UK: Business Legends - Idol who was toppled by a trike.

UK: Business Legends - Idol who was toppled by a trike. - Inventor of the calculator and pioneer of the home computer, Sir Clive Sinclair is now remembered for the C5 - a cross between a cycle and a Robin Reliant.

by Rhymer Rigby.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Inventor of the calculator and pioneer of the home computer, Sir Clive Sinclair is now remembered for the C5 - a cross between a cycle and a Robin Reliant.

If you are going to mess up in business, make sure you do it properly.

For, if you lose enough money (like Nick Leeson) and/or ruin enough people (like BCCI) the public will remember you with a mixture of awe and loathing.

If, however, you simply come up with a really daft product, people will remember you as a fool. And, if your product is stupid enough, you will never, ever be able to live it down.

Thus it is the fate of Sir Clive Sinclair to be remembered for an electric tricycle. Never mind the world's first calculator or pioneering home computers - when Sinclair shuffles off this mortal coil, his headstone will bear the likeness of the C5, executed in off-white plastic.

Sinclair started off well enough, perhaps a little too well. His first great invention was the pocket calculator, a triumph of miniaturisation which rightly made him a very rich man. Spurred on by this success, he turned his hand to computers, where he came up with first the ZXs, then the more sophisticated colour Spectrum computers, which are often credited with spawning Britain's terrifically successful video games industry.

Understandably, geeks across the land hailed Sinclair as a messiah.

Unsatisfied by this and convinced he knew the gadget-hungry '80s consumer inside out, Sinclair directed his attentions towards the problems of urban transport. The solution, he felt, was something resembling the bastard offspring of a bicycle and a Robin Reliant, with most of the drawbacks of both. The C5 had a range of 20 miles, needed pedalling up hills and afforded its occupant an attractive, low-slung driving position whereby he or she was invisible to other drivers yet ideally positioned to breathe in their lead-laden exhaust fumes. Undeterred by his brainchild's all too apparent drawbacks, Sinclair stumped up £7 million of his own cash and, in partnership with Hoover which agreed to produce the thing, went into business. By the end of 1984, the first C5s were rolling off the production line. But things went very wrong from the very beginning.

A few days before the C5's launch, the British Safety Council pointed out that, although the vehicle was not intrinsically unsafe, the fact that the drivers of 30-ton lorries couldn't see it posed something of a problem. Then on 10 January 1985, there was the launch at Alexandra Palace. Here, an ever-cynical media was quick to note that, while the £399 vehicle might be a barrel of laughs in mid-July, it wouldn't be in slush, salt and mid-January temperatures. Nonetheless, the redoubtable Sinclair confidently predicted that, come the millennium, 'The petrol engine will be a thing of the past'. He was very, very mistaken.

The C5's big problems were largely down to the inherent limitations of electric transport and the socio-political climate. For a start, electricity has real difficulties in the transport sphere. A kilo of petrol - somewhat over a litre - provides around 10,000 calories (dieters, don't drink it at home). Back in 1985, a kilo of top-notch battery could muster a paltry 250: quite simply, petrol is 40 times as powerful, far cheaper and less fiddly besides. Then there were the cultural difficulties. Britain's love affair with the car was blossoming. Cars represented independence, individuality and affluence: they were to be encouraged with tax allowances and more road building. More sustainable alternatives had no place in Thatcher's brave new Britain.

So the C5 flopped, and how. By the end of January a mooted second production line had been shelved. In February lower than expected sales figures were announced. April saw the already disappointing weekly output of 1,000 cut to 100, the C5 workforce slashed by nearly 90%, and trouble with the Advertising Standards Authority which ruled that the vehicle fell somewhat short of its claims. The writing was on the wall: in August production ceased altogether. Finally in October, the receivers were called in, by which time many of the 400 retailers which had stocked the C5 were selling it at discounts of over 50%.

Sinclair was not of course personally ruined by the troubled tricycle, nor, indeed, has he given up on the idea of an electric vehicle. But he was royally dethroned by his own invention and nerds everywhere were without an idol until Bill Gates (who seems happy to stick to what he knows) appeared.

Moreover, the C5 dealt electric cars a blow from which they have never recovered. There was, however, one winner in this sorry tale. In time, the C5 inevitably became highly collectable. And Maurice Levensen, who had bought thousands of the things after Sinclair Vehicles went belly up, managed to turn a tidy profit.

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