Motoring Trailblazers - Sinclair C5

Sat 16th Feb 2019

The world of motoring is hurtling headlong into a bright new future of all-electric, automated, connected technology - and Marty McFly is not behind the wheel! But what were the cars that were ‘back to the future’ of years gone by?

There have been many different trailblazing motors which were seen by the critics to be ahead of their time, and in this series, we will investigate and showcase many of the best in class.

Sinclair C5
Would we have been so far down the road of electric car evolution without the famous or infamous Sinclair C5? Sir Clive Sinclair himself was always keen to categorise the C5 as an electric vehicle, and not an electric car, but the unique electrically assisted pedal cycle certainly stimulated a debate about EVs which has ran for more than three decades since its 1985 launch.

Let’s be clear, the Sinclair C5 was not a commercial success, its parent company, Sinclair Vehicles went into receivership after selling just 5,000 of the 14,000 C5s made and the reviews were less than favourable, known as ‘one of the great marketing bombs of postwar British industry’ and a ‘notorious example of failure’.

Sir Clive Sinclair had long held an interest in producing electric vehicles, and after making his millions in home computing he took a gamble by producing the small one-person battery powered electric velomobile. The C5 was produced in partnership with Lotus, who designed the vehicle’s chassis, whilst the body was built using polypropylene which made it lightweight and durable.

So what were the C5s failings? Well, like any EV, range was a clear issue and a top speed of just 15 miles per hour meant that you were more than likely getting nowhere fast, whilst the 12v lead battery was also notoriously poor at maintaining power. A lack of a roof made it fairly impractical for most needs.

But the fact that the C5 received so much interest and investment suggests that a slightly sceptical motoring public wanted the electric trike to be a success. It was built at a Hoover factory in South Wales (which is a possible influence on Dyson’s more recent moves into the EV market?) and was distributed from centres around the UK in Hayes, Preston and Oxford.

Available at just £399 from mail-order, the C5 was launched at a glitzy ceremony at Alexandra Palace in January 1985 and the motoring press were given plenty of opportunity to trial the vehicles, unfortunately this proved to be a PR disaster. The Guardian’s journalist saw his C5 run a flat battery after just five minutes, whilst the undulating slopes at Alexandra Palace proved to be too tricky for the C5 to negotiate. The ultimate rebuke was served by The Sunday Times, who described the C5 as a ‘Formula One bath-chair’.

There are many theories and reasons for the demise of the C5, but it is perhaps best summed up by Sir Clive himself who in 2005 said the C5 "was early for what it was. People reacted negatively and the press didn't help. It was too low down and people felt insecure, hence it got bad press."

The more recent success of the Segway, and a change in attitudes to urban motoring suggest that maybe Sinclair was right and perhaps he was ahead of his time by three decades.