Acceptable in the Eighties? A False Start for the Electric Vehicle
When it comes to technological innovation, timing is everything. There is a fine balance between a disruptive technology and a product being launched onto the market that the world simply isn’t ready for. That is exactly what happened to Sir Clive Sinclair and his Sinclair C5.
Sinclair was an English entrepreneur, largely self-taught, he made his money in the computer industry and has been described as one of “Britain’s most prolific innovators”. Sinclair produced the ZX81 and ZX Spectrum personal computer units. Whilst they would be considered primitive by today’s standards and were not the most advanced models on the market, Sinclair’s innovations were characterised by their simplicity of design. The computers were able to operate using very few components which was a remarkable feat. This enabled these computers to retail at a lower cost than their competitors and help to make personal computers accessible for the consumer. He also invented the first pocket radio, pocket television and electronic watch and before long, Sinclair was a household name, even receiving a knighthood in 1983 for his efforts.
Having taken the consumer electronics market by storm, Sinclair decided to turn his attention to the transportation sector. In 1985, Sinclair released his next project to the public, his reputation as an inventor made the reveal highly anticipated by consumers and competitors alike. What he unveiled was a “quirky” electric vehicle pictured below:
The public had never seen anything like it before. It was a single seat electrified tricycle for use on the roads. The vehicle’s main selling points were:
Its affordability, buying the vehicle was relatively cheap (under £400) compared with a car and running costs were estimated to be 20 miles per 5 Pence (£0.05), being electric it was also much better for the environment
Designed for short range journeys such as commuters going to and from the station, trips to the shops and young people going to visit their friends, it even had trunk space built into the back
Easier to park and store than much larger cars on the market at the time
Heralded as being very safe with excellent visibility of surrounding traffic
Unfortunately, the vehicle was not well received. Consumers worried about the vehicles safety and its speed was slower than cars on the road with a maximum speed of 24 kph (15 mph). The vehicle’s engine was built in a factory that primarily made washing machine engines which did not inspire confidence. Given the colour and size of the C5, this did nothing for its aesthetic or to appease public safety concerns. The vehicle’s limited range also deterred buyers who felt that 32kph (20mph) made it too short range for daily use. This was long before infrastructure for charging would become available. The C5 also left the driver exposed to the elements meaning that rain and cold weather were a huge limiting factor. Whilst the company did eventually release a weather canopy, it cost extra and was sadly not enough to win the public back.
Sinclair’s company had planned to sell between 200,000 and 500,000 annually but they were only able to sell about 5,000 in 10 months. Production halted and the project was over. The first major public appearance of the electrified vehicle had come to an end, seemingly before it had even begun. Whilst the vehicle undoubtedly had its flaws, Sinclair can be seen as a pioneer in electric propulsion. The problem was he was about 20 years ahead of the market. Development of electric vehicles would not be driven by environmental concerns until the turn of the century and the public just weren’t ready for such a vehicle.
The C5 incorporated design elements that are imperative to today’s electric vehicles such as the use of lightweight components. It used durable polypropylene plastic components to replace heavier, metal counterparts. Sinclair recognised the need for smaller and more urban friendly vehicles that were lightweight and affordable. This can be seen in the rise of the electronic scooter which has sprouted up across the globe in recent years.
Thirty seven years after the launch of the C5, the automotive industry has followed suit and are now actualising elements of Sinclair’s vision. The foam and adhesives industries are heavily involved in projects to lightweight electric vehicles, to calibrate their engine noise, to provide thermal management materials for their battery systems and to make these vehicles as comfortable as possible with interior applications. It is important to learn from the past and recognise a project that was ahead of its time, to inspire future innovations but also to learn from Sinclair’s mistakes.