Sinclair C5

The following entry is a record in the “Catalogue of Catastrophe” – a list of failed and troubled projects from around the world.


Sinclair Vehicles – UK
Project name : C5
Project type : Personal transportation device
Date : 1985 (filed under historical failures)
Cost :
 $12M, plus significant damage to the reputation of the Sinclair brand

Synopsis :

Sir Clive Sinclair was one of the visionaries who made personal computing a reality. Launched in 1980, his ZX-80 PC helped usher in the PC age. At a price of just £100 the ZX-80 was a hit and the machine put Sinclair at the heart of the United Kingdom’s PC revolution. Ongoing development resulted in the ZX-Spectrum that sold 5 million units following its launch in 1982.

A Sinclair C5

A Sinclair C5 – 1985
source wIki commons

Emboldened by success, Sinclair turned his attention to another of his areas of interest, personal transportation. In a project that illustrates how wild success in one realm can build over-confidence that leads to utter failure in another, the Sinclair C5 was to forever tarnish the Sinclair name.

The C5 was a battery-assisted tricycle that (if you believed the hype) was to revolutionize personal transportation (video). Able to drive up to 20 miles for just a few pence (cents) the C5 was to be the solution to urban congestion and the high cost of owning a car. Unfortunately the design fell short of the market requirements and the machine was savaged by the press following its launch. Among the issues: It rains in England! The open concept and exposed driver position meant the C5 was only really practical in dry weather. It had no reverse gear and was difficult to turn around in confined spaces. Even modest hills were too much for the C5’s battery to handle and the design meant that using the pedals to assist was hard to do effectively. There were quality problems and early reports of components failing further dented the machine’s reputation. And, perhaps most importantly, the public did not feel safe driving such a small and open vehicle in real traffic. In the end 17,00 were sold, but this was far short of projections. To many, the C5 was seen as a novelty item rather than a serious mode of transportation and just 11 months after the failed launch, Sinclair Vehicles went bankrupt.

Contributing factors as reported in the press:
An overly confident visionary. An over-hyped launch that left consumers and the media with unrealistic expectations. Failure to consider all of the requirements needed to make a practical solution.

Reference links :

  1. Sinclair C5 (Wikipedia page)
  2. Original C5 TV advert
  3. Sinclair video (a somewhat humorous video illustrating both the ZX computer and the subsequent problems with the C5)
  4. C5 Alive – The owners club for current C5 owners and enthusiasts.