Sinclair C5 graphic

Classic Projects: Sinclair C5

The Sinclair C5 battery electric vehicle was neither as visionary nor as revolutionary as its inventor had envisaged.

Brainchild of the extraordinarily rich and bafflingly eccentric Sir Clive Sinclair, the eponymous C5 three-wheeled battery electric vehicle was neither as visionary nor as revolutionary as its inventor had envisaged. In fact, from the moment it was launched thirty years ago at a shimmering media event in London's Alexandra Palace, the C5 was a complete disaster. Most of the review units that had been supplied to journalists refused to work, while the bitterly cold weather ensured that the members of the press that did make it around the test circuit labelled it "an unqualified disaster."

According to the C5 owners' website only 17,000 units were sold before Sinclair Vehicles was put into receivership on 12 October 1985. Ever sunny in disposition, the editors of the C5 Alive website do point out, however, that in terms of unit sales, the tricycle (as it was established in court) was the most successful electric vehicle the world had seen (until the Nissan Leaf came along in 2011).

The biggest problem that the C5 had was that it was terrible. The battery flattened quickly in cold weather and the driver was exposed to the elements as well as being close to the ground, raising safety issues. Operating on the horizontal, supplementary pedals were needed with such regularity that the driver was effectively running a recumbent cycle with the handlebar below the knees. On the occasions when the battery did assist with taking on shallow gradients, it often over-heated (C5 Alive admits that "the motor was essentially useless for climbing hills").

Some of these design problems were patched up with additional batteries, optional side panels, reflector swatches and pole-mounted 'high-vis' flags. But the fact remained that the design was an unremitting dud, which must have left former F1 driver Stirling Moss wondering how he ever became associated with promoting the vehicle.

Had it just been one of those moments when a product fell at the first, the C5 might have been forgotten. But there has seldom been a serious piece of engineering so exposed to ridicule. With the Hoover Company in Merthyr Tydfil contracted to manufacture the C5, there emerged a widespread urban myth that the vehicle was powered by a washing machine motor. The Economist, which couldn't quite believe that things could be as bad as they manifestly were, justified the entrepreneur 's eccentricity - he had sold shares in his Sinclair Research company - by stating that in the hands of anyone other than the calculator and computer designer, the design would be "bonkers".

Sinclair's critics argued that while he was comfortable designing for the emerging electronics sector, his understanding of the mature transport sector was non-existent and that he was designing "in a bubble". As a result of the negative press attention, so much of what the C5 was trying to achieve has been subsumed in ridicule that today it is hard to get a clear picture of its merits. Critics decided that the vehicle was slow, yet the C5's top speed of 15mph (24km/h) is the fastest a vehicle can travel in the UK without a driving licence.

And yet we should dismiss Sir Clive's pioneering spirit at our peril. When it came to a vision of sustainable commuting his heart was in the right place and he will justly earn his place as one of the forefathers of the green transport movement. Despite many technical problems, the biggest issue confronting the design was that it was way ahead of its time and turned into a national joke at a time when attitudes to pedal or battery-powered vehicles were not sympathetic.

Recent articles

Info Message

Our sites use cookies to support some functionality, and to collect anonymous user data.

Learn more about IET cookies and how to control them