Richard Gooding recalls the story of one of the most recognisable electric cars ever. Sadly, it was also one of the least successful, but was the Sinclair C5 simply too innovative, too early?
While electric cars are now a more common sight on our roads, back in 1985 they were the stuff of automotive dreams. Yes, there had been electric vehicles since the very first cars at the turn of the 1900s, but most people’s experience with one was of the milk float that delivered their early morning pint.
In 1980, the British government abolished road tax for electric vehicles, and in 1983 it introduced legislation for ‘electrically-assisted pedal cycles’. British technology pioneer Sir Clive Sinclair – yes, he of Sinclair Executive pocket calculator and ZX81 home computer fame – had an idea that he thought would revolutionise commuter transport.
His £12m project was the Sinclair C5, a three-wheeled electric ‘tricycle’ aimed at those who travelled alone, either in cars, on their bicycles or on public transport. Sir Clive had dabbled in electric vehicle research since the early 1970s, but the 1983 legislation fitted in perfectly with the C5’s technical make-up. And so it was that, two years later, arguably the UK’s most recognised electric vehicle was born.
What are its rivals?
The launch price of the Sinclair C5 was £399, plus £29 delivery. The only way of buying one was by mail order – the C5 arrived in a cardboard box, delivered to your door, an option which wasn’t available to other small ‘cars’. The most conventional four-wheeled rival was the 998cc Austin Mini City E, which was almost ten times the price – at £3,298.
Other contemporary competition included the also-three-wheeled 850cc, 73.3mpg Robin Rialto 2. The larger three-wheeler promised ‘A Car You Can Afford To Get Excited About’, according to the press ads. And buyers obviously believed them, as it had a 12-month waiting list when new. However, if we’re talking innovative disasters, the Sinclair C5 is joined by the equally cult-ish DeLorean DMC-12 as one of the biggest transport failures of the 1980s.
What motor does it use?
Due to the legislation it was designed for, the C5 was limited in both performance and weight. Motor output was stifled, too: a 250-watt ceiling was applied to vehicles in the ‘electrically-assisted pedal cycle’ category. Sinclair’s engineers took a 12V DC, 250W, 29A, 3,300rpm permanent magnet motor supplied by Italian company Polymotor to provide power for the C5.
One of the long-held myths about the motor found in the C5 was that it was also used in washing machines – this was emphatically not the case. However, Hoover engineers were trained to service the C5 as Sir Clive’s mobility project for the masses was also built in the company’s factory in Merthyr Tydfil, south Wales.
The little white wedge easily slotted into the category of vehicle it was designed for. With a 45kg weight with battery, it undercut the imposed restrictions by 15kg. The battery was a ‘deep discharge’ unit, which meant it could be charged hundreds of times with no noticeable loss of performance. Or that was the theory anyway. The C5 is rear-wheel drive, too – just like all the best driver’s cars! – with the left-hand rear wheel powered by the electric motor.
What’s it like to drive?
Andrew Brady used the word ‘intimidating’ when describing the driving experience of a 1990 Vauxhall Nova 1.2 Merit during a previous MR Retro Road Test, but the Sinclair C5 takes that to a whole new level. Maybe two of the right words to describe the C5 driving experience are ‘terrifying’ and ‘fun’. Sitting above the handlebars on the thinly-padded seat, your arms reach down past your bent legs – which can, and will have to, pedal at some point – while your feet rest on the pushbike-like Sinclair-
In a similarity (which, don’t worry, is largely the only one) to four-wheeled vehicles, you then insert the ignition key into the master security switch and turn on the power. Motor load and battery condition are shown by two LED graph displays under the aerodynamic front cowling. Push the left-hand handlebar starter/accelerator button and you’re away. Ignore the twisted ‘mirror’ logic, which makes you think you want to steer the way you don’t want to go, and instead relish the ‘acceleration’ offered by that 250W motor. Be careful, though: one slightly clumsy over-operation of said button and you shoot off unsteadily into the path of the nearest bus or HGV.
If you’ve not been scared witless by that point and are still firmly ensconced behind that front cowling, braking is controlled either by un-pressing the handlebar accelerator button or by squeezing the bike-like triggers. Unbelievably, the C5 has front calliper and rear drum brakes, so comes to a stop quickly and safely, if not the most elegantly. With a top speed of 15mph, Sir Clive Sinclair’s baby doesn’t sound fast, but believe us, it feels it. As a driver, you’re so exposed to both the elements and the passing traffic that bowling along at speeds of up to half of the legal urban limit feels anything but pedestrian. Which, incidentally, is another type of road user you have to watch out for.
Sinclair claimed that the C5 had the ‘same seat height’ as a family car. That was true if that car was originally from 1959 and was called a Mini. And despite Lotus being involved with the project, and Sinclair’s claims of ‘extraordinary manoeuvrability’ when it was new, the C5 certainly doesn’t handle like a sports car. It does share a low centre of gravity with the legendary cars from Hethel, but that’s where any similarities end.
As the C5 is an ‘electrically assisted pedal cycle’, no helmet, driving licence or road tax is required to drive one, so the Sinclair marketing machine included 14-year-old children in its target market. Health and safety? This was 1985: they were different times.
Reliability and running costs
Many C5 owners reported unit burn-outs as the permanent magnet motor struggled to cope with any form of gradient; pedal assistance was very often required. Also, C5s suffered the indignity of running aground over speed bumps, even small ones. The single gear was also a cause of complaint.Plus, there was no reverse gear, so every backwards turn turned into a multi-point negotiating nightmare.
Sinclair claimed that the C5 could be driven for five miles on one penny’s worth of electricity, or 1,000 miles for the contemporary price of a gallon of fuel. The official range on a single charge was stated to be 20 miles, but most owners reported half that in cold conditions. The 15kg battery could be charged to full capacity from flat in eight hours – much longer than today’s all-electric cars. Some enterprising modern-day owners of C5s swap the old lead acid battery for lightweight Lithium-ion replacements for increased range and better reliability. One owner reports 45 miles of range from his 60Ah lithium-ion battery, which weighs half as much as the original.
Could I drive it every day?
You could, but we wouldn’t recommend it. Unless weaving in and out of much larger traffic like a large white and yellow plastic ant floats your boat. There is virtually no crash protection with a C5. We’ve driven the super-rare Volkswagen XL1, and that felt small, but the C5 feels tiny among car-sized traffic flows. Drivers also find themselves at the same level of most vehicles’ exhaust fumes. On the plus side, the C5’s turning circle was two-thirds of the original Mini’s.
It’s not quite all the smiley, zero-emission. free spirit, wind-in-the-hair motoring the Sinclair publicity video of 1985 would have you believe. ‘Driving’ a C5 in the UK is mostly a cold and draughty experience. And we’d dispute the ‘extremely safe’ claims, too. We certainly wouldn’t want to have an accident in one, however minor. Best not obscure the rear reflector. Also, its limited range would make it only suitable for short trips. Like the pure-electric range of most hybrid cars of today, in fact…
Watch the original TV ad for the Sinclair C5
How much should I pay?
What should I look out for?
Should I buy one?
If you’re a culture junkie and the idea of owning a piece of motoring history appeals, then yes, undoubtedly. Even if it will never go very far. The C5 is such a recognisable and symbolic piece of motoring folklore, due to both its promise and failure, that it will always be a talking point. If you’re lucky, you might even find one with all the period accessories, such as a booster cushion for those short of leg, a ‘High-Vis Mast’ (basically a metal pole with a reflective flag atop it), a second battery, side screens for increased weather protection, and a tonneau cover.
If you really want to fit in, try also to find the period ‘designer’ clothing (very stylish 1980s drama Howards’ Way), the ‘weather cheater’ poncho, and the car-like C5-branded mud flaps, turning indicator kit, and wing mirrors. And by the time you’ve whiled away many wine-fuelled nights on online auction sites, and spent vast sums of money on genuine ‘bargains’, you could have gone and bought that tidy Mini E – a car that doesn’t look like a cut-price Tron prop.
The C5 was never designed for long distances, and its limitations show when its comes to practicality. The aforementioned weather protection (or lack of) is just one issue. Another is luggage space. The promotional videos of the time boast of a ‘large capacity boot’, but if you have more than 28 litres of luggage, then the flip-out ‘boot’ on the back of the driver’s seat will be of little use. It’s perfect for your poncho or Pac-A-Mac, though.
The Sinclair C5 was launched at Alexandra Palace on 10 January 1985, and the assembled throng of journalists included friend of MR and ex-Top Gear presenter, Sue Baker. With a suggested 9,000-17,000 C5s finding homes in 1985, Sir Clive Sinclair claimed that his plastic fantastic dream was the UK’s best-selling electric car until the more modern and four-wheeled Nissan Leaf overtook it in 2011 with sales of 20,000.
Sinclair was in the mood for more electric vehicle creation in 1992, when the Zike electric bike was released. Like the C5, production lasted just six months – and around 2,000 were sold. Nineteen years later Sir Clive was at it again with the X-1, an electric ‘sit-down’ cycle, which was to be sold for £595. However, it never reached production and the cash he needed to develop his four-seat electric car vision never was generated.
Thanks to enthusiast Alex Goodwill for allowing us to drive his Sinclair C5.