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UK Mike (miner2049er)

The Sinclair C5

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Once again we're going to feature another piece of UK specific hardware. This isn’t a game or gaming system but as you’ll see it is connected to the UK gaming industry. What I'm going to tell you about is another piece of British invention but this time it’s one that is perhaps best left to the annals of time. I'm going to tell you about the Sinclair C5.

The C5 was a single passenger pedal and battery powered vehicle that came out of the 1980s from the company Sinclair who were not known for any products in that field at all until that point.

First though, the story begins in 1940 when Clive Marles Sinclair (later Sir Clive Sinclair) was born. Sinclair's father and grandfather were both engineers who had served apprenticeships at Vickers the shipbuilders. His grandfather George was a naval architect but his father Bill wanted to break the family tradition of engineering by either entering a religious order or going into journalism but George suggested as a fallback he should train as an engineer first, so Bill became a mechanical engineer and never looked back. At the start of World War 2 he was running his own machine tools business in London.

Like I said, Clive Sinclair was born in 1940 near Richmond, London, and luckily during the war he evacuated with his mother to Devon during which time the family home was bombed. Clive was interested in swimming and boating and at an early age he designed a submarine, possibly being influenced by his grandfather George. During the holidays he would avoid sports and choose to develop his own ideas and teach himself whatever he wanted to know.

At school, he was an excellent mathematician despite having to move school more than once when his father’s business took a downturn and he took his A-levels in Physics, Pure Maths, and Applied Maths. While he was still at school he wrote his first article for the magazine Practical Wireless. He would earn money mowing lawns and washing up at a cafe and during holidays he did jobs at electronic companies such as Solatron where he would ask the full time employees about the possibility of electric vehicles.

He didn't want to go to university when he left school because he already had a plan for what he wanted to do instead. He wanted to sell miniature electronic kits by mail order to hobbyists.

Sinclair's Micro Kit was formalised in an exercise book dated 19 June 1958 three weeks before the start of his A-levels, and in the book Sinclair drew a radio circuit called Model Mark 1 with a components list and the cost of each component. He estimated that he could produce 1,000 kits a month.

The next year, 1959, Sinclair wrote a book for Bernard's Publishing called Practical Transistor Receivers Book 1 which went through numerous reprints as did his practical stereo handbook over the course of 14 years, and he went on to produce 13 constructors books while working for Bernard's.

Sinclair now decided to start his own business and in 1961 he registered his company as Sinclair Radionics Ltd. His original choice, Sinclair Electronics, was already taken. Sinclair Radio was available but didn't sound right to him so Sinclair Radionics was formed on 25 July 1961.

He was trying to raise funds to develop his own ideas and as well as editing magazines he designed PCB kits and licensed some of the technology. He also unsuccessfully tried to find a backer for his idea of a miniature transistor pocket radio which he eventually did to the sum of £3,000 for 55% of the company but the deal fell through.

In 1972 he invented the world's first slimline electronic pocket calculator called the Sinclair executive and Sinclair Radionics lasted until 1979, with various products and company spin-offs and the company quickly earned a name for design, quality and pioneering ideas but the main idea was to produce in bulk and to sell cheaply and in the early days Sinclair Radionics designs were produced in kit form.

As an exit strategy from Sinclair Radionics, Sinclair had formed another company, initially called Ablesdeal Ltd in 1973 but the name changed several times until it eventually became Science of Cambridge Ltd in July 1977. A year later the company launched a microcomputer kit, marketed as the MK14 and by July 1978, a personal computer project was already underway, but when Sinclair learnt that the NewBrain couldn't be sold below the £100 price point he had envisaged, he decided to concentrate his efforts on producing a much simpler computer.

In May 1979 an employee called Jim Westwood started the ZX80 project and the product was launched in February 1980 at £79.95 in kit form and £99.95 ready-built making it the UK's first mass market home computer to be sold for less than £100, and in that year Science of Cambridge was renamed Sinclair Computers Ltd. Following on from the success of the ZX80 was the ZX81 launched at £49.95 in kit form and £69.95 ready-built. In February 1982 Timex obtained a license to manufacture and market Sinclair's computers in the United States under the name Timex Sinclair, and later that year in April 1982 the ZX Spectrum was launched, priced at £125 for the 16 kB RAM version and £175 for the 48 kB version. In March 1982 the company made an £8.55m profit on turnover of £27.17m. In 1984 came the Sinclair QL computer which, unlike his earlier computers, was aimed at professional and business users and development of the ZX Spectrum continued with the release of the enhanced ZX Spectrum 128 in 1985.

Now this being a retro show the ZX series and in particular the Spectrum will get its own coverage at some point, but the reason I’ve included this background and what is important to grasp here is just how successful Sinclair's inventions were and how much a part of the British Technology industry he was, in particular the computer industry, indeed he earned his knighthood in 1986, mainly one would assume for his ZX series of computers and the effect they had.

Around this time he formed Sinclair Vehicles Ltd so he could develop his earlier ideas for electric vehicles and a result of this was the 1985 launch of the Sinclair C5. Sinclair had first started to think about electric vehicles as a teenager, and it was an idea he tossed around occasionally, for example in the early 1970s Sinclair Radionics was working on the project.

Slowly but surely the C5 project became more and more expensive forcing Sinclair to sell some of his shares in Sinclair Research and raise £12 million to finance the vehicle's development. Some of the work was sub contracted out to Lotus who would take the basic C5 design through to production where it would be finally produced by Hoover. This connection was actually one of the nails in the C5s coffin and started the bad reputation that it had because the motors were made by a company called Polymotor who were based in Italy and with the Hoover connection, so started the rumours that the C5 was powered by a washing machine motor. The fact that Polymotor also made engine for torpedoes went largely unnoticed or at least unreported and the C5 continued to be mocked.

So, enough history then, what actually was the Sinclair C5? Well, the C5 launched on January 10th 1985 and it was essentially a battery-assisted tricycle that you steered using the handles on either side of the driver's seat. Unusually the handles were below your legs rather than above them like a more traditional tricycle and it bore more resemblance to a small car than it did a tricycle. That image was strengthened by the fact that it featured proper indicators (turn signals) like a car. It was able to be powered solely by the batteries which meant that pedalling it wasn't always necessary. Its top speed of 15mph was chosen because of new legislation in the UK which meant that if a vehicle was incapable of exceeding 15 miles per hour, anyone above the age of 14 was welcome to drive it on British roads. They would not need insurance, road tax, a crash helmet or a driving license.
Technical Spec wise the Sinclair C5 weighed in at 99lb and despite hopes for a new and lighter battery technology it ran from a conventional 33lb lead-acid battery which powered the 250W motor and made up a huge proportion of its weight and reduced battery life and thus range considerably. The documentation claimed a range of 20 miles using the “drive and coast” technique, though of course this did vary and the batteries would take about 8 hours to recharge fully.

The brakes were very similar to those on a bike and the throttle control was a button on one of the handlebars.

The sleek, futuristic design of the C5s body was the result of the involvement by Lotus and it measured 76cm wide, 76cm high and 2m long. It featured a boot for storage with a cubic capacity of one foot (approximately 28 litres) which would be the equivalent of a small bag, a front and rear headlight and an LCD display, though deluxe options such a wing mirrors were available at an extra cost of £143.

The C5 sold in the UK for £399 + £29 for delivery but unfortunately it quickly became an object of ridicule, not helped of course by the washing machine engine reputation and it was a complete commercial disaster for Sinclair. The price soon fell to around £140 with Woolworths backing out of a deal to stock them following the lukewarm reception and flagging sales. To try and salvage things Sinclair ran a promotional campaign using the former formula one racing driver Stirling Moss, but the immediate reaction after the launch was that the C5 was totally impractical in the British climate and possibly even dangerous on busy roads. On 13 August 1985, Hoover announced the end of production and Sinclair Vehicles was put into receivership on 12 October 1985 having lost a reported £7m on the C5 project and selling less than 17,000 of them.

The intended follow-ups, the C10 and C15 were, sadly, never to see the light of day.

The C5 suffered from several design problems not least of which the fact that cold weather, something not uncommon in the UK, could significantly shorten the battery life and also the driver was completely exposed to the weather. These problems were addressed with a second battery and add on side screens for bad weather protection but because the C5 was so low and close to the ground it was felt that it simply wasn't safe enough to be driven on busy roads, even with the add on reflector mounted on a tall pole at the back. These problems were actually popularised in a cartoon at the time that showed a truck and a C5 approaching a blind corner with the C5 full of a family of lemmings. The fact that the C5s press launch was held in winter did not help the battery issue and the wheels also spun in the snow.

Other drawbacks of the vehicle included the low position of the drivers body (at bumper height in the event of a collision with another vehicle), poor visibility in traffic, an ineffective horn, poor lights, dazzle from vehicle headlights, a large turning circle, and problems with the gearbox moulding. An additional hazard arose from incessant breathing of exhaust fumes, which were just about at face level!

A study by the British Department of Transport suggested that the visibility fears were largely unfounded, but the weight of the C5, the inability to adjust the distance between the seat and the pedals, the lack of gears, the short pedal cranks and the fact that the motor overheated on long hills were serious problems.

As always though, the C5 developed a cult following and is often sought after today, making sale prices of up to £900, and in fact the reason I'm covering it here is that I saw one in the wild recently, just around the corner from my house. It was being driven by a kid and that is the first one I've ever seen outside of a museum.

Not satisfied with just owning this piece of history though, you can bet that people have been modifying them and making them do outlandish things they were never designed to do.

One modified C5 reached a top speed of 150 mph and did 0 to 60 mph in 5 seconds which broke the land speed record for an electric vehicle.

The C5 also became the world's first electric stunt vehicle when it was used to drive through a 70 ft long tunnel of fire.

A "turbo conversion" was made which converted the C5 from 12 volt to 24 volt and boosted the top speed to just under 30 mph.

During the Swiss Tour de Sol in the early 1990s, which is driven by solar powered vehicles, several C5s were converted to solar power and heavily modified to provide greater range and speed.

One C5 was even converted to jet engine power.

Following the C5 debacle, by 1990 Sinclair Research consisted of just Clive Sinclair and two other employees, and its activities have been unpredictably concentrated on personal transport, with them developing products such as the Zike electric bike, the Zeta bicycle motor and, most recently, the A-bike which is folding bicycle aimed at commuters and which weighs just 5.5Kg (12lb) and folds down to a very small size for easier carrying on public transport.

In more recent years Sir Clive Sinclair has become a keen poker player and he appeared in the first three seasons of the Late Night Poker television series, and in fact winning the first season final of the Celebrity Poker Club spin-off, and believe it or not (and if you see a C5 in the wild you may not) Sinclair is a prominent member of Mensa and was even the Chairman of their board of directors for seventeen years from 1980 to 1997, so the man is certainly no fool. He is just human like the rest of us, and is prone to mistakes like each and every one of us, and there can be little doubt that the Sinclair C5 was indeed one such mistake.

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