sold that way to avoid disappointment. But marketing it as a tricycle would never have scored the colossal publicity that came its way because it was presented as a car, all of this preceded by the usual pre-launch fanfare.

Spin it any way you like, but the Sinclair C5 launch was a disaster. Problem one was that it took place on January 10 1985, the cold not only reducing the range of its puny 12-volt battery but also treating the assembled hacks to the shivering reality of pedalling a C5 in the cold, wind and rain.

Problem two was the location. North London’s Alexandra Palace is an attractive venue, partly because it’s built on a hill. But it didn’t take long for the hacks, serial long-lunchers among them, to discover one of the C5’s many problems.

Hill-climbing often overloaded the motor to the point of cut-out – a state signalled by a forlorn electronic peeping – and when the motor wasn’t overworked a modest gradient would soon flatten the plastic trike’s battery. Some C5s didn’t decimate their batteries – but that was only because they didn’t work at all.

Still, orders came, but at nowhere near the rate needed to absorb the 8000-a-week torrent spilling from Hoover’s Merthyr Tydfil factory. There was plenty of brave talk from Sinclair Vehicles on the fizzing interest in their £399 transport revolution, and how better weather would help sales.

Surging criticism

Sinclair C5

But it wasn’t enough to staunch the surging criticism. Testers found the range was more like 10 miles rather than the claimed 20, and less on a clement day. They felt hugely vulnerable on the road, a feeling undiminished by the optional high-visibility mast, which added to the deep feelings of foolishness that swept over anyone stepping into this pedal-powered plastic bath.

Although that was nothing to the embarrassment you’d feel at fitting – and wearing – the Sinclair’s wet-weather gear, which consisted of fabric panels covering its sides and your legs, and a matching hooded anorak. Putting all this on would have added another 15 minutes to your dismally slow journey, and made you feel almost as humiliated as a naked hotel guest trapped in a lift.

There was no heater – although you’d soon get warm pedalling when the motor stopped whining – there was no reverse gear and it had the turning circle of the trucks threatening to squash it.

Beautifully designed… in parts

Sinclair C5

Examine the C5 in detail, though, and you’ll spot some subtle industrial elegance. It wasn’t a beautiful design, but parts of it were beautifully designed. Gus Desbarats, a Royal College of Art graduate hired to style the C5, later described his contribution as ‘convert[ing] an ugly pointless device into a prettier, safer and more usable pointless device.’

Its pointlessness was proven by the fact that of the 14,000 produced – less than two weeks’ production at full tilt – only 5000 were sold.

Sir Clive Sinclair: deep belief – in the wrong idea

Sinclair C5

The C5 was the product of a man with the means believing deeply in the wrong idea. No more than rudimentary market research would have revealed the C5’s flaws and near uselessness in the harsh environment of a late 20th century road network.

Its vulnerability made a superbike look safe. But perhaps the most powerful killer of C5 sales was that you looked an idiot when driving it. And cars – or bikes – that humiliate their users make a hard, hard sell.

Some might say that the C5 was ahead of its time, but it’s doubtful that a tricycle travelling at snail-speed in the company of artics would be allowed on the road today. It would face the same construction and use troubles impeding the decidedly more brilliant Segway, which isn’t allowed on the road either, but has many more uses.

Curiously, one of those is providing ‘safari’ rides in the grounds of Alexandra Palace.

>NEXT: What if… Jaguar had built an XJ40 coupe?

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