Back in the saddle

THERE is something missing from the sitting room of Sir Clive Sinclair's high-rise London penthouse. Although it's easy to be distracted by the stunning view over Trafalgar Square - you can look Nelson in the eye up here - not to mention the chic minimalist decor, the grand piano and the dinosaur fossils, there is one surprising omission. Sinclair, the man who pioneered the home-computer revolution with his sub-£100 ZX80 model, does not have a PC anywhere in his home.

It may seem a retrograde choice, but Sinclair - who has Scottish roots of which he is intensely proud, and represents the third generation of engineers in his family - is not someone you could accuse of being backward-looking. He was born in Richmond, Surrey, in 1940, and his first professional invention was the Microkit, a radio circuit he completed when he was 18. At that time he was also the editor of Practical Wireless magazine, but soon escaped to become a full-time engineer. At 21 he wed Ann, with whom he shared a 25-year marriage and had three children.

In 1984, Sinclair delivered a speech to the US Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future. Crammed with senators and senior academics, this congregation (eventually co-chaired by a young senator named Al Gore) let contributing speakers peer into the future of their specialised areas of expertise. It was here Sinclair furnished an address that led one academic to label him "the Nostradamus of the microchip".

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Sinclair's lecture spoke of the replacement of people in factories by robots and computers. In it he anticipated the significance of the internet, mobile phones and prisoner "tagging". How ever, he also mentioned eco-friendly vehicles that would revolutionise the world of transport. Six months later he launched one of his own - the C5.

"An elaborate-looking slipper", as one critic labelled it, Sinclair's battery-powered 45kg plastic tricycle ended up costing him millions of pounds, sent his company into liquidation and was laughed off the roads. The C5 had a top speed of 15mph, and it was be classed as an "electrically assisted pedal-cycle", meaning that it could be driven by anyone over 14 without the need for vehicle insurance, a driving licence, road tax or crash helmet. It was keenly priced at 399, available by mail order.

A handful of sympathisers declared Sinclair a genius, saying that the world was too slow catching up with him.

Mad scientist, industrial revolutionary, entrepreneur or prophet, 21 years later, Sinclair is about to take to the roads again...

"I got it wrong in the past," he tells me when we sit down to talk in his penthouse, "spectacularly so. But I'm quietly confident this is going to work."

Tagged the "C6" in some quarters, Sinclair's latest introduction to environmentally-harmonious personal transportation devices - the A-Bike - will be officially launched today at the Design Museum in London. The world's smallest and lightest collapsible bike, it is described by Sinclair as heralding a new era in transport, suggesting (again) that it will revolutionise commuter travel. But what makes it any better than existing commuter bikes, of which Britons have become increasingly fond in these environmentally aware times?

"My idea was to create a truly light and compact portable bicycle, making it ideal for city or town travel, which means relatively short journeys and mixed modes of transport," he says.

"It will also be useful for people like yachtsmen and campers who may need a simple vehicle to zip around. The A-Bike is everything a commuter could wish for: easy to assemble, fast, discreet and a pleasurable ride."

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So named because it looks like the letter A when unfolded, the A-Bike is modestly priced in the region of 150-170, weighs just 5kg and, with practice, can be folded and dismantled in 15 seconds (aficionados of other folding models, such as the popular Brompton, tell us this is about the same time it takes to wrestle theirs into a portable format). Its enclosed chain guard prevents any oil and grease marks on your trousers, too. So is this what inner-city travellers and the park-and-ride brigade want?

"That's who the bike is aimed at," says Sinclair nonchalantly. "It can be used as one part of a longer journey - say, from your house to the train station, then from the station to your work - you can even take it on trains that have a 'no bikes' policy."

It has only one gear but, he says, "I used to cycle long distances on one gear when I was young, so I can't see why people wouldn't use the A-Bike for longer distances."

Made from nylon reinforced with glass fibre — similar to that used in the aerospace industry and in sports cars - the A-Bike was designed in south London (its chief design engineer is Alex Kalogroulis) and manufactured in China.

Like the Sinclair Executive pocket calculator, still on show in the New York Museum of Design, the A-Bike has already won a "Distinguished Design from China" award.

But looks aren't everything. It has achieved a top speed of 15mph during trials, but the most contentious aspect of the A-Bike is its sports-buggy style wheels, which are only six inches in diameter. Expert critics have been quick to suggest that, for any cycle with wheels smaller than 16in, falling into a pothole on the road might mean not getting back out again.

Sinclair laughs: "As far as I'm aware, bikes don't like potholes at the best of times. Doesn't every conscientious bike rider look out for potholes and drains? An experienced cyclist would be wary of such things and, even so, Edinburgh, Glasgow or London shouldn't have potholes in the first place."

He may have a point, but being idealistic about the state of our roads will not make those potholes melt away. Sinclair is, though, adamant that the A-Bike offers many advantages over existing folding cycles.

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With or without its case, the A-Bike can be carried anywhere, taken into shops, even stored in lockers at school, work or the gym. There's a little irony in its design, too: it's as if you're being encouraged to start cycling just so you can take public transport, in order to be able to carry your bike around.

With Smart cars and various lightweight electric vehicles falling into the bracket between cars and cycles, other personal transport devices, such as the Segway, the Brompton and the battery-powered bicycle have - with varying degrees of success - attempted to get a pedal-hold in the market.

How do they compare with the A-Bike, I ask Sinclair. "For a start, the Segway is not a bicycle, and the Brompton - a great bike - is a high-performance bicycle and far heavier than the A-Bike," he explains.

The A-bike follows Sinclair's earlier plans for the X-bike, a scissors-like bicycle which he once planned to manufacture but eventually abandoned.

It's not the first time he has experimented with a road vehicle since the C5's demise, either. In 1992, he launched an electric-powered bike called the Zike. It was designed to recharge itself while travelling down hills, with a top powered speed of 10mph, and Sinclair planned to produce 10,000 Zikes a month. In the event, production was stopped after six months, with only 2,000 bikes having been sold. The only place you're likely to find one now is on eBay.

"Sadly the X-Bike never came to pass," says Sinclair, who is now 65, without a hint of disappointment in his voice. "However, once the necessary adjustments are made to it, I fully expect the A-Bike to advance and become an electrical vehicle. My original thought was that if you could have a bicycle that was dramatically lighter and more compact than ones that exist today, you would change the way in which bicycles could be used. Electricity is the way forward."

So there you have it. Another Sinclair product: likely to capture the public imagination, or leave itself wide open to bile and ridicule before bombing spectacularly? Since 1958, Sinclair has devoted himself to changing the way we live and learn, braved new worlds with his original concepts and, when he has got it wrong, has gone bravely back to the drawing board, undeterred.

He is the man who took the desktop calculator and put it in your pocket; took the big-business computer and put it into your living room; took the television set and made it smaller than a paperback. The C5, despite its many shortcomings, was an attempt to introduce cheap, battery-powered motoring for the individual.

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Sinclair's shamelessly heroic stance has made him a technologically enhanced David, cutting giants down to size. For millions of people in their thirties, their introduction to computing came with either his ZX81 or the Spectrum. It's a generation of people who fondly remember their first attempts at programming (1 PRINT "HELLO"; 2 GOTO 1) or the many hours manoeuvring Jet Set Willy across a TV screen, people who now worship their techno gadgets.

These days Sinclair, when not appearing on Challenge TV's Celebrity Poker Club tournaments, is happily dating glamorous women half his age - "It's the power" is how he wryly explains his ability to attract them, and I'm not sure this is said entirely tongue-in-cheek.

He still finds time to invent, and the Sea-Doo sea scooter and the world's smallest radio (the size of a 10p piece), are two of his more recent ventures.

He was also invited by his chum Peter Stringfellow to launch the Stringfellow's website at a celebrity-filled party in the London club, a mere stone's throw from his penthouse.

Only last year, a popular men's magazine included Sinclair on its list of most influential men in Britain.

Sinclair is optimistic that he can sell 100,000 A-Bikes in the first year, before tackling the Far East and America. But his record is so full of ups and downs, it's hard to fathom whether or not the A-Bike will be a hit.

Twenty years ago today, Sinclair was attempting to avoid bankruptcy, derision and a failing reputation. With today's launch of his A-Bike let's hope there are not too many more potholes ahead of him.

A life of invention

• 1940 - Clive Sinclair is born in London, the son and grandson of engineers.

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• 1957 - Sinclair leaves St George's College, Weybridge, aged 17, and becomes a technical journalist for four years.

• 1962 - Sinclair founds Radionics in London. Early products include radios.

• 1967 - Company turnover reaches 100,000 and it moves to Cambridge. By now the range has expanded to include hi-fi systems and the Sinclair Micromatic matchbox radio.

• 1972 - Sinclair launches Sinclair Executive - the world's first truly pocket calculator - the initial selling price was a then revolutionary 79. It wins design awards and earns over 2.5 million in export revenue.

• 1977 - Sinclair launches the world's first pocket TV, Microvision.

• 1979 - Establishes new company, Sinclair Research Limited (SRL).

• 1980 - Sinclair pioneers the home-computer revolution with the Sinclair ZX80 - the world's first computer costing less than 100. More than 100,000 are eventually sold - over 60 per cent for export - before production ceases in August 1981. Its successor, the ZX81, launches a year later and sells one million units over the following two years. In 1982 the colour ZX Spectrum becomes a bestseller around the world.

• 1983 - Sinclair becomes Sir Clive. The same year Sinclair Research launches the multi-standard flat-screen pocket TV, the result of a six-year 4 million development programme. It retails at 79.95.

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• 1985 - Sinclair Vehicles launches the Sinclair C5 electric tricycle which quickly becomes an item of popular ridicule and sells only 17,000 units.

• 1986 - Computer stock sold to Amstrad.

• 1992 - The Sinclair Zike electric bicycle launches.

• From 2000, Sinclair Research pursues development of its electric propulsion technology. It also pursues long-term research and development of ultra lightweight folding bikes.