How Our Daydreaming Designer Would Have Redesigned One Of Britain’s Biggest Automotive Failures

Sinclair Top

I love to look at failures in the world of transportation; typically there’s a kernel of usefulness in even the worst ones. With Running Up That Hill on the charts now, it’s worth revisiting something else that Americans don’t really know about that was a big deal in the UK in 1985: the Sinclair C5.Sinclair1

It’s debatable if you can call this electric/pedal powered recumbent bike/go-cart a car. Inventor Sir Clive Sinclair called it “a personal electric vehicle” but the one thing you can undeniably call it is “a failure.” In retrospect, people seemed to forget that success in one industry (Sinclair made one of Great Britain’s first successful personal computers) does not automatically begat success in another endeavor. As the June 25, 1983 issue of The Economist put it,

“If it were anyone but Sinclair, we’d say he was bonkers. Can a man who has made a fortune out of calculators and computers, and could double it on flatscreen televisions, be that crazy?”

Sinclair2

The C5 had numerous issues… it appeared too small to be a legitimate street machine, but too large for something that had no cargo space. Oh, did you know that it rains in England?  They offered this great option:

Sinclair Rain

Clive even wasted money having Lotus engineer the chassis and the “handling” on a 15 mph vehicle.

[Editor’s Note: I’ve driven one of these crazy things! It was a failure well and admirably earned. 

See? – JT]

Also, the range of the C5 was crap, and the fact that it had frequently-needed foot pedals–forget it. He should have just made an electric bicycle.

I know that Clive had ideas for larger products before it all fell apart. The next project (the C10) is hard to find information on.  I saw the below image online and, if legitimate, it appears the C10 was essentially going to be a Smart Car without doors, and considering the lukewarm success of that (I’m sorry, Mercedes Streeter!) this concept looks like it would not exactly have killed it on the market.

Sinclairc5 Design

Still, despite the C5’s failure and C10 concept’s seeming lack of viability, I am not convinced that the more-than-a-bike but less-than-a-car concept was all wet. In Europe and Asia, you may still see whole families on a moped or small motorcycle. My old roommate at school claimed that back in Portugal his parent carried the family and a piece of furniture home on a Vespa, at the same time.

You will often see moms biking with babies in front of stretched bikes like these in Amsterdam:

Amsterdambike

 

There could have been a market for a new-day Messerschmitt or a Peel Trident (a German and British microcar from ~1960, respectively), something still a fraction of the size of a Mini. I think the idea of a modern version of those microcars could have worked if the vehicle launched in 1985 (or the follow up) with the following attributes:

  1. Within a foot or so longer (in the 6-7 foot long range) to be able to hold another passenger in back (one adult, or a kid or two) or more cargo (like a week’s worth of groceries)
  2. Still narrow (no more than 32” wide…one passenger wide…could fit through a doorway)
  3. All electric (no bike pedals; brake and “gas” pedals) and with reasonable range
  4. More power! I would say a motor on each rear wheel so no differential
  5. A little higher top speed BUT not too much (maybe 20 to 25 max)
  6. Pneumatic tires, no suspension
  7. It was at least a bit taller. Maybe significantly taller
  8. It had some form of roof and optional side panels
  9. Forget aerodynamics and Lotus handling; it won’t go fast enough to matter.

So what might a solution to this revised brief look like?  Let’s call it the C10.

Sinclairc10

I did some extensive space planning (my 11 year old pushed our office chairs one behind the other) and it looked like you could get two upright passengers back to back, plus a small trunk (boot) or cargo bed in a space not much longer than a C5.  Here was the initial rough sketch:

C10 Diagram

The whole thing is significantly taller than a C5, which should help other motorists see you. Batteries are under the seats, so despite the tall, narrow proportions the center of gravity would be low. The width is enough to get two small kids in the back seat(no seat belts of course in 1985), and if you aren’t carrying a rear passenger that back seat could be packed with cargo. You could even have the rear seatback removable to create a cargo area big enough for a giant CRT TV…

A big improvement is the different weather protection options. You can start with a wide open driving experience if you’d like by removing the windshield and front fascia (that’s why the lights are mounted so low); that would be especially good for indoor use in things called shopping malls that used to exist back then. Or in an airport or huge production facility.

Next, there would be roof panels that could attach to the targa/roll bars above the seats (these could store in a slot behind the rear seat back) for rain and sun protection. Additionally, you could have either roll down clear side curtains or maybe offer wire-framed side doors (notice these fold up photo reflectors below: could this principle might work for doors you could carry with you? Not sure).

C10 Trunk

As for the cargo area, it has a lockable waterproof lid on it that opens like a trunk (boot), or you can flip the rear tailgate down to put in bigger items or, possibly, transport longer items sticking out the back.

There could be optional rigid rear half doors to the back seat (especially if kids will be riding there), or even a rigid full rear doors with windows to lock in cargo, keep a pet in place, or to allow a mall cop to secure a perp in the back seat: “We caught you red handed at Gadzooks, Heather!”

Security

What if you just wanted to carry stuff??  We could make a commercial version as well, where the rear seat is gone and it’s all cargo space (either open or covered).  I mean, vendors trying to get to some booth at a festival would never get through in a car or even a golf cart-type vehicle, but this skinny thing would work.

Cargo

One thing I would carry over from the C5 design is the lack of a steering wheel.  The C5 had a handlebar under your thighs, but in the C10 this would have steering via synchronized left and right levers that would simulate a handlebar (connected by cable to a tie rod). There are padded forearm rests on each side, and then the few controls and displays needed in front of the sliders; left hand side features the battery power LED gauge, headlight and hazard switch, while the right side features the forward/reverse buttons and a five digit keypad used to turn it on and off with a combination code (like Ford Keyless Entry!).

It would then play a few tones to tell you you’re ready to go. There are buttons/switches on the ends of the turn-levers; left hand side for turn signals, and right hand the horn button. Here, have a look:

Instruments

 

There are foot pedals for “throttle” and also brakes. I thought about the cable operated (four-wheel) brakes being operated by hand levers but it’d be easier to use your foot. Note the pedal on the far left to lock the rears as a parking brake.

Pedals

As an option, there would be another foot pedal. Why? Because I realized that one of the extras (if you don’t just want to use RainX) should be a windshield wiper, but I don’t like that sucking battery power. Thus the foot operated pneumatic wiper. Sort of the like the windshield washers on our shit ’69 Dart but instead acting on a geared-down rotary impeller….one push to move the wiper once across the screen.

Is this design now, unlike the C5, an answer to a question someone might have actually asked? Possibly. Think of where you would take a bicycle or a scooter in a European or Asian city and that’s where this could operate (and what if in an alternate reality they allowed this to legally go on bike lanes?). No pollution, none of the hassles of normal sized car parking and ICE maintenance. It’s not gonna cut it in a city like LA or Detroit, but that’s not the point; in the U.S. it could work in retirement centers or resorts quite nicely.

Overall, this thing is kind of like a giant adult Powerwheel, or a scaled down golf cart, which I am sure that Sir Clive would have seen as unimaginative rubbish. It would also be much more expensive than a C5, and likely need some kind of license to drive and register. Overall I think it’s a far more useable solution than the C5, a “car” that was worse than an answer to a question that nobody asked…it was somehow not even the right answer.

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52 Responses

  1. The Sinclair microcomputer was a remarkably solid offering for its time. Cheap, but still rather capable for its $99 base price. I kind of miss those heady days of the Wild West with early microcomputers. I nearly bought a Sinclair but went with a TI 99/4 instead.

    The proposed changes by the Bishop pull the Sinclair vehicle from “not under any circumstances, even ironic” status to “I could see it in the right situation”. I especially like the concept of the foot-powered windshield wiper and the alternative body/usage considerations make sense.

    On the slightly critical side, although I see where you were going with the location of the horn and turn signal switches I think you are going to have a huge number of accidental activations with that placement.

    In any case I really appreciate the amount of care and imagination you put into these scenarios.

    1. Origami- what about the front surface of the ‘buckets’ the handles are in? So you would active them with your index finger? That might be less prone to activation.

      I like how designer Gus Desbarates stated -per wikipedia- that his work on massaging the C5’s final design was “convert[ing] an ugly pointless device into a prettier, safer, and more usable pointless device”.

      1. Yes, that could be a better choice. Where the buttons currently are is exactly where a user will want to naturally rest their thumbs. Putting those controls in the “bucket” on the vertical surface in front of the steering handles should be less error-prone but still easily accessible.

  2. The re-design has upsized it. Considering the battery tech of the era, doing so is a good way to justify added battery mass.

    I’d have taken a different approach and slimmed it down like the early velomobiles of the era. The Vector trike or the Cyclodyne/Ecodyne would have been good starting points for a design. Such a thing could have used a single 12V AGM lead acid battery and probably got an honest 50 miles of range @ 55 mph with a total vehicle mass of around 120 lbs. Given the 55 mph speed limit at the time in the US, and similar in other countries, it would have been a great match.

    The downside to my alternative proposal is that it would have only seated 1. But that one would have had dirt cheap transportation.

    For a real world exploration of this concept, look up Cedric Lynch’s custom recumbent bike. His first conversion of this bike had a 60 mile range on a single 12V lead acid battery back in the early 2000s. He has a longer range lithium pack 10+ years ago, but the validity concept still stands. He’s saved tens of thousands of British Pounds not buying fuel for the mileage he has put on it versus using a car.

    1. The Vector was made by Versatron, btw. I forgot to mention that in order to make finding images easier. Damned lack of edit button.

      The aerodynamics of these early velomobiles were good enough that 1 horsepower or slightly above it was enough to maintain the maximum legal speed limit of the US on flat ground. If one reinforced the chassis to hold more batteries, it is not inconceivable that we could have had 150+ mile range @ 55 mph single seater commuter cars that weighed in around 300 lbs, using conventional build materials.

  3. Do me a favor and keep these things the hell out of my bike lanes. It’s bad enough i have to contend with all the goddamned e-scooters, in addition to the usual array of clueless pedestrians and parked cars. Hopefully the body panels are tough, because they’ll be meeting the blunt edge of my bike lock if they start showing up in large numbers in the bike lanes.

  4. Going taller is a good idea. As is losing the pedals. Even if it means needing a driver’s license to run it. And being a lot pricier.

    In Denmark we had this in the 80’es: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CityEl

    Sort of the same concept as the Sinclair, but enclosed for rain protection and more power so it could go at city traffic speeds. But unfortunately still very, very low.

    I test drove one in an industrial area and found myself looking up into the inner fenders of a Volvo Amazon. I was extremely -extremely – happy it was a weekend and there were no big trucks around! The ride was not entirely tribble. But not far off. Non-suspended wheels works on a bike where you sit in a way to help absorb bumps. When you are in a recliner seat this does not work.

    I think this new take is a lot better than the original. But those tiny wheels and no suspension, however rudimentary, I think is a big mistake. As is the arcane steering mechanism. The steering wheel has been invented. As has handlebars. Both works great and everyone knows how to use them, without any training,. So why not use one of those?

    Also: no doors? Come on. Let’s have some basic protection against inclement weather. And ideally some kind of basic impact protection. Even if only a 5-mph-bumper kind of protection.

    Otherwise we might as well just have a proper, electric cargo bike. Like this: https://triobike.com/en/

    These, and many others like it, are hugely popular in cities in Denmark. They are much faster and more comfortable than a Sinclair, and has proper cargo space. And can use the bike paths, and be parked pretty much anywhere.

    So a competing design, where most of these advantages are removed will have to bring some significant upsides to compensate.

  5. Part of the reason the Sinclair C5 was so crap was that it had to be for tax reasons. Legally speaking, it was an electric bicycle. A lot of the design (the pedals, for instance) was based around the need to conform to the letter of the requirements while, naturally, trying to do an end-run around their spirit. I’m not saying that makes it any less of a well-deserved flop, but it’s worth pointing out that the design changes here would push the C5 into a completely different class of vehicle, as far as the UK was concerned at the time.

    1. Halftrack- absolutely…I know that the C5 was actually designed for that specific class of vehicle. I was actually looking at the concepts for the next-level-up C10 which never saw the light of day. Obviously something that would be totally different…much larger, more expensive, requiring some kind of registration plate, and NOT able to be driven by 14 year olds like the C5.

  6. That rain gear option on the C5 is spectacular. I can’t stop laughing at it. Not only because the picture looks straight out of an 80’s Rick Springfield music video. But also because the lack of handlebars and the position of the drivers hands that you can’t see.
    It’s like a power wheel for perverts.

  7. You ever drive through those retirement communities with golf cart lanes? Some of the golf carts are enclosed with AC and seat 4, have styling to sooth the pride of drivers no longer trusted with a full speed car….

  8. This remodel reminds me almost to a T of the Arcimoto. Its a glorified skinny golf cart, but that is also somewhat street legal. I tried these out in Key West and they were really neat and super fun to drive. They were also much quicker than 20-25mph.

    https://www.arcimoto.com/

    Different versions of these:
    https://cleantechnica.com/files/2020/03/Deliverator_Sunset-7-Arcimoto-FUV-electric-last-mile-delivery-ARCIMOTO-OFFICIAL.png
    https://cdn.arcimoto.com/wp/20220613160729/flatbed-model-image.png

  9. I’m not sure how I feel about the ‘feet as a crumple zone’ design, but it looks a bit more practical and a bit better for the environment than those trike-style ‘go-car’ scooters that clog up bike lanes and ferry tourists around places like San Francisco.

    The handlebar controls seem like they would be overly confusing too – what’s wrong with a steering wheel? It seems like you’d want/need the front fascia (at least up to the wing mirrors) in every setting, so it could easily be mounted low enough that the windshield is still removable. Heck, even come up with a clever mechanism to temporarily mount the windshield behind the lower fascia when not in use!

    1. Indeed, I added the ‘handlebars’ as sort of a tribute to the C5, and I thought for indoor use (at lower speeds…there might even be a limiter put in for indoor use) it might be nice to have the option of nothing in front…but a steering wheel could be added either with or without a fascia. And yes, the windscreen could fold/lower into the fascia no problem…at least no problem since I’m not engineering it.

      Crumple zones…on this or the the C5, in a collision with anything bigger than….well…this…that probably isn’t going to do much for you. Sort of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

      1. Having used this style of steering control, I say go for it if you want the vehicle to be twitchy and difficult to control precisely! Handlebars and steering wheels are the best options because the actually do perform the best.

        I like the re-imagination of the concept, and especially the additional variations presented.

        But this whole project, including the original C5, seems a lot more like an in-factory transport vehicle for a large factory. Maybe inside a mine. It would be useful even in a large manufacturing campus or a logistics center of some sort.

        1. PaysOutAllNight- you could use it outside but there are obviously limits to it. Sir Clive actually proved that by launching the C5 in January…in London…the press event being described as ‘an unqualified disaster’ (and I am sure the cold didn’t help the already poor battery range).

          1. I do remember the reports of that event on the news and in the trade mags, and recall my intense disappointment when I saw what one of my heroes of the fledgling computer industry had been up to.

            This was one of the moments that I lost a lot of my ability to get lost in fan worship of prominent individuals, because I loved Sinclair’s efforts at making computers much more accessible to low to average income families. And then he presented this.

            Not every project is a winner. Good thing he did the computer first.

  10. The BMW C1 scooter with a roof is worth considering as a design. In some jurisdictions it could be ridden without a helmet because the rider was strapped inside the roll cage structure. The design could also be reworked as a 3 wheeler with either a Piaggio MP3 style narrow track or a Can Am Spyder style wide track. For urban use the narrow option would be better.

  11. I’m surprised no one has really tried Sinclair C5 concept again. The technology is here now. We have ebikes that can comfortably go for 50 miles on combined pedal & motor power, why not a partially enclosed trike that is small enough for bike lanes? It would be perfect for my wife, who has mobility issues and can’t really stay on a regular bike for too long.

    1. Sounds like your wife is in the market for a recumbent e-bike! They’re not cheap (the relatively niche application doesn’t help here, I assume), but they are readily available. My quick search just now didn’t yield any covered variants, but I’m confident they’re out there!

    2. Clive Sinclair’s nephew did recently make another trike. Check out the IRIS etrike. It does 30 mph.

      I’ve done something along those lines as well. In my profile are pics of a custom-build microcar I put together. It has trunk space for a week’s worth of groceries plus my tools plus spare tubes/cables. I get a 150-200 mile range on a 1.5 kWh pack riding it in the city at 30-35 mph, with light pedaling effort added. Top speed is over 45 mph, and it can peel out and do donuts. Total vehicle weight was 91 lbs before I started some recent upgrades. It now has full suspension, longer wheelbase, and corners like a gokart. I can get it to skid instead of going up on two wheels now, and my goal is to get 1g lateral acceleration. It’s also pedalable with the motor disabled to faster-than-bicycle speeds thanks to the aerodynamics. I can sprint to 35 mph on flat ground with the motor turned off. I’ve been well over 60 mph downhill and it is still very stable. I can take my hand off the steering at that speed and it tracks straight. It is in the process of receiving upgrades to make it capable of 100+ mph and 0-60 mph acceleration like a car, and it will be getting a roll cage, DOT rims, solar car tires, motorcycle brake lever, ATV rotors, and with the finished vehicle weighing somewhere around 100 lbs to retain the pedal-only functionality when desired.

      I love my “bicycle”. It has saved me a crap ton of money.

        1. I’ll have to get a video taken and sent to me once I get the vehicle put back together. I’m in the process of upgrading it.

          Last year, I was riding with the “bike life” crowd that mass rides illegal ATVs/dirt bikes/motorcycles. When I did donuts in an intersection, three people had their phones out. I never saw the videos, but somewhere out there someone recorded the act. The irony is that my vehicle is technically legal as a “bicycle”. I’ve been pulled over repeatedly by cops and there’s nothing they can do. I don’t even have a drivers license.

          I have a switch to allow me limit the motor’s thrust to 750W/28 mph in jurisdictions where ebikes are codified into law. But I can still turn the motor off and pedal it faster than the legal limit.

          I look forward to eventually tracking this creation. The motor that is in it is theoretically capable of handling enough power/torque to do 0-60 mph in under 7 seconds, but I’m going to have issues with wheelspin that will prevent me from achieving that. I’m hoping to get 0-60 mph in under 9 seconds after the upgrade. Eventually I’ll be able to implement a slip detection system to decrease that time.

          As it is, it currently can’t even reach 60 mph on the flat, but after my upgrade, triple digits may be possible. Currently, it only has 4 horsepower, and that’s enough to make it do donuts. It will have 13 horsepower after the upgrade. My long term goal is to build an AWD vehicle of similar weight and no bicycle drivetrain that has 150+ horsepower, which would be total insanity.

          It currently gets the equivalent of about 4,000 mpg at 30-35 mph. I suspect that will drop to 1,000 mpg equivalent at 70 mph, even after improving the aerodynamics, once I am able to cruise at that speed. I also have some solar panels on the way for it too.

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