Sinclair C5

Clive Sinclair

The Sinclair C5 is a battery electric vehicle invented by British entrepreneur Sir Clive Sinclair in the United Kingdom in 1985. The vehicle is a battery-assisted tricycle steered by a handlebar beneath the driver’s knees. Powered operation is possible making it unnecessary for the driver to pedal.

Its top speed of 15 miles per hour (24 km/h), is the fastest allowed in the UK without a driving licence. It is powered by a 200w or 250W motor. It sold for £399 plus £29 for delivery. It became an object of media and popular ridicule during 1980s Britain and was a commercial disaster, selling only around 17,000 units, although according to Sinclair, it was ‘the best selling electric vehicle’ until 2011 when the Nissan Leaf had sold over 20,000 units.

The C5 suffered from problems: cold weather shortened battery life, the driver was exposed to the weather, and because it was low to the ground, doubts were raised about its safety in traffic. The problems were addressed with a second battery, side screens for bad weather and a reflector on tall poles – all available as extras from the launch. Users of recumbent tricycles and a study by the Department of Transport suggested visibility fears were largely unfounded, but the weight, lack of seat-to-pedal adjustment, lack of gears, short pedal cranks, and that the motor overheated on long hills were serious problems; indeed the motor was essentially useless for climbing hills, with even mild gradients necessitating significant pedal assistance.

Sir Clive Sinclair started to think about electric vehicles as a teenager, and it was an idea he toyed with for decades. In the early 1970s Sinclair Radionics was working on the project. Sinclair had Chris Curry work on the electric motor. However, the company focus shifted to calculators and no further work was done on vehicles until the late 1970s. Development began again in 1979 and progressed erratically until, in 1983, it became apparent new legislation would alter the market and make it possible to sell a vehicle closely resembling development efforts.

As time went on, the Sinclair Research C5 development cost gradually increased. In 1983, Sinclair sold some of his shares in Sinclair Research Ltd and raised £12 million to finance vehicle development. A new company, Sinclair Vehicles Ltd, was formed out of Sinclair Research and a development contract entered with Lotus to take the C5 design to production. At the same time, the Hoover Company at Merthyr Tydfil contracted to manufacture the C5. This, together with the fact that the motors were made by Polymotor in Italy, started the urban myth that the C5 was powered by a washing machine motor.

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