Planet Sinclair


x Media File
x The C5
x 1988
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Last updated
24 Feb 1998

Cautionary tale of a tricycling buccaneer




REPORTS that Sir Clive Sinclair intends to launch a new battery-powered car have left us C5 veterans with what I can only call mixed feelings. When the great electric tricycle was unveiled in January 1985, Sir Clive seemed a man who breathed the very spirit of the age. He had an advanced understanding of micro-electronics and a tracksuit in which he went jogging every day. With his shiny head and glasses, his cropped beard and his early knighthood, he seemed to personify everything that was alarming about the 1980s.

It was with some trepidation therefore that I took delivery of my own C5 in March of that year. It was my first brush with the future, and I wasn't sure that I was going to like it.

However, initial impressions, as motoring correspondents say, were encouraging. One's feet went on two little rests like those on a Spanish pedalo. The handlebars turned out to be under your knees, and your knees, by extension, under your chin. Thus perched, I read the handbook.

Its principal feature, as I remember, was a warning that major right turns on busy streets were to be avoided. This was not because the little handlebars would not manoeuvre the vehicle to the right, but because some thoughtful person at the Sinclair factory had recognised that sitting in the middle of the road in an open tricycle was no fun at all.

The man who delivered the C5 told me it had a range of 20 miles before the battery needed recharging, and my first journey - five miles or so from Notting Hill to Islington - thus seemed comfortably within its scope. Naturally I was going to have to turn right somewhere, unless I wanted to make a long slow swing around the North Circular, but I thought I would play that one by ear.

I checked the controls and skimmed through the rest of the stuff in the handbook about state-of-the-art components and so on. Then I donned a motorcycle crash helmet, more, I confess, to conceal my identity than to protect my head, and set off along Westbourne Grove.

It is strange, but until that moment I don't think I had realised the range of human sound and feeling that we group under the word 'laughter'. Six youths, whooping like Red Indians, ran along behind me. A fat lady, her mouth falling open, missed her footing as she tried to board a bus on Chepstow Road. An elderly Indian man looked on incredulously, then glanced down at his bottle of extra strong cider and slowly shook his head. A dignified woman with a headscarf stared for a moment, then tactfully averted her gaze, as if she had intruded on some private grief.

Being so close to the road, one grew intimate with its imperfections. Each bump and fissure relayed itself urgently through the coccyx and up into the spine. But were we a car or were we a bike? I wasn't sure whether to pull up grandly in the central lane at the traffic lights, like a proper four-wheeler, or whether to sail through the red light with my nose in the air, like a London bicyclist.

One thing was for sure: with my head about three-and-a-half feet above the road, I was on intimate terms with all the fumes in the Marylebone Road. Just outside Euston station I got the full benefit when a Belgian lorry driver opened the choke.

Half way up the hill to the Angel the battery packed up. I pedalled all the way to the top and stopped at a pub. One good thing about the C5 was that you could drink and 'drive'; in fact a couple of stiff ones were pretty well essential. I sweated slowly on towards my destination, panting and straining, and towards the top of Upper Street I was overtaken by a grey-haired man with a flat cap on an old Raleigh.

At this stage in the story I must confess that I hadn't actually bought the C5. It had been on loan to the paper I then worked for, The Sunday Telegraph. For some reason the motoring correspondent had not been tempted, and I had been selected to try it out. A photographer was sent round to my house to take some 'action' shots of me, minus helmet, in the machine. About this time I was asked to be a judge of The Daily Telegraph's children's essay competition. The features page ran a trailer for it with pictures of the judges. Among them were Dame Mary Warnock, looking strict and ethical, and Paul Barker, then editor of New Society, looking vigorous and brainy.

Unfortunately I had been away when the page was prepared, and the only photograph the paper held on file was of me at full throttle in the C5. A certain amount of cropping and Tippexing had removed the outlying parts of the machine from the picture; but no enhancement techniques known to science could take from my eyes the look of crazed embarrassment.

Naturally one wishes Sir Clive well in his new venture, and I endorse wholeheartedly his desire for all of us to stop polluting the atmosphere. It cannot be beyond the wit of science to develop an electric motor of sufficient power to challenge the dominance of petrol-driven engines, over small distances at least.

In fact I saw a report on television the other day which claimed that in California they were almost there: a powerful electric car has been built whose only drawbacks are that it costs more to run than its petrol counterpart and has a shorter range. These are not insuperable problems in the long term.

For the time being, however, I'm sticking to a car with four rolled-steel doors and the friendly sound of pistons. We C5 veterans are buccaneering and adventurous types, it's true, but even we have had to learn from our experience.