Miles ahead of its time

AS HE DODGES through the traffic-packed streets close to his penthouse on London’s Trafalgar Square, there is one vehicle Sir Clive Sinclair can be almost certain he will not have to avoid.

Twenty years ago today, the inventor launched his Sinclair C5 electric tricycle, the battery and pedal- powered contraption he believed would revolutionise road travel. Instead, it was derided as a potential death-trap, dubbed the "washing machine motor" and quickly vanished from public view.

Sinclair, with a fabulous record of innovation behind him, hoped millions of C5s would hit the roads to usher in the era of the electric car; the man who played a key part in the development of the pocket calculator, digital watch, portable TV and ZX80 personal computer saw it as the future of urban transportation.

A maximum speed of 15mph meant anyone over 14 could drive a C5 without a licence, road tax, insurance or a helmet. But the batteries could only power the vehicle 20 miles at a time (considerably less in cold weather) and struggled with hills.

The motoring press savaged the C5. One Daily Telegraph reviewer wrote on 11 January 1985: "I would not want to drive a C5 in any traffic. My head was on a level with the top of a juggernaut’s tyres, the exhaust fumes blasted into my face. Even with the miniscule front and rear lights on, I could not feel confident that a lorry driver so high above the ground would see me."

The C5 had some good points. It was relatively cheap - the "no-frills" model originally sold for 399, although added "extras" (such as wing mirrors and indicators) pushed the cost to 600.

Yet the millions of sales envisaged by Sinclair proved way off the mark; only 5,000 were sold worldwide, including just a handful in the US and Europe. The C5’s inventor cheerfully admits he never personally owned one: "I don’t own any car. I live and work in Trafalgar Square so I have no need." Yet two decades later, he still has faith in the vehicle we all loved to laugh at - and insists it was the right idea at the wrong time.

"The C5 was early for what it was," says Sinclair, now 64. "People reacted negatively and the press didn’t help. It was too low down and people felt insecure, hence it got bad press. However, I have a firm belief in the future of electrically-powered transport."

The C5 debacle lost Sinclair around 7 million. It was meant to be the first in a range of electric vehicles - to be followed with larger C10 and C15 models - but production ended after just a few months. The losses forced Sinclair to sell his computer business, which had a turnover of 30 million in 1982, to Amstrad for 5 million.

"The C5 money was my money - I back myself," he says. "We did market research and decided there was a demand. It wasn’t a blow to my confidence - you can’t win them all."

Yet 20 years on, the C5 has achieved something of a cult status among enthusiasts and vehicles are changing hands for up to 1,000 each. Sir Elton John has two for driving on his estate, while Princes William and Harry kept one at Kensington Palace.

And C5s certainly engender great passion among fans. Mark Koeberle, 33, was just 14 when the vehicle was launched, but has bought seven of them in the past two years.

He explains: "When they first came out, I thought they were really good gadgets to muck around in. I really wanted one, but in those days I had nowhere to keep it and no idea where to get spare parts. I like them because they remind me of being a kid. They are retro and cool."

Engineer Chris Crosskey, 38, is perhaps even more of a C5-nerd. He commutes every day from his home in Abingdon into Oxford (a 12-mile round trip) on his C5, holds the record for the longest journey completed on a C5 - 103 miles - and will make his third attempt to drive the C5 from John O’Groats to Land’s End later this year.

He says: "I must have done around 30,000 miles in my C5. I bought it in 1998, when I was looking to buy a recumbent bicycle but I injured my knees and decided it would put them under too much stress. Then I found an old C5 which was for the scrap heap and decided to do it up. It only took a couple of weeks. It looks very Sci Fi, or like a UFO from a 1970s sitcom.

"These days it’s much easier to drive one because you’ve got all the cycle lanes. It’s a great way to commute. You can’t get done for speeding and you can beat the traffic. Speed bumps can be a problem, though. There’s a mad joy in riding it and it’s great exercise. I’ve had one dodgy moment with a Greek lorry driver, but it’s such a strange-looking thing and easy for humans to pick up in their peripheral vision. Its odd shape means everybody sees you."

Adam Harper, a 39-year-old former C5 salesmen, is not interested in a leisurely commute; he reached 150mph in his turbo-charged C5, a landspeed record for an electric vehicle. He says: "Up to 100mph, it’s like running on rails, really stable. At about 110-120 mph, it starts getting tricky. At that point, if a tyre blew up or something happened, you would surely be dead."

Not everyone likes the C5 as much as these men. Scottish futurologist Ian Pearson describes the design as "ridiculous", adding: "You would never take that on the road." Pearson continues: "The C5 was dangerous. I am a fan of Sinclair, but you need to be a fanatic to drive one. Whether the car is safe or not, reality is of no consequence. Perception is what matters. I wouldn’t feel safe driving it off private roads. You are a sitting duck waiting for a truck to run over you."

Adam Vaughan, managing editor of Stuff magazine for men, agrees: "It was eccentric and bold but hugely flawed and unsuited to the real world. Where were you going to use it? Most people don’t want a cross between a sidecar and a Reliant Robin."

Yet both Vaughan and Pearson agree electric cars are the future. As Vaughan says: "In 20 years’ time we will use electric cars and bikes that you can charge at home. You won’t need to pay the congestion charge or for parking."

So was the C5 an invention ahead of its time? Sinclair is adamant it was: "Having the benefit of hindsight, I would do what Mercedes did with the A Class and show it a year before launching it so people could get used to the idea. I do think that it has a place in the future, which is why I’m still working on lightweight vehicles. We will launch a lightweight folding bicycle some time this year.

"I hoped the C5 would be the start of the electric car. Criticism of its safety was not fair at all. We sold 5,000 and I never heard of any serious accidents. The idea that it was dangerous was just invented by a bogus outfit [the British Safety Council] and was unfair. We didn’t sell it as a serious car because it was so unusual. There is still a future for electric cars, but progress is taking longer than we all thought. The world is slow to come round."

SINCLAIR: 'YOU CAN'T WIN THEM ALL'

Despite a proven track record in innovation, three of Clive Sinclair’s other ideas suffered the same fate as the C5:

• THE MICRO-6: Launched in 1964: A matchbox-sized radio - nicknamed the Transrista as it could be worn on your arm. Sinclair claimed this was the smallest in the world and one which was powerful enough to pick up signals from around Europe. It was neither.

Smaller radios had been invented in the 1950s, and although it could technically pick up radio stations in Russia and Eastern Europe, it did so simultaneously, so you couldn’t hear a thing. There were also early problems with the battery holders. One ambiguous advertisement summed it up, declaring that "the Micro-6 cannot be too highly recommended".

• THE BLACK WATCH. Launched 1975: Plagued by malfunctions, this digital watch flopped. The list of complaints was endless: the chip could be ruined by static from your shirt, carpets or air-conditioned office; the accuracy of the quartz timing crystal was temperature-sensitive so the watch ran at different speeds in winter and summer, and the control panels malfunctioned, making it impossible to turn the display on or off - which often led to exploding batteries.

• ZIKE. Launched 1992: Modestly promoted as "the greatest invention since the bicycle," the Zike was an ultra-light electric bicycle (weighing less than 11kg) with an electric motor hidden inside the frame. Priced 499.99, It had a top speed of about 10mph and recharged itself when ridden down slopes.

The Zike went the same way as the C5. In sales terms, it was actually less successful, selling only 2,000 units, and production - intended to be 10,000 a month - ended after only six months.