Electric vehicles were popular in the early days of automobiles, and have claimed an ever-growing foothold in the motoring world today, with people getting in touch with a local electrical installer to fit charging points and prepare for a new petrol-free world.
However, one British visionary had ambitious plans to transform the world of personal transportation as early as 1985, but his attempt in the form of the Sinclair C5 proved so disastrous it would colour perceptions of electric vehicles for over two decades after in the UK.
There are very few people who can claim to have changed the world, and even fewer who can claim to have done so twice.
The late Sir Clive Sinclair transformed the office by creating the world’s first affordable pocket calculator in the form of the Sinclair Executive, and would later take the same approach with personal computers in the form of the highly popular ZX80, ZX81 and ZX Spectrum computers.
These successes would earn Sir Clive a knighthood and help to create a new generation of computer-literate children, but he always strived for more and had three ambitious goals in mind once the ZX Spectrum gave him the capital to do so; he wanted to make an affordable electric vehicle, a portable television and a serious personal computer.
The latter two would be released as the TV-80 and the Sinclair QL and would both be catastrophic failures in their own right, but the story of the Sinclair C5 has had even greater ramifications.
Initially prototyped in the late 1970s, the Sinclair C5 was never intended to be a replacement for a car, but instead a short-distance urban transport similar to an electric scooter or later exceptionally tiny EVs such as the Reva G-Wiz.
It was officially an “electrically assisted pedal cycle”, which limited the vehicle’s speed to 15 miles per hour, but allowed people who did not have a driving license to use it without the need for tax, insurance or a helmet, and used lead-acid batteries due to the lack of money to develop an alternative.
Sir Clive believed wholeheartedly in the potential of electric cars, and the plan was to create a cheap, rudimentary proof of concept vehicle to show there was a market, although there was a considerable amount of scepticism both within the car industry and within the Sinclair empire itself.
It launched on 10th January 1985 and on that very same day it was doomed to infamy.
Whilst the glitzy gala launch event at Alexandra Palace was typically well regarded and many in the press credited Sir Clive for taking the same kinds of gambles that had made him his fortune, they would soon pillory him for making the same kinds of mistakes that led to the company-destroying Black Watch less a decade prior.
Launching in the dead of winter at a location with many hills and slopes caused the C5’s many faults to emerge, from reliability issues to low range in the freezing cold to lacking any sort of roof, to simply not having enough power and a low driver position placing the driver in the path of smoky exhausts and lorry wheels.
Some credited the design and claimed the vehicle would be better as a leisure toy similar to an electric scooter or a hoverboard, but damning reports by the British Safety Council led to low sales and the C5 would be remembered as a catastrophic failure, impacting the future of electric vehicles at the same time.