The Sinclair C5 Story

Note: This post is over 4 years old. It was first published in December 2009

This lovely image from a recent Erskine Labs blog post reminded me of the charmingly tragic story of the Sinclair C5.

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Spurred on by his immense success in the computing industry with the ZX80, ZX81 and ZX spectrum, Clive Sinclair set his mind to electric vehicles. He drew up the Sinclair C5. Everything looked perfect on paper. The C5 was electric and complemented by pedal power, making it a low pollution vehicle, narrow enough to drive between cars in heavy traffic, like a bicycle.

To cut a long story short, Clive Sinclair woefully overestimated his ability to transfer his successes from the familiar computing industry to the completely unfamiliar electric vehicle industry. His assumptions about market needs were way out, and the practicalities of using a C5 in real life were far removed from the intended experience on the drawing board.

Being low on the road, C5s were hard to see from cars and were dangerous, exposing the rider to unpleasant exhaust fumes. In the UK, rain and wind made them horrible to use in the long winters (not to mention dorky looking!). The C5 had no gears and the seat was not adjustable, making it uncomfortable to use if you were particularly tall or short. The motor turned out to be under-specced, making it too weak to power the rider up many hills without pedal assistance. And instead of a steering wheel or handlebars, steering was controlled by small handles on either side of the driver’s waist, making first time usage awkward and ungainly.

The lesson here is that if Sinclair had conducted field trials prior to launch, most of these problems could probably have been overcome. At the very least, he could have discovered the product was going to be a flop at an early stage, and avoiding the need to haemorrhage vast sums of cash. In 1983, Clive Sinclair raised £12 million to finance Sinclair Vehicles. By 1985, they went into receivership, having only sold 12,000 C5s.

Hold this story close to your heart. Whenever you find yourself getting carried away with an idea in an unfamiliar domain, always ask yourself “Am I doing a C5 here?” After all, it’s easy to find out. A bit of contextual field research will set you straight.

Want to know more? Read the first two chapters of The Sinclair Story by Rodney Doyle (1985).