The Sinclair C5

Over the years there have been many attempts to create interest in the electric vehicle market, some have been successful to a certain extent and others have failed completely, but one which sticks in the mind of many in the UK is the Sinclair C5 which was launched on 10 January 1985. The vehicle has been at the centre of various jokes and ridiculed over the years but what was the Sinclair C5 all about and what exactly did it do?

Background to the Sinclair C5

Those who follow the UK technology market will be well aware of Sir Clive Sinclair who was one of the U.K.'s best-known and most successful entrepreneurs in the 70s, 80s and 90s. He was the inventor of the slimline electronic pocket calculator (launched in 1972) and the infamous ZX Spectrum computer, ZX 80 and ZX 81. While Sir Alan sugar is often heralded as being the man who brought cheap computers to the mass market, Sir Clive Sinclair was actually light years ahead of anybody else.

From a very early age Sir Clive Sinclair had a significant interest in electric vehicles and despite a number of failed attempts to begin work on his own brand of electric vehicle for UK roads he did manage to get his infamous Sinclair C5 off the ground in 1985.

History of the Sinclair C5

As we mentioned above, Sir Clive Sinclair had a great interest in electric vehicles at a very young age although having attempted to launch his own vehicle the 1970s, it was not until 1983 that the dream became a reality. The Sinclair C5 project initially began in the 1970s but it was not until 1979 that significant effort was put into the idea and not until 1983 that a workable prototype was in existence. Similarly there were a number of changes in transport legislation in the mid-1980s which assisted the launch of the Sinclair C5 and saw Sir Clive Sinclair and his business partners make a definitive push into the market.

Having sold a number of the shares in Sinclair Research, raising £12 million in the process, there was significant backing for the business and support was offered by Lotus to take the idea into full production. There is an urban myth in existence suggesting that the C5 is actually powered by a washing machine motor although this is well wide of the mark and apparently as a consequence of the fact Hoover were brought in as part of the manufacturing team for the Sinclair C5.

The launch of the Sinclair C5

The 10th January 1985 will stick in the minds of many people as the day when the electric vehicle in the UK died a death. Even though renowned Formula One racing driver Stirling Moss was brought into the fold to promote the Sinclair C5 the vehicle appeared to be well ahead of its time and was not appreciated by the mass market, the media and the automotive industry.

While there is no doubt that Sir Clive Sinclair was and continues to be a successful entrepreneur even he would admit that he was possibly a little too far ahead of the game with regards to his electric vehicle.

Design issues

The Sinclair C5 itself could be described as a low-level three wheeled vehicle with very little cover for the driver, no room for passengers and initially very little space for luggage and equipment to be stored. When you also add to this the fact that the cold weather in the UK impacted severely upon the life of the battery power supply it soon became apparent that this was not going to take off and the UK electric vehicle market was not about to leap into life.

Due to the limited cover for the driver there was direct exposure to an array of different weather conditions including rain, sleet, snow and wind not to mention the baking hot summer days cooped up in this tiny vehicle. There were also a number of fears regarding actual safety of the vehicle and the driver as the machine itself was very low to the ground and sometimes difficult for other drivers to see.

While a number of amendments and adjustments were added to the C5 immediately after launch, including reflectors, side screens and a second battery, the Department of Transport issued a critical report regarding the lack of seat to peddle adjustment, short pedal cranks, lack of gears and the alarming fact that the electric motor itself was prone to over-heating on long journeys and steep hills.

Facts about the Sinclair C5

The vehicle itself was emission free and very environmently friendly although with a top speed of only 15 mph and a maximum distance of around 20 miles per battery charge it did seem more acceptable for its intended inner-city market. There's also the fact that drivers of the Sinclair C5 did not require a drivers license because the speed was limited to the max 15 mph.

While the Sinclair C5 is often described as the U.K.'s first electric vehicle it did also allow drivers to peddle for additional power although the batteries were more than capable of propelling the vehicle. It was difficult to see City types in expensive suits sat in this tiny vehicle, below eye level and potentially battered by the elements before they even got to work!

While the Sinclair C5 was only launched in January 1985, by August 1985 production of the vehicle was halted with less than 17,000 units sold. Sinclair Vehicles was placed into receivership in October 1985 and finally the dream which Sir Clive Sinclair had in the 1970s came to an end.


In many ways, entrepreneurs such as Sir Clive Sinclair are very often ahead of the game and ahead of the times with regards to their inventions. There is no doubt that the Sinclair C5 did have significant design faults, such as the size and the fact there were safety issues with the vehicle and the distance to the ground, there is potentially a market for short journey electric vehicles in places such as the City.

While many people ridiculed the Sinclair C5, and Sir Clive Sinclair, this was a man who invested £12 million of his own money into a vehicle which although not perfect did tackle the issue of global warming and CO2 emissions well before anybody else highlighted this as a significant problem. While ultimately the vehicle flopped and the business went under, this was perhaps the first time that electric vehicles had been brought to attention of the UK masses. For that, one day, we should at least show some gratitude to award-winning entrepreneur Sir Clive Sinclair.