It was supposed to be the electric car for everyone, the vehicle that revolutionised the world forever. But while it was many things, the Sinclair C5 — which celebrates its 29th birthday today — wasn’t revolutionary.
It was laughed out of the market.
Yes folks, today, 29 years ago, English entrepreneur and inventor Clive Sinclair, the man behind the Sinclair ZX81 and the ZX Spectrum, unveiled his latest invention: a three-wheeled battery-assisted electric tricycle called the C5.
Low and sleek, the Sinclair C5 was the living embodiment of the 1980s view of the future. The single front wheel was just visible underneath the C5’s long angular nose, while the two rear wheels — covered with aerodynamic hubcaps for maximum efficiency — sat either side of the drivers’ bottom.
To ‘drive’ the C5, something anyone over the age of fourteen could do, you had to lower yourself gingerly into the seat, placing your legs over the top of the mid-mounted handlebars and your feet on the pedals, recumbent bicycle style.
On paper, piloting the C5 was relatively easy. To move off, you had to start peddling as you would a bicycle, but once moving, a small switch on the handlebar could be used to engage the C5’s tiny 200 watt, 12-volt electric motor. Driving the rear wheels via a chain drive, it could manage a heady top speed of 15 miles per hour without any physical exertion of the rider, provided they were lightweight enough and riding along flat ground.
The reality of the C5 was somewhat different: any type of hill would result in the rider huffing and puffing the heavy C5 up the hill, while the C5’s low riding position and lack of any kind of protection against the elements left the rider choking in fumes and sprayed with whatever mud and water was being thrown off the tyres of larger vehicles passing by.
When it came to stopping, the C5’s front and rear brakes — operated by bicycle-style brake levers — could handle all but the steepest of downhill runs given enough warning. But instead of braking both rear wheels, only one was braked, causing the C5 to lurch to the side if you pulled the lever too harshly.
And if that didn’t put you off buying one, the price most certainly would: £399 plus £29 for delivery, or if you were lucky enough to live near an electronics store selling one, £399 plus whatever trouble to fit it into your car.
Yet somehow, the tiny C5 — which we’ll admit was fun to ride on a nice, warm sunny summer’s day, far from the path of 18-wheelers — sold around 17,000 units worldwide. Most of those sales occurring in the UK.
Despite its weight, lack of seat adjustment, no gear, short pedal cranks and overheating motor however, the C5 still manages to raise a smile from those who have ever ridden in one, command an astonishingly high price on auction sites like eBay, and even has its own fan club devoted to its preservation, modification and enjoyment. It’s also been heavily modified over the years with enthusiasts doing everything from adding rockets to them to custom paint jobs, a monster truck, fluffy pink seats and yes, even a drag-racing C5 fitted with more powerful batteries and motor capable of a heady 75mph or more.
Happy Birthday Sinclair C5. You may be pretty awful, but somewhere in our hearts, we love you just a little. We just can’t figure out why.
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