The concept of ‘personal electric mobility’ has been around for almost 150 years.  In fact, the very first patent for a motorcycle (1871) specified an electric motor, from an era when both motors and the batteries to power them had to be built by hand, and were hardly reliable. Give a read to our History of Electric Motorcycles article for some background.  While the legacy of electric vehicles in mass transport and industrial use is a century of success (think electric buses, trollies, trains, forklifts, etc), the mass-production of personal electric vehicles has a far spottier and more problematic story.  Only in the past ten years has the electric vehicle become truly popular for personal use, but that doesn’t mean clever folks haven’t tried.

The original electric trike…which was the first known electric vehicle. Gustave Trouvé’s 1881 electric tricycle, the first electric vehicle demonstrated to the world, on April 19th, using a Starley tricycle with Trouvé’s own batteries and electric motor attached. The future had arrived. [from Physique et Chimie Popularies, Vol. 2: 1881-83 (Alexix Clerc, 1883)]
One such forward-thinking fellow was Sir Clive Sinclair, who gained fame as a personal computing pioneer in the 1960s and ’70s.  Since his teenage years Sinclair had pondered small, inexpensive electric personal vehicles, while he built up a reputation as an electronics genius, and developed the first ‘slimline’ pocket calculators.  The automobile seemed to him extremely wasteful and expensive for 90% of its daily uses – local transport, errands, short pleasure trips.  Sinclair had a clever knack for using very cheap electronic components for new purposes, by altering how their power was supplied or creatively masking printed circuit boards to greatly improve their performance.  His company, Sinclair Radionics, was thus never a manufacturer per se, but used bought-in components to create new designs.  Reliance on outside contractors led to supply problems after Sinclair’s products grew wildly popular (as with his wristwatch calculator of 1977).  Quality control was difficult with mass-produced, inexpensive componentry, and Sinclair soon developed a ‘no questions asked’ replacement policy…as none needed to be asked. Sill, Sinclair-designed electronic devices gained a reputation for tremendous innovation, and he was knighted in 1985 for his contributions to British industry.

Sir Clive Sinclair: visionary computer pioneer, EV pioneer, inventor of the flat screen TV, and more. [BBC]
The success of his electronics company kept development of Sinclair’s personal transport dream on the back burner, but his company was continually testing batteries and electric motors, with Chris Curry (later founder of Acorn computers) doing the advance work.  Their first experiment in the early 1970s used a very slim electric motor installed on a stand-up scooter, that was operated by a button –  a precursor to today’s wildly popular electric stand-ups.  Sinclair believed that new electric vehicles needed to be designed from the ground up, and not be adapted from ideas developed around internal-combustion engines.  His first prototype electric vehicle, the C1 of 1979, was a small electric car using existing lead-acid battery technology, with a 30-mile range and intended for a single user in urban areas, weighing 300lbs and with a modest price. Sinclair contracted Ogle Design to style the car, but was concerned that their efforts were too focused on aerodynamics, and not enough on economy.  Development proved expensive, and in Spring of 1983 Sinclair decided to drop the C1 project.

The Sinclair C5: the most successful EV of the 1980s, and most-produced EV until the 2000s. It was considered a commercial failure as ‘only’ 14,000 were built, as opposed to anticipated demand in the hundreds of thousands. Today the C5 is highly collectible. [National Motor Museum]
Still, Sinclair’s intention was to mass-produce electric vehicles, so he sold a chunk of his own stock to form a new company, Sinclair Vehicles, and hired Barrie Willis, a former Delorean executive, as Managing Director.  While the idea of an electric car was clearly ahead of its time, British legislation supported electric vehicles, with taxes abolished for EVs in 1980, and a new law in 1983 stipulating that vehicles with a top speed under 15mph could be ridden by 14-year olds, without a helmet or driver’s license.  Sinclair felt he’d found a niche they could fill.

Removing half the bodywork of a C5 reveals its secret skeleton as a recumbent tricycle. The battery is clearly visible, as is the motor, which drives only one rear wheel. [Wikipedia]
Sinclair’s new concept was a small, inexpensive, one-person electric 3-wheel vehicle that included ‘light pedal assistance’ (a nod to the origins of the motorcycle industry circa 1900).  Sinclair once again hired Ogle Design for the initial concept: their Bond Minicar trike had been a great success, so a smaller 3-wheeler seemed within their wheelhouse.  The Ogle prototype was handed over to exotic car manufacturer Lotus Cars Ltd to design the chassis and handling details.

The original press photos for the Sinclair C5 show its futuristic styling and appeal to youth. [The Vintagent Archive]
The design was still not right, so Sinclair set up a Metalab for deep-future projects, and handed its first employee, 23-year old industrial designer Gus Desbarats, to finish the project.  What the micro-vehicle had become was a futuristic mini-missile with an injection-molded plastic body that looked like a prop from Logan’s Run.  The lines were sleek, with a sloping opaque screen covering the rider’s knees, an integral, non-adjustable seat back, and disc-covered wheels.  The riding position was recumbent, and the rider had pedals to assist starting or when the battery went flat, and steering was controlled with handlebars beneath the rider’s legs, which sounds strange but in reality was very simple, and ‘the controls fell naturally to one’s hands’, as the old British motorcycle magazines used to say. While the body was plastic, underneath was a steel tube spine chassis, although there was no suspension.  The whole concept was for a vehicle that was cheap to produce and easy to use. Desbarats added a tall visibility flag as standard equipment, as the Sinclair C5 was so small and low to the ground, drivers simply could not see it, and there was no safety equipment or mirrors.  As Desbarats described it, his job was to “convert an ugly pointless device into a prettier, safer, and more usable pointless device”.  There had been only one round of focus group testing for the design, and no safety tests or other development considerations taking into account feedback from the C5 testers/users outside Sinclair Vehicles: everything was pushed forward and paid for by Sir Clive Sinclair.

The Sinclair C5 was assembled from major components by different contractors: the plastic body by Linpac, the chassis and gearbox by Lotus, a Phillips motor, Oldham lead-acid battery, etc.  A deal was negotiated with a Hoover washing machine facility in Wales to assemble and test the C5, with production slated for 200,000 units/year.  Before the January 1985 launch of the C5, 2500 had already been built to deal with anticipated demand.

The Sinclair C5 was launched at a lavish press reception at Alexandra Palace, featuring Stirling Moss. As it was cold, most of the C5s refused to run properly, and ran out of battery very quickly.  Press testers taking the C5 out on the road were terrified when they encountered trucks, which could not see them and belched exhaust directly in their faces.  There was no weather protection, so testers froze and got wet.  In short, the launch was a disaster.  And the bad news kept coming, with magazines and newspapers expressing concern about the lack of any safety equipment, the invisibility of the C5 to many drivers, and the lack of training/licensing/helmet requirement for young riders.  The 250W electric motor was insufficient for any hill, and the battery ran flat between 6-12 miles, far below the 30-mile claimed range.

The C5 was marketed with weather protection as an extra. Stylish! [The Vintagent Archive]
All of which might have been acceptable had the C5 been marketed as a toy.  But Sir Clive was a visionary, who foresaw a total revolution in personal transportation towards EVs, and intended to be its vanguard.  Of course, the C5 was a flop, compared to its investment and anticipated sales.  It was still the most successful EV ever built, with an initial run of 5000 C5s selling in two months, including to Princes William and Harry, who fit the target demographic perfectly.  By August 1985, 14,000 C5s had been built, but Sinclair Vehicles went belly up, and remaining stocks of C5 were sold to the likes of Ellar Surplus Ltd, who paid £75 each for 9000 units.  Ellar were the smart ones, recognizing that the C5 did have a ready market as a fun vehicle: they sold every last example in stock for £700/each.  Private buyer Adam Harper bought 600 C5s still in their boxes in 1987, and sold them all in two years for £2500 each.  Their status as a cult vehicle was immediately cemented, and C5s today are highly collectable by those who appreciate their still-futuristic styling and contemporary concept.

Alan Harper with his 150mph Sinclair C5 – at one time the fastest electric vehicle in the UK. [Robot Wars Wiki]
Some have taken C5 love even further, installing more powerful batteries and motors – easy to do – for faster performance and longer range, making them perfectly suitable as daily runabouts.  Stunt driver Alan Harper modified his C5 to set a British record for any electric vehicle in 2004, hitting 150mph. The Lotus-derived handling of the C5 showed through, “Up to 100mph it’s like you’re running on rails, it’s really stable, then at about 110 to 120mph it starts getting tricky. At that point if a tyre blew up or something happened you would be surely dead.” A few brave souls have taken the concept even further, installing jet engines into their C5s for high-speed runs … and yes there is more than one jet-powered C5 in the world. I Road Tested one in 2011 at the Avignon Motor Festival,  built by Adrian Bennet of Jet Power UK. The Air Research JFS100-13A turbojet spins at 72,000rpm, and sits just behind and below the rider, which in this case was me.  When fired up, the jet becomes a fearsome leaf blower, and makes quite a racket, which helped keep pedestrians out of my way on the crowded festival grounds.  Nobody said it was a good idea, just a necessary thing to do, when presented with the opportunity.  What was it like?  Unique!




Paul d’Orléans is the founder of He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.
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