24/09/2021

Sinclair vehicles

Forward to Prism demise and aftermath – Back to Chinese whispers
Back to Anecdotes Part 2 Index – Back to Home

Few people understand the back story to the Sinclair C5 electric vehicle. Thankfully, Prism was never invited to participate in the C5, but we had a ringside seat. You have first to appreciate that Sinclair was Cambridge-based and the bicycle has a very different status in that particular city. When they moved offices, Clive Sinclair arranged to have a reserved bike slot and not a car slot.

In conversation with him he believed cities should be traffic-free except for local authority electric vehicles that you picked up and left at charging points – prophesying an electrified Boris bike process. I said that if this ever happened then I would want exclusivity for the adornment products, because unlike in Beijing I thought those in the West would want to personalise their mounts.

There was clearly some involvement in this project by Fred Olsen of the famous shipping line. However, he was reclusive and actively worked to keep himself out of any limelight. Yet, Fred Olsen Lines had assisted Margaret Thatcher’s prosecution of the Falklands War, I was led to understand by loaning one or more of his ships for troop transportation. Fred Olsen was subsequently invited by the PM to join a government think-tank.

Timex Dundee assembly line

One of the two manufacturers of Sinclair computers was Timex, based at Dundee and Portugal and part-owned by Olsen. This had given him a strong appreciation of Clive. Fred arranged for Clive to join the think-tank too. It was also rumoured that Fred oiled the wheels for Clive to get his ‘K’. Of course this is only my understanding back then.

ASIDE: Fred Olsen attended a Prism press launch and I tried to indicate quietly to the press that it was he, and that they should get a photograph. They didn’t believe me, and their opportunity was lost. Today with digital cameras I don’t suppose they would have hesitated. I note that his son has no such qualms about being photographed.

One of the things that emerged from that think-tank’s discussions was that the law might be changed to allow low-powered vehicles to be used by 14-year-olds and upward, provided they could travel no faster than 15mph. Better yet, they would not require tax, insurance or a driving licence. I believe this triggered a long-held belief of Clive’s to be pursued.

Colin Chapman of Lotus had been a member of the think-tank and the two had some interesting conversations about what might be possible. Just imagine the possible synergy of Colin Chapman and Clive Sinclair? But Chapman died late in 1982 and though the C5 aesthetics had Lotus input, it was Hoover at Merthyr Tydfil, that manufactured it. Strangely there were no jokes about overtaking on a rinse cycle, but Hoover?

Clive saw the C5 being used on large industrial sites, on oil tankers and in pedestrianised city centres. But at his launch he was talked into driving it around Hyde Park Corner. Even with a pennant on a long whippy-aerial, few were encouraged to follow him onto a busy road.

Sinclair C5 in traffic

An Economist feature (25-June-1983) quoted a Sinclair competitor as saying ‘’If it was anyone but Sinclair, we’d say he was bonkers. But can a man who has made a fortune out of calculators and computers, and could double it on flatscreen televisions, be that crazy?’

Sinclair Vehicles (‘SV’) was led by a former DeLorean executive. There were production projections of 200,000-300,000 units per year and a reported £3m campaign was designed by the Primary Contact agency.

DeLorean’s DMC-12 had sold 6,000 units and lasted seven years; though it was later immortalised in Back to the Future. Only 14,000 C5s were ever made, and only 5,000 of these were sold through; effectively the product lifecycle (pun intended) was ten months.

Oric computer

We began to represent other computers too, including Oric. I had known its team since Tandata, and with Oric they offered us a different retail price-point.

ASIDE: The Oric team provided Jane and I with a unique experience at Royal Ascot. They had become friendly with a notable coach-and-four driver who made this possible. We were invited to travel to Windsor Great Park in our togs, where we climbed aboard the coach. I was at the rear so could doff my top hat to the vehicles that were held up behind us, as we rode in a stately manner through the Park. At the course we were permitted to follow the royal party’s coaches up the hallowed turf and into an area where we could unload a picnic from inside the coach. A one-off opportunity which has meant I have turned down subsequent invitations – how could they begin to compare?

Forward to Prism demise and aftermath – Back to Chinese whispers
Back to Anecdotes Part 2 Index – Back to Home