Merthyr and the Sinclair C5

The ill-fated Sinclair C5, on display at the Cyfartha Castle Museum, Merthyr Picture: Ewegottalove

HANDS UP, who remembers the Sinclair C5?

The C5 electrical vehicle was first planned in December 1979 by Clive Sinclair, who had become one of the UK’s best-known millionaires, and earned a knighthood, on the back of the highly successful Sinclair Research range of home computers in the early 1980s.

Sinclair hoped to repeat his success in the electric vehicle market, which he saw as ripe for a new approach. He wanted to start an investigation into “a personal electric vehicle. The vehicle is assumed to carry one person, and is seen as a replacement for a moped and limited to urban use, with a top speed of 30mph”.

And so began the strange story of Merthyr and the Sinclair C5.

Design-wise, the most advanced battery technology of the time was coupled with a Bosch truck fan motor and a two-part injecition moulded body – the largest ever production moulding.

The vehicle had a theoretical range of 30 miles per charge, an amazingly low wind resistance and was very cheap to run and maintain.

Sinclair hoped to win over commuters, town shoppers and even school children going to and from school to boost sales to between 200,000-500,000 units per year.

Hoover Limited in Merthyr tendered for the contract to build the C5 and was successful. They turned over a section of their factory to its production amid great secrecy. The vehicle seemed to be a sound investment and Sinclair and Hoovers arranged that the existing Hoover service network could take care of after-sales service.

The Hoover factory in Merthyr began production of the Sinclair C5 amid great secrecy

When launched on January 10, 1985, the vehicle immediately caused enormous interest from the public and press. The launch at the Rhydycar Leisure Centre in Merthyr Tydfil saw thousands of people flocking to test drive these strange vehicles.

Almost immediately, the basic fault of the C5 became obvious – although well built in itself, and fulfilling all safety requirements perfectly, it placed the driver in a highly vulnerable position once on a busy road.

“It was with some trepidation that I took to the open roads in it,” C5 driver Dorothy Blundell told the Merthyr Express. “I felt vulnerable… One problem with taking the C5 out onto the road is its lowness. I ended up wet from the spray of overtaking lorries… Potholes… are dangerous to the C5 driver, I got bounced about in the seat and nearly thrown off course.”

The vehicle rapidly became a source of ridicule, with jokes and cartoons produced in large quantities. ‘Built by Hoovers, Driven by Suckers’ went one contemporary joke. The C5 was dubbed with names such as Doodle-buggie, Hoover Hedgehog and Skinny-Mini.

The British Safety Council, meanwhile, wished to see the C5 postponed due to safety fears.

Within three months of its glitzy launch, production had been slashed by 90 per cent. Sales never picked up, despite Sinclair’s optimistic forecasts, and production ceased entirely by August 1985. Out of 14,000 C5s made, only 5,000 were sold before its manufacturer, Sinclair Vehicles, went into receivership. The Hoover plant retained no remnant of this unfortunate episode prior to ceasing production altogether on May 13, 2009.

Present environmental concerns suggest that there is still a need for clean, energy-efficient, electric cars, and it is unfortunate that the C5 should have effectively made a laughing stock of a concept that is still needed, through a misapplication of the vehicle he had conceived.

Despite its commercial failure, the C5 went on to become a cult item for collectors. Thousands of unsold C5s were purchased by investors and sold for hugely inflated prices – as much as £6,000 compared to the original retail value of £399.

Enthusiasts have established owners’ clubs and some have modified their vehicles substantially, adding bigger wheels, jet engines, and high-powered electric motors to propel their C5s at speeds of up to 150 miles per hour.