Sinclair C5 – 1985

The mistake was to call it a car in the first place. The Sinclair C5 was a genuine attempt to create an environmentally-friendly, personal urban transport. It was a revolutionary idea, planned as the first in a series of experiments which would see an electrically-powered vehicle grow from a tiny three-wheeler for one, into a two- and then four-passenger, four-wheeler capable of holding its own against the performance of petrol or diesel cars.

Unfortunately Sinclair allowed the pre-launch publicity to suggest that a proper eco-car was just around the corner, and the C5 was its harbinger. Disappointment intensified into anger at what was felt to be a deception. The C5 was a glorified pedal tricycle. Designed for a maximum speed of 15 mph (24 km/h) (anymore and the ‘engine’ incurred taxes) in practice it was slower and required frantic pedalling on any incline. The handlebars were set at hip level: you had to sit on your hands to steer.

The driver had no protection at all either from the weather (and the C5 was launched in a British January!) or from traffic. It was so dangerous that even in the Netherlands, with its network of cycle paths, it was banned outright. On British roads its low stance made driving feel like suicidal lunacy. Dreadful marketing made the C5 an object of derision. The 12 volt DC engine was manufactured by Polymotor, a Philips subsidiary that made washing machine motors.

Nobody wanted to `drive a washing machine’, but think how different it might have been if they could claim to `drive a torpedo’ which Polymotor also made! Castigated as ‘a dangerous joke’ the C5’s innovative technology was ignored, and it became a toy for the rich and for collectors. But let’s not be sentimental – it was a ridiculous vehicle.


FIRST MANUFACTURED: 1985 (until October 1985)

ENGINE: 12 volt DC Philips Electric (250W)

PERFORMANCE: Top speed of 15 mph (24 km/h)

YOU SHOULD KNOW:  The C5’s greatest success is(allegedly) as a deck runaround for sailors on giant supertankers. 2. The C5’s fans included Sir Elton John, who bought two to whizz round his garden, and Princes William and Harry, who used to race each other.


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