Planet Sinclair


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Last updated
24 Feb 1998

Whatever Happened To:
The Sinclair C5?



The moment: On 10 January 1985, the Formula 1 bathtub was born. The love child of entrepreneur and technical genius Sir Clive Sinclair, the C5 made its first tentative journey in London traffic under the critical eye of a cynical press. The C5 was a confused and dangerous hybrid of a small car and a bicycle. Described as the most expensive tricycle ever, it was lightweight with a single seat and was powered by both battery and pedalling. This meant that it was invisible to lorry drivers, while the driver choked on the exhaust fumes of less environmentally-friendly vehicles as it weaved in and out of the traffic.

The background: Clive Sinclair was a renowned inventor before he tried to turn himself into a motor-industry mogul. His lasting fundamental contribution to technological progress was the pocket calculator. At under 60 it was a masterpiece of miniaturisation, and made his personal fortune. He also brought us the home computer at an affordable price: in the late 70s and early 80s, when a computer consisted of a room of spinning magnetic tape, this was simply an absurd idea. The ZX Spectrum changed all that. We have Sir Clive to thank for all those hours spent playing Pacman and Space Invaders.

The effect: The C5 pleased no one. On launch day, the AA condemned it as a 'hazard to the occupant and other road users'. One motoring critic said it had 'severe limitations', another that it was a 'fun-machine that can hardly be regarded as serious, everyday, all-weather transport'. As problems arose, partial solutions were invented. A 'High-vis Mast' appeared, which made the resemblance to a radio-controlled toy even more striking. It was the last thing a lorry driver would see before crashing into you. A seat booster tried to lift the driver above the exhaust pipes, and side-panels were added to keep the nether regions dry on the long uphill pedals.

Moments of subsequence: Despite his best efforts, Sir Clive was unable to salvage the C5. Within months of the launch, production had stopped, and the company went into receivership before the end of the year. The transformation from respected inventor to the ridiculed creator of a national joke was instantaneous. Sir Clive's contributions to technological progress were glossed over, and ever since he has been remembered as the man who invented the reclining bed on wheels.

He tried again nearly a decade later to create a revolutionary battery-powered form of transport - the Zike. History repeated itself, and memories of the failed C5 lingered in the public's mind. It was launched in August 1992, and by May 1993 the manufacturers had already announced they were stopping production. But now the C5 is back in fashion as a collector's item. Last week, Maurice Levensohn announced that he had sold nearly 7,000 of the trikes - at up to 700 each - that he bought after the venture collapsed in 1985. Many of these have gone to Holland, where they are at home on the flat cycle paths. You can get back on your Zike now, Sir Clive.

Sam Coates