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By Ian Adamson and Richard Kennedy

The Machine Stopped

The C5 saga chronicles the most depressing failure of a Sinclair vision. Anticipated for decades and developed over many years, Sir Clive's electric-powered dream came and went in ten short months. If tragedy comes in threes as the old wives maintain, then the ill-fated trike must be added to the flat screen and QL to complete Sir Clive's trinity of disasters. Like the television, the idea of producing some kind of electric vehicle had been a constant preoccupation for Sinclair since the beginning of his commercial career. It's ironic that both projects were destined to suffer much the same ignominious fate.

Although electric-vehicle research was begun in earnest only at Sinclair Research, company records suggest that in the early seven ties Chris Curry half-heartedly tinkered with the embryonic development of the project for Radionics. Even at this stage it seems the research was active rather than theoretical, since Norman Hewett recalls spotting an early prototype rotting away in the depths of the St Ives Mill, although he stresses that the NEB never had any interest in the product. Indeed, even among Clive's most loyal supporters one senses the desire to disown the fruits of this particular vision. Everyone is at pains to emphasise that the electric vehicle has always been Sinclair's personal dream rather than any kind of corporate endeavour. Uncharacteristically, Sinclair seems to have bowed to this consensus of doubt, and development of the C5 was postponed until it could be backed by his own burgeoning fortune.

Although Sinclair has always promoted the C5 as a 'completely new concept in personal transportation', a cursory examination of developments in the motor industry reveals that such claims cannot be supported by history. While the earliest development of a crude battery-powered car can be traced to Thomas Davenport's decidedly limited prototypes of 1834, it wasn't until the beginning of this century that commercial research and development began in earnest.

According to The Complete Book of Electric Vehicles, Shacket's definitive history of the subject, 35 per cent of the vehicles sold in 1900 were powered by electricity. The market peaked in 1912 when almost 34,000 electric cars were registered. This figure takes into account only vehicles used as 'personal transportation'. (At this time, there was an even greater number of commercial electric vehicles on the streets - i.e. trucks, vans, taxis, etc.) However, as petrol-powered technology advanced by leaps and bounds, electric-powered vehicles sank into a decline, their progress inhibited by the failure of science to make any significant advances in battery technology.

A century of evidence reveals that Britain, more than any other industrial power, has intermittently taken the principle of electric-powered transportation seriously enough to commit resources to investigating its technical and commercial viability. As a consequence, in the year Sinclair's modest contribution was revealed to the world, this country could boast 30,000 electric-powered vehicles in commercial use (27,000 of which were milk-floats), while similar developments in the domestic market still awaited significant technical innovations.

At the beginning of the 1970s, all the major political parties recognised that there were votes to be gained from a gestural support of a broad spectrum of 'ecological issues'. To this end, correspondingly gestural grants suddenly became available to companies that could cobble together proposals demonstrating the pursuit of 'ecologically sound' goals. The compelling combination of an ideological fad and a crisis in oil ensured that alternatives to the internal combustion engine were, once again, an acceptable subject for corporate speculation. But only just. In the event, between 1971 and 1930 the state invested less than £6m. in researching non-pollutant forms of transport. Almost half of the total allocation ended up in the hands of the already heavily subsidised Lucas Aerospace. (To date, the only tangible product of the Lucas investment is the decidedly uninnovatory van used for company deliveries.) The remaining subsidies were wisely passed on to companies researching methods of providing a reliable power source for electric vehicles, an unsolved problem that continues to constrain the commercial viability of such products.

Early in 1980, Sinclair was beginning to feel that he'd finally laid the spectre of the NEB and was once again at the helm of his own operation. The recently launched ZX80 looked set for success, and the development of its successor was well under way. While in lesser mortals such a period might prompt a sense of cautious optimism, the new decade found Sinclair in an expansive frame of mind. The time seemed ripe to re-evaluate the electric vehicle concept. To this end, Radionics veteran Tony Rogers was hired on a consultancy basis. It's worth stressing that at this time Research was just beginning to grapple with the supply and demand problems precipitated by the success of the ZX80. If any form of corporate plan existed, it would almost certainly have been concerned with exploiting the company's tangible success in a new line of consumer electronics. There were neither the people nor the financial resources to encourage dreams of ambitious diversification. Unless you were Clive Sinclair! Under the circumstances, it seems certain that while the rest of the company concerned itself with the demands of the early home-micro enthusiasts, only Sinclair himself felt confident enough about the future to indulge in one of his obsessions.

To be fair, there is no reason to suspect that in the early days the vehicle development would have consumed much in the way of time or money. The project was more of a diversion than a fully fledged research programme. Rogers had a full-time job running the Exeter Academy, and considered his work for Sinclair as something akin to a challenging hobby. According to corporate biographer Rodney Dale, Sinclair's brief to Rogers was sufficiently loose to encourage inspired tinkering rather than a path of rigorous research:

[Rogers was contracted to] perform and present a preliminary investigation into a personal electric vehicle. The vehicle is assumed to carry one person (with a possible second person only by squeezing), and is seen as a replacement for a moped and limited to urban use with a top speed of 30 mph.

(The Sinclair Story, p.152.)

It seems fair to assume that at the time Tony Rogers was churning out early prototypes of the vehicle, Sinclair was perfectly sincere in his desire to create a revolutionary form of personal transport. As a man for whom public acclaim invariably takes precedence over monetary gain, he would have relished the prospect of going down in history as the inventor who took carbon-dioxide pollution out of the twentieth century. An authentic realisation of Sinclair's transportation revolution would have offered social salvation and commercial success. Furthermore, his stubborn dedication to the television project demonstrates that neither time nor escalating research costs would be regarded as significant obstacles to product realisation. In the event, the stolid but relentless progress of Clive the visionary was distracted by legislative developments that awakened the reflex opportunism of Clive the entrepreneur.

The motivation for accelerating the vehicle development programme came in March 1980, when the government abolished motor tax for all types of electric transport. Overnight, Sinclair's vision started to look like a viable marketing proposition. Over the next eighteen months, Rogers pushed ahead with the development of the body design and motor, but according to his biographer Sinclair took the decision to make do with existing battery technology:

Part of the ground-up approach was not to spend... enormous amounts trying to develop a more efficient battery, but to make use of the models already available. Sinclair's very sound reasoning was that a successful electric vehicle would provide the necessary push to battery manufacturers to pursue their own developments in the fullness of time: for him to sponsor this work would be a misplacement of funds.

(ibid., p.154.)

As we have noted, the creation of a reliable power source for electric vehicles is one of the major obstacles impeding their commercial development. The bottom-line quandary that continues to plague battery-technology development centres around petrol's privileged relationship with energy. Petrol is valuable because of its massive energy density. Or to put the battery researcher's problem into perspective, a kilogram of petrol offers an energy potential of 13,000 watt-hours; the lead-acid equivalent holds a miserable 50 watt-hours of energy. For the moment there appears to be no contest.

The decision to leave the thorny problems of battery research to others effectively turned the vehicle project into little more than a marketing exercise. By opting to base his design around existing power supplies, Sinclair avoided addressing problems the solutions to which demanded genuine technical innovation. Having abandoned any pretence of technological advance, the only unanswered questions facing Sinclair concerned public demand and economies of production. Could the public be persuaded that it needed a three-wheeled electric moped that came on like an invalid car? Could such a product be manufactured cheaply enough to be commercially viable?

By the beginning of 1983, the development of the Sinclair vehicle had reached the point where serious investment was required if the product was ever to reach the marketplace. However, corporate support was conspicuous in its absence. The phenomenal success of the ZX81 had finally enabled a Sinclair company to make its presence felt in the high street; there was every indication that the Spectrum's imminent launch would ensure a domination of the home-computer market for the foreseeable future. Company and consumer had developed a clear sense of corporate identity; it was an image that centred on low-cost home computers, and had absolutely nothing to do with electric trikes.

Even Sinclair couldn't remain oblivious to his colleagues' mounting anxiety as they watched their mentor's challenging diversion rapidly move towards a production-line reality. Although on a one-to-one basis Sinclair could be chillingly convincing about the project's potential, the collective doubt of a normally uncritically supportive staff persuaded him that there was no point risking corporate stability unnecessarily. As we have seen, in January 1983 Sinclair solved his problem by selling off a small percentage of his personal holdings in the company. At a time when the value of Sinclair Research shares were at their peak, this little deal provided him with cash-in-hand to the tune of around £12m. March saw the incorporation of a new company, Sinclair Vehicles, whose activities would be financed by an initial investment of £8.6m. of the revenue from the share sale. Although we were unable to trace any record of money changing hands following the transfer of vehicle development to Sinclair Vehicles, there can be little doubt that the move would have been greeted with relief by the doubting hordes at Research. From now on the parent company could continue to consolidate its success in splendid isolation, securely insulated from the economic consequences of a shaky vision.

In March 1983, Sinclair managed to persuade ex-De Lorean henchman Barrie Wills to take care of the day-to-day running of Sinclair Vehicles. Although the new managing director soon discovered that he was overlord of a company without a product, rumours of further legislative modifications boded well for the future. The company learned that 'electrically assisted pedal cycles' were to be singled out for special treatment under the law. Although owners of such machines would be constrained by a 15 mph speed limit, they would also be exempt from insurance, road tax and a driving licence. Sinclair's vehicle design was modified accordingly.

Making use of his industry contacts, Wills ended up placing the contract for the final stages of the C5's development with Lotus. Work on the project was finalised towards the end of 1983, and the new few months were devoted to refining the vehicle's bodywork, a task that was tackled by industrial designer Guy Desbarats. As far as the C5's battery and motor were concerned, most of the development had been commissioned out of house. The bulk of the modifications to the battery had been accomplished by the combined efforts of Sinclair Vehicles and Oldham. Since Sinclair had decided that innovations in power-supply technology should be funded by battery manufacturers, one of the most critical elements of any electric-vehicle design was conspicuously neglected. The C5's power supply is essentially a bog-standard (albeit lightweight) lead-acid battery. Sinclair claims that suitable modifications were incorporated into the design to compensate for the effects of repeated draining and recharging, but subsequent developments cast doubts on the adequacy of this work. The vehicle's motor was manufactured in Italy by Polymotor, a subsidiary of Philips. Sinclair's press release went to some lengths to point out that the Italian company had developed motors for 'gyros, torpedoes and fast-response actuators'. What it didn't explain was that the C5's motor belonged to the less glamorous end of the Polymotor range. Sinclair's 'revolution in personal transportation' would be driven by a modified washing-machine motor.

With product development close to completion, Sinclair turned his attention to finding a production plant for his vehicle. For a while he negotiated with De Lorean's liquidators in an effort to buy the fallen tycoon's sophisticated Northern Ireland plant. After a year of talks, the plan was finally scrapped. In the meantime, the company's twenty-five staff had found a home for themselves in the Science Park, right next door to Warwick University where much of the early vehicle research was completed.

As a veteran of the development-grant circus, it comes as no surprise that Sinclair had his manufacturing problem solved by the Welsh Development Agency (WDA). Acting on behalf of Sinclair Vehicles, the agency persuaded Hoover that the company's Merthyr Tydfil plant could painlessly adapt its production line to handle the demands of electric-trike manufacture. It seems certain that both the WDA and Hoover allowed themselves to be seduced by Sinclair's wildly optimistic production projections of 200,000-300,000 units per year. For the Agency, the project offered the promise of jobs in an area crippled by unemployment; for Hoover, the contract offered a significant revenue on a high output and the prospect of more work in the future as the vehicle range expanded. As the project's principal subcontractor, Hoover would be responsible for the bulk of C5 manufacture, with only the bodywork assembly commissioned elsewhere. (Because of the specialised equipment required, the C5's pair of polypropylene injection mouldings became the responsibility of Linpac. According to the C5's technical specifications, the vehicle's body was the largest ever mass-produced polypropylene assembly.)

By now, Sinclair's improbable coup with home computers had made his name synonymous with individual enterprise and national advance. However dubious the vehicle project looked on paper, with Clive Sinclair behind it there were few bold enough to commit their doubts to print. An unusually restrained Economist feature (25 June 1983) offers a taste of the pervasive mood of journalistic caution:

'If it was anyone but Sinclair,' said one competitor, 'we'd say he was bonkers.' But can a man who has made a fortune out of calculators and computers, and could double it on flatscreen televisions, be that crazy?

As far as the Welsh workforce and management were concerned, times were hard and there was very little incentive to look a gift horse in the mouth, however questionable its pedigree. The contract was considered important enough for Hoover to allocate a section of the Merthyr Tydfil plant exclusively for the production of the Sinclair vehicle. In addition, the company invested £100,000 in a customised production line for the project. By the end of 1984, the first batch of C5s trundled out and began their ill-fated quest for a non-existent market.

From a distance, the C5 resembles a giant plastic clog. In spite of the vast amounts of time and effort that went into the vehicle's external design, at first glance its most memorable characteristic is its size. The C5 is small. Small, vulnerable and curiously provisional. When confronted with a C5, one's thoughts invariably turn to morbid meditations on juggernauts. With overall dimensions of S feet 9 inches by 2 feet 5 inches by 2 feet 7 inches, there was little chance that the C5 would make an instant impression in traffic. In the critical onslaught that followed the launch, the majority of commentators voiced anxieties concerning the wisdom of driving such a diminutive form of transport in anything approaching heavy traffic:

In fact, I would not want to drive a C5 in any traffic at all. My head was on a level with the top of a juggernaut's tyres, the exhaust fumes blasted into my face. Even with the minuscule front and rear lights on, I could not feel confident that a lorry driver so high above the ground would see me. Small wonder that one of the accessories listed in the C5 brochure is a high and bright-red reflecting mast, said by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents to be a 'must'.

(Daily Telegraph, 11 January 1985.)

There were many who maintained that the 'Hi-Vis Mast' should have been included as a standard feature.

Before moving on to the C5's launch and its aftermath, it's worth mentioning that Sinclair was not alone in his faith in the electric-powered option. Ignored by all but the specialist press, two companies were busily completing the development of three more electric vehicles, all of which were targeted for a 1985 launch. It should be stressed that none of the neglected trio posed a threat to Sinclair's plans, since all were directed way up market with price tags to match their ambitions. However, in spite of being considerably more expensive than the Sinclair creation, none of the C5's competitors boasted much in the way of technological advances. Like Sinclair, both the companies concerned had opted to design around the limitations of existing technology.

The electric-powered Whisper is an unremarkable-looking hatchback. Designed and marketed by a Dutch company called Whisper Electric Cars, the vehicle costs around £4000 and was launched in August 1985. At a cruising speed of 30 mph, the Whisper travels 50 miles before requiring a recharge. The other company involved in electric-vehicle development is the all-British HIL Electric. Like the Whisper, both the QT pick-up van and the U36 bubble car boast exteriors based around standard motor industry designs. To date (July 1986) none of these electric alternatives can be said to have made much of an impression on the market.

The launch of the C5 electric vehicle was expensive, glossy and mildly embarrassing. Like the majority of products from the Sinclair stable, the C5 was initially announced as being sold on an exclusively mail-order basis. However, this didn't mean that Sir Clive planned a low-profile launch for his new baby. According to official statistics, Sinclair Vehicles sank £3m. into a three-month Primary Contact promotion. The campaign included television slots and colour supplement spreads and seemed to be directed at anyone who would listen:

Targeted broadly at the family audience, Sinclair believes that the C5 will appeal equally to the younger generation ... and adults for activities such as urban commuting, shopping and getting to the railway station.

(Sinclair Vehicles, press release, 10 January 1985.)

At first glance, the extravagant brochure promoting the new product appeared to offer the customary hallmarks of a standard Sinclair hype. However, behind the high-gloss pics lurked an undercurrent of desperation. Rather than promote the C5 as the future of urban transportation, the static tableaux of businessmen, housewives and their indispensable C5s served to accentuate the redundancy of the product. Apart from anything else, it was quite obvious that none of the featured models would be seen dead driving the contraption they were attempting to market. The accompanying text was slightly more convincing. Adopting a shamelessly heroic stance, it portrayed Sir Clive as a technologically enhanced David, fearlessly taming the giants of urban chaos:

Sinclair's reputation is built on cutting giants down to size, turning impersonal tyrants into personal servants. Sinclair took a desktop calculator and put it in your pocket ... took the big-business computer and tucked it into your living room ... took the television set and made it smaller than a paperback. Now, with the C5, Sinclair Vehicles puts personal, private transportation back where it belongs - in the hands of the individual.

('Sinclair C5 - A New Power in Personal Transport'.)

Extending a familiar theme of Sinclair promotions to something close to breaking point, the blurb struggled to imply that the purchase of a C5 spelt liberation from the multinationals and a blow for the humanisation of the urban landscape. To their credit, there are moments when the admen came perilously close to making a turkey look like a dove. But for once reality defeated commercial intent. In spite of the first-class photography and expensive design, the C5 still looked like an exiled pedal car from the children's section of a mail-order catalogue. In spite of the blue-print style diagrams, Sir Clive's dream machine manifested all the hi-tech innovation one would expect from a three-wheeled electric moped wrapped in injection-moulded polypropylene. In spite of the brochure's depiction of a blue-sky suburbia exclusively populated by electric trikes and their drivers, readers continued to speculate on the carnage resulting from C5-omnibus interaction.

The official launch of the C5 at Alexandra Palace was an unqualified disaster. Ever unpredictable, Sir Clive had astounded his public by launching his open-topped, low-performance trike in the middle of winter. The first (and last) product from Sinclair Vehicles was unveiled on 10 January 1985 and priced at £399. In his opening speech, Sir Clive confirmed suspicions that, rather than make any serious attempt at technological advance, Sinclair Vehicles had chosen to rush out the C5 in the hope of capitalising on the new electric-vehicle legislation. In any event, the reality that was the C5 fell well short of the promise of Sir Clive's vision, and at times his obligatory launch euphoria sounded dangerously apologetic:

I'm going to start in a rather unusual fashion by telling you what we're not announcing today ... we're not announcing a conventional car. Sinclair Vehicles is dedicated to the development and production of a full range of electric cars, but today we have an electric vehicle, the first stage on the road to an electric car.

(The Sinclair Story, p.164.)

Although desperate hacks did their best to evoke the shock-horror vision of packs of 14-year-olds terrorising the neighbourhood in their customised C5s, it was clear that the launch offered little mileage for the tabloids. For the rest of the press, close encounters with the trike provided the long-a waited opportunity to voice doubts about the commercial viability of Sinclair's vehicle project. Appallingly negligent organisation at the launch did much to ensure that journalists' negative preconceptions were soon confirmed by experience. It turned out that for one reason or another a large number of the demonstration machines simply didn't work! What possible excuse can there be for inviting the press to assess the reliability of your product and then providing them with defective machines? A little ahead of schedule, Sir Clive's new company took on the commercial scars that are the hallmark of a depressingly enduring Sinclair tradition.

Critical evaluation of the C5 arrived in three main waves, and little of it did anything to encourage sales. Even before the official launch the trike was under attack from the British Safety Council (BSC). It seems that on 6 January 1985 the Council's James Tye accepted Sir Clive's invitation to test-drive the new product at Vehicle's Science Park headquarters. After due consideration, the vociferous Mr Tye made it clear that he didn't like what he saw. He was particularly concerned about the prospective mobilisation of unlicensed, uninsured 14-year-olds; teenagers and C5s was not a combination the Council relished. Two days before the launch, the BSC issued a decidedly negative report on the trike, which was dispatched to its 32,000 members. The following day, Sir Clive announced his intention to sue both the BSC and Tye for their 'defamatory remarks' about his project. Although nothing came of the threat, Sinclair remains bitter about Tye's opposition to the C5 and the amount of media attention given over to the BSC's views:

The C5 got a very bad press. There's an outfit called the British Safety Council who sound like a government agency ....... go round bad-mouthing other people's products, as far as I can make out... The interesting thing was that the ROSPA [Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents], who are the real authorities on safety, thought the C5 was absolutely super. They were very supportive because they thought it was a great improvement on the bicycle and motorbikes, so were very keen to see it succeed. But the press, of course, listened to the vocal James [Tye].

(Interview, 6 November 1985.)

In the wake of the fateful launch, intrepid motoring and technology correspondents filed their anecdotes and voiced their doubts. All In all the critical response was firmly negative. The following extract is fairly representative of the general tone of the next-day impressions:

The instructions were quite simple: sit in, switch on and go. And go the Sinclair C5 vehicle ... certainly did. For seven minutes. Then the first battery ran flat. Fortunately, I was not stuck in the middle of a city rush-hour nor on an isolated country road ... I pedalled the C5 back to the service point (my legs are still aching even though the slopes were gentle) and the spare battery was connected ... But nothing could compensate for the sheer feeling of vulnerability in spite of Sinclair's claim that it is far safer than anything on two wheels. The electrically powered car might be the personal transport of the future, but if the C5 is anything to go by, then that day has not yet dawned.

(Daily Telegraph, 11 January 1985.)

Overall, the gentlemen of the press seemed to suspect that the C5's hardware simply wasn't up to the task of realising the manufacturer's already rather limited performance claims with any measure of reliability:

The 250 watt electric motor which drives one of the back wheels proved incapable of powering the C5 up even the gentlest slopes without using pedal power. The tricycle soon started making a plaintive 'peep, peep' noise, signalling that the engine had overheated ... The C5 is compromised by the need to sneak in under the quaintly named Electrically Assisted Pedal Cycle Regulations 1983. This lays down a maximum power of 250 watts for the engine which gives the C5 a top speed of 15 mph on the level less than most cyclists would manage.

(Your Computer, February 1985.)

If the newspapers cast doubts about the viability of the Sinclair enterprise, then the measured assessments of the C5 by consumer and motoring agencies must take the credit for planting the kiss of death. For example, the Automobile Association (AA) was in no doubt that many of Sinclair Vehicles' claims for the C5 were contradicted by the results of the Association's own tests.

The first of Sinclair's claims to be called into question was the 'up to 20 miles' range (determined by the life of the battery) referred to in the advertising campaigns:

Tests on the AA's normal suburban fuel-evaluation course gave a 'typical' range of ten miles, about half that claimed by the makers. On a cold day, in poor conditions, the battery ran flat after 6.5 miles.

(Daily Telegraph, 2 May 1985.)

Confirming Your Computer's suspicion that the C5's motor simply wasn't powerful enough to drive the vehicle under anything but the most favourable conditions, the Association recorded a maximum running speed of 12.5 mph (against the 15 mph claimed by Sinclair Vehicles). The AA's report had this to say about the C5's running costs:

Running costs for the C5 over a year would workout at £19.17 on off-peak electricity or £21.77 at standard rates, allowing partly for eventual battery replacement. This compared with £19.25 for a £390 Honda PXSO moped, against which it was compared. The moped had a maximum range of 150 miles on a tankful of fuel, with an average consumption of 170 mpg and a maximum speed of more than 30 mph.


In consideration of the C5's overall performance, the Association drew the following conclusions:

The C5 looks more comfortable and convenient than it really is - older cyclists looking for less pedal effort will be disappointed by the agility its layout demands. Although it is delightfully quiet, performance, range and comfort do not compare with the better mopeds and costs are much closer than one might think when one allows for the inevitable battery replacement.


At the top of a sizeable list calling into question the C5's stability and general roadworthiness, the A A, like virtually everyone who came into contact with the machine, expressed concern about the visibility of C5 drivers at large. Once again it was suggested that the 'Hi-Vis Mast' be incorporated as a standard feature. No one at Sinclair Vehicles seemed particularly keen to respond to the AA report:

A spokesman for Sinclair Vehicles said, 'It would seem fruitless to argue in any detail with an organisation like the AA, but on the question of running costs compared with a moped, they are not comparing like with like.'


If the results of the AA's test amplified public doubts about the C5, the review of the vehicle in the consumer magazine Which? effectively dug a grave for the project. Since the Which? report (June 1985) is essentially an amalgamation of most of the criticisms of the C5 that we have already noted, we'll simply list some of the survey's somewhat cryptic summary as an indication of the areas of concern:

How far? A lot less than claimed.
How fast? Hard to keep up with traffic.
Handling and braking? Adequate.
How safe? Not very good.
How manoeuvrable? Disappointing.
How secure? Too easy to steal.
How reliable? Not promising.
Our verdict: of limited use in its present form; poor value for money.

But enough from the professionals who get paid to complain. How was the real world responding to the arrival of the C5? In the light of the initial mail-order-only policy, the only place that Joe Public was likely to come across a C5 was in the local electricity showrooms which displayed the vehicle for a couple of months after the launch. With such limited exposure, it's unlikely that the C5's launch was noticed by many outside the sizeable but hardly representative network of Sinclair supporters.

In the absence of reliable statistics, it's difficult to assess the initial response to the mail-order promotion. Four weeks after the launch the company was celebrating the sale of a modest 1000 units (remember, Hoover were geared up to produce 200,000 C5s in the first year), and one month later Barrie Wills was claiming that there were 5000 C5s on the road. In addition, Sinclair Vehicles had doubled its sales staff and was struggling to process around 200,000 information requests about the C5. So all was well. Or was it? Was there anything to be concluded from the discreet announcement that plans for an expansion of the vehicle production line had been temporarily 'postponed'?

In February 1985, a reporter from The Times succeeded where we failed by unearthing some of the early buyers of Sir Clive's transportation revolution. How did it feel to be the first on your block to own a C5? Take 48-year-old businessman Roger Wilding:

Most of us hope that electric vehicles will take over one day because they are cheaper, quieter and pollution-free. Sinclair seemed to be taking a big step towards achieving this and I felt it was important to support him. However, I thought the C5 would be more sophisticated and, although the design is very clever and it performs surprisingly well, the technology is not very innovative. I'm a little disappointed and am thinking of selling.'

(5 February 1985.)

Or disabled pensioner Dick German:

'I was very excited when it first arrived, but the first time I tried it out it would just not go up a hill and I had to come home. I then got my stepson to have a go and he didn't get much further, so I have sent it back.'


Apparently unaffected by the portents of impending doom, Sir Clive felt inspired to announce a new product. Scattering investment projections of around the £l00m. mark, he anticipated that by 1990 Sinclair Vehicles would be marketing the C15, an electric powered four-seater car capable of speeds of up to 80 mph. Dismissing the possibility of using a combination of electric and petrol/diesel power, he explained that his design would be based around innovations in battery technology. One suspects that Sir Clive's compelling dreams were relying on the principles of innovation as an act of will. Certainly he offered no indication of the kind of approach he would employ in his solution of one of the century's most elusive technological problems. However, he was clear about the shape of the new vehicle and the kind of wheels he might use:

The car has a futuristic design with an elongated 'tear-drop' shape, a lightweight body made of self-coloured polypropylene and a single, possibly 'roller' type rear wheel.

(The Times, 3 February 1985.)

Back in the real world, by March 1985 it was clear that Sinclair and Wills were becoming anxious about the public's sluggish response to an extremely expensive promotion. There was a serious danger that the C5 would be lost in a sea of indifference. Sir Clive's inspired solution to the problem was to hire teams of unemployed teenagers to ride C5s around the capital promoting public awareness of the product. The campaign was later extended to Birmingham and Leeds. The experiment got the C5 noticed, but there's little evidence that it boosted sales. From 1 March, the C5 started to be sold in the high street through the Woolworth and Comet chainstores, with the latter buying in a launch stock of 1600 units. Nine months later, both companies were stuck with the bulk of their original orders, and slashed the C5's price by 65 per cent in an effort to move the product.

To make a bad situation worse, Sinclair had received numerous complaints that the C5's performance was impaired by the plastic moulding attached to the gearbox. The decision was taken to halt production for three weeks so that the problem could be sorted out. The 100 Hoover workers concerned with C5 production were shifted to replacing the plastic moulding on the vehicles currently in stock.

From this point on, it was downhill all the way for the C5. As the least of his problems, the Advertising Standards Authority surfaced in April to announce that it would uphold complaints that called into question launch promotion claims for the C5. It seems that the Authority considered the most contentious claim to be that the trike was 'far safer than anything on two wheels'. It's certainly true that there was absolutely no evidence to support the assertion. In the same month, production recommenced in Merthyr Tydfil, but demand for the C5 had ground to a virtual standstill so it was hardly worth the effort. Production was cut by 95 per cent and Hoover churned out a mere 100 C5s a week.

When in May the project's production controller was made redundant, Sinclair was forced to confess that, at 6000, unsold stocks were twice previously disclosed levels. In a desperate bid to drum up business, Sir Clive announced his intention to 'seek export markets, particularly in Holland'. A few days later, the Dutch National Transport Service ruled that the C5 was not suitable for Dutch roads in its present form. According to the NTS, the C5's braking system needed to be improved, more reflectors were required and the 'Hi-Vis Mast' would have to become a standard fixture. Much the same requirements were demanded by most of the ten countries in which Sir Clive intended launching the C5, so he had no choice but to comply.

As we have seen, throughout 1985 Sinclair Research was mirroring Vehicle's disastrous trajectory, and by June the company was looking to Robert Maxwell to bail it out. During this period, negotiations with Maxwell along with the search for alternative solutions to the Research crisis meant that the computer company claimed both Sir Clive's time and his attention. Apart from his half-heartedly exploring the export potential for the C5 in the States and the Far East (approaching primarily leisure resort chains and hiring outfits), it seemed that any decision concerning the fate of Sinclair Vehicles would have to await the resolution of more pressing concerns. Then it was leaked that the company was up for sale and that Sir Clive was already talking with prospective clients. It seems that Sinclair had decided to rid himself of a millstone that required more attention than he had time on his hands.

It was presumably news of the sale and the frustration of being pushed to the back of Sir Clive's concerns that prompted Hoover to draw up a writ announcing its intention to sue him personally to the tune of £1.Sm. By the second week in July when Hoover made its surprise move, Sir Clive's plans to sell Sinclair Vehicles had collapsed when he turned down an offer of £2.7m. for the company. In what was presumably an attempt to spur him into action, Hoover was pressing for the full £1,525,000 in respect of C5 production from November 1984 to date, and an additional £32,720 interest. In the end, the company never served its writ. Temporarily pacified by personal guarantees from Sir Clive, Hoover was seduced into accepting negotiation. The company even agreed to set ten of its workers to the modification of C5 stock for sale in Europe. However, by the second week in August Hoover decided that it had demonstrated more than enough restraint, and publicly announced that it was stopping all work on the C5:

We have run out of several key parts and do not wish to plan for any further inventories until our differences with Sir Clive are resolved.

(Guardian, 13 August 1985.)

Out in the high street, Sir Clive's declining fortunes were reflected in the fall in shelf value of his companies' products. Stores discounted Sinclair goods in the hope of pruning stock before the seemingly inevitable liquidation turned it into throwaway sale fodder. In some of the larger stores, a C5 along with a complete set of accessories could be picked up for £139.99!

On 15 October 1985, Sir Clive finally got around to making the announcement everyone had been expecting. Sinclair Vehicles had officially been placed in the hands of the receiver on Friday, 12 October. It fell to London accountants Begpie, Pickering and Co. to untangle the £700,000 worth of debts owed to 110 suppliers. In the month before the receivers were appointed Sinclair Vehicles was renamed TPD Limited. On the date the receivership of TPD was announced, it was also stated that Sinclair Vehicle Sales Limited held the C5 stock and according to the Guardian was involved in continuing research. The message appeared to be that in seizing the receivership option, Sir Clive had secured vehicle development rather than throwing it to the wolves of the City:

The company [TPD Ltd] said yesterday that research on two new electric cars was well ahead. Sir Clive had been advised to call in the receivers 'to ensure the future of the electric vehicle venture and its research activities'.

(Guardian, 15 October 1985.)

There seems little point in speculating about how the original Sinclair Vehicle debt to Hoover of £1.5m. failed to make the transition to TPD's accounting. Hoover refuses to comment on the affair, and Sinclair simply confirms rather coyly that the 'issue has been resolved'. Although Hoover is presumably satisfied by whatever settlement finally resolved its problems with Sinclair, one doubts whether the same can be said of the vehicle's production-line workers.

When TPD finally crawled into voluntary liquidation on 4 November 1985, there was an opportunity to assess the cost of Sir Clive's ten-month support of a loss leader. At the shareholders' meeting at which he announced his decision to liquidate, it was revealed that in addition to Sinclair's original investment of £8.6m. (of the £12m. earned from his sale of Research shares), he had also pumped in a further £5.9m. of his own capital. This second stage of Sir Clive's investment was passed to the company in the form of a loan secured by debenture. In other words, although the original investment was gone for good, the £5.9m. would be recovered.

According to the results of the shareholders' meeting, there were 4500 unsold C5s in TPD's hands as the company was liquidated, and the company's total deficit appeared to be around £6.4m. So what has Sir Clive's £8.6m loss bought him in the way of experience? Well, although he could hardly be described as eating humble pie, the arrival of the liquidator invariably inspires gestures of penance, which in Sinclair's case amounted to the recognition of undeniable errors of judgement. He certainly conceded that there is no room for a partially developed electric vehicle like the C5, and today insists that future developments will tackle the fundamental problems of battery innovation. By rushing ahead half-cocked in an effort to exploit a loophole in EEC regulations, Sinclair has set himself the additional hurdle of repairing his tattered credibility before he can even begin to consider marketing related products. According to the Financial Times, Sir Clive has also come round to the position where he might admit that it would have been more prudent to launch his open-topped trike in the spring rather than the winter!

Under more favourable circumstances, the C5 débâcle would have been of little consequence. A rich man's folly. However, alongside the failures of both the QL and the flat screen and coupled with the crisis at Research, the conspicuous collapse of Sinclair Vehicles did much to confirm institutional suspicions that Sir Clive was a bad risk. What could be worse at a time when Sinclair needed investment more urgently than at any other period in his commercial life?

One might have hoped that with the failure of both the flat-screen television and the C5, Sir Clive would have finally driven his long-term obsessions from his system. Not a chance! When we interviewed him the day after the TPD liquidation announcement, Sinclair was bullish in his determination to press on with vehicle development. Presumably building on research now in the hands of Sinclair Vehicles (Sales), Sir Clive intends a return to the pursuit of his original vision. In some shape or form, finance permitting we can expect the arrival of an enclosed two-seater C5 marketed as the C10, and a deluxe, four-seater 'teardrop-on-rollers', otherwise known as the C15.

One can only pray that Sir Clive will shelve his plans to develop a personal, vertical-takeoff aircraft!