Clive Sinclair’s C5 was a commercial flop when it was released in 1985, but today it looks like the way forward. Lee Osborne looks back at a genius inventor whose vision for electric vehicles was decades ahead of its time
Sometimes a product comes along that’s so radical, the public genuinely don’t know what to make of it. Such innovations either become incredibly popular and make a fortune – like the iPhone – or they bomb completely, leaving the public scratching their heads in bemusement. One of these was the Sinclair C5, an electric tricycle released in 1985.
Sir Clive Sinclair, who passed away in September 2021, is widely regarded as one of Britain’s greatest inventors. He’s credited with kick-starting the computer revolution with his affordable home computers, and made Britain an early leader in information technology.
He was what we’d now call a futurologist, with Utopian visions of incredible pocket-sized gadgets. He wasn’t fond of computers, stating later in life that he never used them, but he sold them to finance research on other, loftier goals. Sinclair worked on electric vehicles since at least the mid-seventies.
The C5 eventually appeared after a whopping £12 million research and development programme, and was revealed at a glitzy launch in January 1985. It was a personal vehicle with both pedal and motor power.
At launch, it cost £399 (equivalent to £1,100 today), when the cheapest car available, the Fiat 126, cost £2,200. The C5 wasn’t the world’s first electric vehicle – a previous 1970s attempt, the Enfield 8000, failed because it was twice as expensive as most petrol cars of the day. Sinclair hoped the budget price would help it sell in the millions, as it had with his computers.
Rather grandiose claims were made for the C5, in both the brochure and a promotional film. This is probably the only place you’ll see functioning C5s in any significant numbers. The publicity promised a “whole new way to get about”, cheap urban transport that would bring independence to millions.
Sadly, the reality was somewhat different. Battery performance reduces significantly in low temperatures, and the freezing day chosen for launch resulted in the embarrassing spectacle of multiple C5s failing to move.
People were horrified by it, and were stunned that someone as talented as Sinclair could produce something that seemed so silly. It became the butt of jokes, and no one wanted them. By August 1985, Sinclair Vehicles had ceased to trade, and only 5,000 out of the 14,000 C5s produced had been sold.
Clive Sinclair’s main company, Sinclair Research, never recovered from the financial blow, and in 1986, he sold the rights to his computers to Alan Sugar’s Amstrad for £5 million. After that, Sinclair Research continued to exist as a one-man band, a few products appearing sporadically until Sinclair’s death. Sadly, he’d never again see the success that accompanied his computers.
Despite coming across in interviews as an extremely serious and earnest individual preoccupied with high-minded concepts, in later life Sinclair developed a reputation as something of a playboy. He was a superb poker player and took part in several televised tournaments. His first marriage ended in divorce in 1985, partly due to the financial problems he faced at the time, but in 2010 he married Angie Bowness, a former dancer in Stringfellows nightclub, and Miss England 1995. She was 36 years his junior; they subsequently divorced in 2017.
The only time I ever saw working C5s was on a Devon seafront in the summer of 1985, where they could be hired to motor up and down the promenade. It looked like excellent fun, but I was only 11 years old at the time, and you had to be 14 to ride one.
Apparently they were also popular for transporting staff around big factories, but they never took off in the way Sinclair hoped they would. I never saw one ridden as everyday transport on the roads, and I’ve only seen them more recently in a couple of museums. I really wanted to try one out in preparation for this article, but I couldn’t track down a working model.
I think the C5 was a sound concept, and it absolutely didn’t deserve the slating it got back in the day. Sure, there were serious problems, but I think those were down to the vehicle being years ahead of its time. Sinclair was genuinely visionary in creating this vehicle, but sadly society wasn’t ready for it, and the technology wasn’t up to scratch either.
Although the battery and motor were supposedly custom-designed and highly efficient, they weren’t able to create a reliable vehicle with good performance. Range was supposedly 20 miles, but real-life experience suggested 10 was more realistic. Modern batteries and motors would allow greater speed and range, but this technology didn’t exist until very recently.
The other issue was cultural. Sinclair recognised that using petrol cars for short journeys in cities was hugely damaging. He saw a need for a small, clean, efficient personal vehicle with popular appeal. Back in the eighties we were a nation of petrol-heads, and the tiny C5 was considered a death-trap on busy, polluted roads. It’s actually no worse than a modern recumbent bicycle. Having said that, I wouldn’t fancy riding one in fast-moving traffic, and they were never intended for that purpose.
Speaking in an interview in 1990, Sinclair said: “[Car drivers] have got this impression that because they’re using unleaded petrol, suddenly this is nice for the environment. Whatever you do to the petrol, it’s still pumping out carbon dioxide. In my opinion we’ve got to go to something like electric cars, which have got to become universal. The C5 would have been a stepping stone towards developing a four-seater 80mph car with 200 mile range, what we call the C15.”
Sinclair considered this was perfectly possible with the technology of the day, but needed investment he was unable to obtain. Of course, nowadays we know he was right – he was simply trying to develop this 30 years too early, before the public appreciated the need for it.
In 1985, around 6,000 people were killed on British roads every year – that figure is now less than 2,000. The changing design of urban roads is a major factor in this. In the modern world of Ultra Low Emission Zones and Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, whizzing about on these in safe streets, to shops and services close to your home, suddenly seems like a great idea.
If you fancy owning one, C5s in varying condition (from fixer-upper to pristine) are available on eBay from about £400 to £1,500. However, they’re collectors’ items now, and like a treasured classic car, not something you’d want to use every day. That said, there are plenty of resources available to keep them going at c5owners.com.
I’m convinced that someone needs to update the C5 for modern times. Surely it’s possible to produce something of similar size and layout, with better performance and range, using modern technology and materials. Obviously there’s a big appetite for green, sustainable products. In the right hands, I think a project like this could really work, and I hope someone tries it. I’d certainly buy one, as I was gutted to miss out last time round!
This article appears in the Jan-Feb 2024 edition of the Idler – out now.
Our January/February 2024 issue is available in Waitrose, Waterstones, Smiths Travel outlets, select Smiths high street branches and around 100 indie stores. Click here for your nearest stockist.