Sir Clive Sinclair


From the beginning, the C5 was meant to be a new concept in personal transport. In Sir Clive’s own words ‘... as revolutionary in its own terms as calculators in the early ’70’s or home computers in the early 1980’s.’ A £400 vehicle which can be driven by anyone over 14 on the roads without a driving licence, road tax, compulsory insurance or helmet, travels around 1,000 miles for the equivalent cost of a gallon of petrol and can be serviced at your own home by a travelling engineer. Sound almost too good to be true?

Produced by Sinclair Vehicles as the first in a range of electric vehicles, the C5 is very much a personal project for Sir Clive. Sadly, it hasn’t sold as well as he expected — we take a look at why this might be, and at the C5 itself.

Clive Sinclair’s electric vehicle project started nearly twelve years ago, back in 1973 when an in-house team of engineers began looking at the problems of powering vehicles with electricity. Serious design work started in 1981 at Sinclair Research, and in 1983 Sir Clive acquired the project personally from the company. A new company, Sinclair Vehicles Ltd, wholly owned and financed by Sir Clive was set up and moved to Warwick University’s Science Park to continue development work on a range of electric vehicles.

When the C5 was launched, in January this year, it was greeted with interest by the media — it was fairly common knowledge that Sir Clive had been working on an electric vehicle, and when it finally arrived journalists flocked to see what the latest piece of innovation from Sir Clive’s stables had to offer.

The C5 was launched as the first of a ‘family’ of electric vehicles which Sinclair Vehicles plans to introduce during the next ten years. Sales of over 100,000 units were forecast for the C5 by its makers, and 2,000 of the electric tricycles had been built and put into stock before the mail-order launch. Production targets of 1,000 C5’s a week were set at the Hoover factory in Merthyr Tydfil, and a massive £3 million advertising campaign swung into motion to promote sales.

Within days the C5 trike was being panned by the media. Criticised for being unsafe, unstable, dangerous because it wouldn’t be conspicuous to other road users — a deathtrap on three wheels. Very rapidly, Sinclair’s first electric vehicle acquired such names as ‘the pregnant rollerskate’ and ‘the electric clog’ from journalists eager to write some easy knocking copy.

Quite rapidly, it became clear that the level of sales forecast would simply not be achieved in the UK market. To date only 8,000 C5’s have been sold — less than a fifth of the targetted sales levels — and some months ago production at the factory was cut from 1,000 units a week to 100. ‘C5 workers go back to making washing machines’ was one told-you-so newspaper headline.

Early in June this year, Sir Clive wrote, in the Mail on Sunday: ‘... before the first customer had taken his C5 onto the road, a vast tidal wave of criticism had surged over my revolutionary new form of transport... last week I found myself in the headlines every day — as the misguided creator of a disaster.’

The man was clearly unhappy — but what of the critics? Is the C5 unsafe? Well, according to figures compiled by the Department of Transport for the first six months of the vehicle’s road-going life, there have only been two accidents. Neither accident involved another vehicle, in both cases being caused by ‘driver error’, and the extent of injuries went no further than ‘grazing’.

An exploded view of the bits and pieces that go together to make a C5. Taken from the Owner’s Handbook supplied with the vehicle.

‘The safety criticisms have been made out of context in the main,’ said a spokesman for Sinclair Vehicles, ‘the only safety argument is on the basis of the C5’s conspicuity to other road users — and in the context of two wheeled vehicles, specific criticism has only come from two sources. ROSPA thinks the C5 is more safe than bikes and other motorised two wheelers.’

Six thousand C5’s are currently held in stock by Sinclair Vehicles, and there are no plans to increase the low production levels in the immediate future. Is the C5 finished? ‘We could see sales improve in the UK with the better weather — perhaps a mid-winter launch was not ideal for an open topped vehicle,’ commented the spokesman, ‘but we see the longer term strength of the C5 lying in overseas sales. We have come up against the inhibitions of the British public, and should do better in countries such as France and Holland where they are already used to the idea of low-powered two wheeled vehicles such as the velocipede.’

Without doubt the C5 has attracted a vast amount of unflattering press comment. It could be that when people heard that Clive Sinclair was working on electric vehicles they formed a mental picture of a small car, like a Mini, powered from a battery. The reality was bound to be a disappointment, when a one-person motorised tricycle was launched onto a public expecting greater things.

In its own terms, however, it is clearly a revolution in transport — even if there aren’t that many people joining in. A whole range of companies with specialist skills were involved in the development and manufacture of C5 components, including Lotus Cars who helped with the development of the steel chassis, the steering geometry and handling and stability.

The battery used to power the C5 is very different to the standard car or lorry battery, which simply couldn’t stand up to being repeatedly charged up and discharged and it delivers its power in a different way, being able to cope with prolonged heavy loads. Oldham and Sinclair Vehicles co-operated to produce the power pack used in the C5, a technological development that will no doubt pay dividends on future electric vehicles.

The body mouldings are the largest mass produced polypropylene injection mouldings in the world. The bodyshell is created from two halves using an electrical fusion method — an electric current is passed through conductive sticky tape joining the sections, which heats up and effects a weld.

Motive power is supplied by an electric motor developed by a firm which specialises, amongst other things, in making torpedo motors. Power is delivered through a gearbox incorporating glass reinforced nylon gears which connects directly to the motor’s shaft.

All in all, the C5 represents a range of advances in technology assembled together in one innovative package. Other electric vehicle projects, all of which foundered, started with the concept of a traditional car powered by a petrol engine and sought to replace the engine with an electric motor. Sinclair Vehicles started at the other end: having found a motor and battery combination, they then designed the vehicle out from there. And it is only the first in a promised range of electric vehicles — by the early 1990’s Sinclair Vehicles plans to introduce an electrically-powered family vehicle.

Having heard so much (most of it uncomplimentary) about the C5, we decided the only fair way to assess the vehicle was to do a mini-review. The ubiquitous Robin Candy of Playing Tips fame, our very own Software Editor and a ZZAP! reviewing minion Gary Penn were dragged to a car park in Ludlow and given a C5 to play with for a while. This is what they found...

‘Not being a particularly adventurous type, it was not my life’s ambition to drive a vehicle that a lot of the press described as a death trap. But after much debating and squabbling I found myself being lifted into the plastic interior of a C5 by a rather burly Software Editor. After the initial terror had faded away I started to quite enjoy trundling around the local C5 hire emporium.

‘The only problem with controlling it I had was the acceleration button — but that soon became second nature. While I respect the views of sceptics who proclaim the C5 as a death trap, used correctly it is perfectly safe; indeed it is as safe as any other vehicle IF used correctly. In fact after about half an hour’s use of a C5 I’ve changed from laughing at the mere mention of one to actually wanting one.’

Robin Candy

‘I have always been a bit dubious about the C5 as a form of travel from what I’d seen and heard about it, and I have never really taken it seriously. It doesn’t exactly look and feel that stable or roadworthy. Due to their width they are annoying to overtake on the road.’

‘My opinion has changed somewhat though, after actually zipping around in one for a while. I must confess to feeling adequately secure as I drove about (if driving a C5 is the correct term) and I was impressed with the reasonable speed that is attainable (even through pedalling). I still feel that the whole thing is rather poor in actual construction, though not in design as the ride was a comfortable and enjoyable one. The price seems fair for what it has to offer but I think it would benefit from being slightly cheaper (if that is in fact possible).’

Gary Penn

‘What a fantastic surprise! The C5 was a great deal more comfortable than I had imagined it to be, and a good deal quicker. I would have welcomed the chance, to have given it a full road test but I think four CRASH-odians dropping in on the poor chap at Temeside was quite enough, without our disappearing over the horizon in his buggy...

‘Apart from the comfortable driving position I am pleased to be able to report that the pedal power is easy to use — the driver can exert a lot more force than an ordinary bike. My only dislikes where the LED warning lights which I found hard to see. There was a lot of creaking from the chassis which was a little unsettling. On the whole I think that it has the potential for being more than just a fun car. I would be more than happy to make my daily 5 mile journey into Ludlow in one. I want one!’

Jeremy Spencer