On this day in 1985, the biggest flop in vehicle history launched.
The Sinclair C5 was billed as the future of transport, writes Jack Stewart for BBC Futures. It was a single-seat "e-trike" that could be driven, or pedaled, by anyone.
The advertising buy was big enough to indicate that inventor Sir Clive Sinclair and the company manufacturing the vehicle were behind it 100 percent, he writes. They forgot one thing, though: “some things just can’t be bought.”
For the C5, the thing it couldn’t buy was success. It was the little vehicle that couldn’t—revolutionize transport, that is. Some British fans of quirky technology have called it the biggest innovation disaster ever: worse than the BetaMax, worse than pizza scissors, worse than the Rabbit cell phone.
Maybe it asked people to imagine too much, too fast. Its original advertisement asks viewers too envision a vehicle “that needs no license, no road tax, and that you can drive whether you’re 14 or 40.”
Yet its inventor had a track record of seeing a market before the public did.
“Sinclair was known for being on the forefront of British innovation for many years by the time he tried his hand at vehicles,” writes Stewart. “He had invented pocket radios, pocket TVs, electronic watches and Britain’s best-selling home computer.”
He was bound to have a flop sooner or later, though, and the C5 was a huge one. Its image problem was almost instant, Stewart writes: “The press and public saw the C5 less as a new mode of transport, and more as a toy—and an expensive one at that.”
Although the tacky design probably didn’t help, the C5 really did have problems. Beyond safety concerns due to its small size, its battery range and the fact that it didn’t shelter a driver from the elements were both panned.
Perhaps its biggest problem was that it was never market tested, Stewart writes. “Sir Clive believed he could create a market where none had existed before,” Stewart writes, but he never researched that potential market.
1985 consumers were understandably suspicious. But today, when bicycles and Smart Cars are on the road, maybe there’s space for a tricycle that sometimes needs pedal power to help the engine. And in a time where gas prices are rising and we’re concerned about climate change, a small, electric vehicle sounds great.
Only 20,000 of the vehicles were ever sold, writes CBC News. Today, the C5 is a coveted collectors’ item. And with e-bikes as a regular consumer product, the basic idea behind the C5 still lives. But the C5’s inventor hasn’t succeeded in keeping his idea on the road: Sinclair tried again in 2010 with the Sinclair X-1, but that prototype vehicle never made it to market.