A Midge Too Far?
It is no secret that Sir Clive Sinclair has been planning to try to revolutionise motoring with electric vehicles; indeed, a recent advertisement placed by Sinclair Vehicles Ltd states “by the early 1990s, Sinclair will have on the roads a range of fast, quiet, astonishingly economical family vehicles”. SVL’s first effort, the C5, has already been launched and if Sinclair’s version of initial sales response is to be believed, it is quite possible that the company will achieve its target of selling over 100,000 vehicles during 1985.
Why is Motor Sport concerned about the launch of a 15 mph “electrically-assisted pedal tricycle”? The answer is simple: as motorists we could be in the position of sharing our already congested road system with up to a quarter of a million C5s by the end of next year. This figure is in addition to existing, and future, bicycles and mopeds for it is clear that the C5 aims to create an entirely new market. The prospect of vast numbers of tiny, slow, vulnerable machines on the roads does not excite us.
The C5 itself is a very clever design, although it does not break new ground in technology. Driving one on an indoor track and on private roads around Alexandra Palace, we found it comfortable and stable with good brakes, handling and steering. Under those conditions it was fun to drive. In many ways it seems to be safer than the average bicycle; the polypropylene bodyshell gives some user-protection and, should a C5 hit a pedestrian, the shell presents a fairly large area of soft, flexible, material to soften the impact. We liked the way the C5 comes only in white with good lighting and reflective strips as standard. We would not, however, have even considered taking one on public roads without wing mirrors, a horn or a large reflector on a mast standing proud of the user’s head, and these are optional extras, not required by law, over and above the base price of £399.
We feel this little machine would be wonderful for getting around motor racing paddocks, factories, holiday camps, even large hospitals, but the thought of huge numbers on the public highway appals us. SVL claims that the user’s eyeline is the same as that of a driver of a Mini. We’ll go further, it’s higher than that of a Caterham Seven, but Caterham Sevens are not driven by uninsured 14-years-olds or those who cannot pass a driving test. The Caterham Seven also is intrinsically safe because of its outstanding handling, brakes and acceleration and the driver also has to have a horn, mirrors and insurance.
At the launch, a colleague on another magazine startled a cabbie by driving silently up alongside and starting a conversation. He was below the level of the taxi’s side window. Motor Sport’s Deputy Editor, who is 5 ft 9 in, was able to drive beneath the parked trailer of an articulated lorry with a good six inches to spare. No further comment is needed.
Many of the criticisms levelled against the C5 also apply to bicycles. A 14-year-old can ride a bicycle without insurance, mirrors, helmet etc and we re-emphasise that SVL has taken every possible step to make the C5 safe and we think that, in some respects, it is safer than a bicycle. We also feel that some points of criticism levelled against the C5 have been unfair. The four things which concern us are the C5’s size, it speed, the projected numbers using the roads and the attitude of those using them.
At the launch, Sir Clive Sinclair said that users must regard the C5 as a bicycle not a car. On television that night, Stirling Moss made the same point. Most cyclists above the age of 14 ride sensibly for they are aware of their vulnerability. On the whole, it is the motorist who is insensitive to the cyclist, not the other way round.
The C5 is officially a pedal tricycle, not a car. To be precise, it is an “electrically-assisted pedal tricycle”. It is odd, then, that in the brochure, in the advertisement which has appeared in the national press and in the first edition of the official magazine “C5 Driver” (“driver”, note, not “rider” or “user”) there is not a single illustration of anyone using the pedals. In a majority of illustrations, the pedals are invisible and in most of the remaining illustrations they are the reference to is “If you ever do run out of power, the C5’s pedals get you home.” SVL has designed a vehicle to meet a change in the law and then seems to have ignored the legal definition in its marketing.
In “C5 Driver”, the machine is described as “the perfect alternative to the second car”. In the advertisement we see the C5 described as an “electric vehicle for personal transport”. We may have missed it, but could not find the phrase “electrically-assisted pedal tricycle” in the advertisement, the brochure or magazine. The phrase does, however, appear twice in the press pack, in relation to the 1983 regulations which allow the C5 to be driven on the roads by those of 14 years and upwards without a licence, insurance, helmet etc. We have no reason to suppose that the press pack is widely distributed.
Although the company is careful only to describe the C5 in terms such as “electric vehicle” (not, note, “electrically-assisted“) and “practical personal transport — powered by electricity”, the selling pitch seems to be designed to make the buyer associate it with cars rather than cycles. Yet, to be safe on the roads, the user most think of himself as having the vulnerability of a cyclist and not the relative protection of a motorist.
We believe that SVL should, without delay, shift the emphasis of the way in which it is presenting its electrically-assisted pedal tricycle, and call it that in its advertisements. SVL should not encourage members of the “C5 Teensters”, a users’ club for 14/19-years-olds, to think of themselves as “drivers”.
We note, without comment, that for reasons of industrial security, no pre-launch C5 had been driven on public roads in day time. We most allow ourselves the obervation, however, that the first user to try to circumnavigate Hyde Park Corner in the rush hour could be a 14-year-old without a driving licence, helmet or insurance. The fact that a 14-year-old may use one on the roads without licence, tax, insurance or marketing material.
We hope never to encounter a C5 on the public highway but, given the tone of the marketing material and the excellence of the marketing package, we fear it is a vain hope. The thought of perhaps 100,000 C5s by the end of the year horrifies us. The level of thought which has gone into designing, producing the marketing the product is of a very high order, but we feel it is talent used misguidedly.
In short, we hope the Sinclair C5 fails to achieve its maker’s hopes, except as a fun or convenience vehicle away from our already congested roads. If Sinclair Vehicles, in the future, makes the breakthrough to produce a practical, fast, pollution-free city car, Motor Sport will be the first to applaud. As it is, we say “thanks, but no thanks”.