Sinclair peddles electric innovation
THE INDEPENDENT, 6 MARCH 1992
Susan Watts tests the battery-powered Zike and finds it a wobbly successor to the failed C5 vehicle.
By SUSAN WATTS
SIR CLIVE SINCLAIR'S life is full of surprises. He is surprised when his products fail - the amplifier that hummed because its transformer was too near the lid, and the C5, the embarrassing tricycle that wanted to be a car. He is also surprised when they succeed - his Spectrum and ZX81 home computers convinced a nation that computers were useful, but Sir Clive could not meet the demand.
Yesterday Sir Clive wheeled out his latest gizmo, an electric bicycle called the Zike. Family members who never seem to be surprised by Sir Clive were on hand with support.
The entrepreneur's octogenarian father had a go on the Zike - although he didn't quite get the hang of the motorised bit. Sir Clive's sister, Fiona Crawford, watched from the wings, and son 'Barto', a Sinclair Research employee, explained the Zike's technical details. Ms Crawford said: 'He is very ecologically minded, and has always been interested in bikes - not necessarily electric ones.' Sir Clive's enthusiasm for his own ideas certainly seemed undying: 'Everyone who rides the Zike comes off smiling,' he said.
So what are you getting for your £499? Is this a fun bike, or a bike to get around on? Sir Clive said yesterday it was a bike that anyone could ride, but warned: 'It is not for the fanatical cyclist, but for people who enjoy cycling and find it valuable. Perhaps more so now as cars are perhaps to be banned from cities.'
A quick test ride suggested the Zike is too unstable and lacking in power to make a cyclist feel secure on the nightmarish roads of London. It might be ideal in cities with plenty of cycle lanes, or perhaps Sir Clive has in mind cities with less hair-raising traffic.
You can move from standstill with the motor engaged in a sort of gliding motion - without pedalling. You can also pedal, but the Zike has only one gear. A switch under the right handlebar gives you two other options -turning to the battery as a supplement to pedal power, or switching over completely to battery power on a hill. The Zike's top speed is 12 miles per hour with its motor in play. If you pedal you can go faster - although not as fast as on an ordinary bike because you will be re-charging the battery at the same time. The battery is also re-charged as you brake when going downhill.
'An electric bicycle is not a very original idea,' Sir Clive explained. The problem, he said, was that no one had been able to put heavy, bulky batteries and a motor on to a cycle frame. The Zike takes advantage of recent developments in battery and motor technology that have brought down their weight and price, and improved on performance. If you use the motor alone, the battery will last for between half an hour and an hour. Pedalling preserves the battery for longer.
Sir Clive seemed uncertain about the Zike's market. He could produce no estimates of sales, although the initial target for Tudor Webasto, the Midlands-based company that will manufacture it is 10,000 Zikes a month. 'If this takes off like the computer did it could be dramatic,' he said. He also announced confidently that his manufacturer could cope with 'any demand whatsoever'. But optimism on this front has proved his downfall before. The Zike, in common with many of Sinclair's previous products, will initially be available on mail-order only - from May. This will increase his profit margins and help finance production. But he admitted yesterday that he has not even started to talk to the retailers who might sell his Zike. Nevertheless, the Zike is an impressive feat of miniaturisation. It weighs just 11kg (less than 25lbs) - about the same as a racing cycle. Other electric cycles have weighed about 35kg. Batteries and motor fit inside the central shaft. It uses nickel cadmium batteries instead of conventional lead acid versions. This halves the weight and increases to 2,000 the number of recharging cycles the batteries can endure. It also takes only one hour to re-charge them instead of eight.