The C5 built

In the spring of 1983, Hoover Ltd at Merthyr Tydfil was approached by the Welsh Development Agency (WDA) to see if they were interested in quoting for a project for Sinclair Research "who are working on an electric car, and as a by-product of the research have designed an electrically-assisted bicycle. They are looking for a sub-contractor to whom they can entrust the assembly". It so happened that Hoover had recently made a policy decision to look for sub-contract work, although they did not think that they were in the bicycle manufacturing business. However, when they heard that Sinclair envisaged sales of 200,000 a year, rising to 500,000 a year, and that the fabrication techniques would match their plant and experience, they naturally became very interested. 

Of course, Barry Wills was looking at possible manufacturers other than Hoover, but he was impressed at the speed with which they reacted, and particularly when he saw the sketches which Denis Roberts of Hoover had drawn of an assembly line for a product about which he knew virtually nothing. Wills saw that he was dealing with people who could understand what he needed very quickly - before he had told them even! - and arrangements went ahead for drawing up an agreement. The WDA baulked when they discovered that the plastic moulding could not be done in Wales, but eventually an acceptable form of wording was found and Hoover at Merthyr Tydfil became the manufacturing base for the C5.  


One result of the leakage of the Sinclair-Hoover negotiations: 
Ron McTrusty in
Computer News

Building C5s was not quite what Hoover had envisaged when they were offering sub-contract facilities. They had thought that perhaps they would be offering a specialist service, such as porcelain enamelling, which was just one part of the process of producing a washing machine. For the C5, they decided that they would have to set up a separate part of the factory with its own quality control, goods inwards, dispatch, and so on. In April 1984, half a dozen people were chosen from the main factory, sworn to secrecy, and set on to manufacturing C5 parts. By the time that original team had outgrown its sealed room, Hoover had set up a proper assembly facility on the other side of the main Cardiff - Merthyr road, linked to the main factory by means of an (existing) underground tunnel. Hoover building MP7 was equipped with security locks and installation of the production line began. Altogether, Hoover spent something of the order of 100,000 providing the facility.

Goods are delivered to a roller shutter door, inspected, and stored for use in the various stages of production. Almic of High Wycombe built the body welding equipment; the polypropylene shell is dropped on to a jig and the welding tape tacked into place with a telesonic gun. The main body is dropped over the top and clamped in position by means of an inflated band. Current passes through the tape and fuses the parts together; the jig is opened and the body taken out and hung on a conveyor track. The whole process takes about 70 seconds. At another point the assembly of the rolling chassis begins; tyres (from Taiwan) are fitted to rims (from Italy), axles are assembled, with bearings pressed on and fitted to the main chassis yoke; the steering assembly is fitted, and gradually the rolling chassis is built up. Meanwhile, the accessories such as lamps are fitted to the body shell, the wiring harness added; and soon body meets chassis for the first time to form a complete C5.

When the vehicle is complete, it moves along the conveyor on to the rolling-road test stand, which puts it through its paces and either passes it for finishing and dispatch, or draws attention to any faults there may be. The rolling-road test stand was developed at Hoover and, like a lot of the other C5 test equipment, was manufactured by Dancol of Feltham. The vehicle sits on the rolling road, an arm simulates the weight of a 12-stone person, and the brakes of the vehicle are tested under load. Each vehicle has its own manufacturing log going through with it. Hoover had already developed an advanced testing arrangement for washing machines which gives a computer print-out on machine performance, and the plan was to interface the rolling-road tester to the in-house Hoover computer.

Finished C5s are rolled into cardboard boxes on the conveyor belt which terminates in a special stacking mechanism so they can be loaded straight on to the distribution lorries, stacked three high, three wide, and six deep. Both packaging and the stacking conveyor were designed and built locally.

There is little provision for storage in the factory; the idea is that C5 packs are loaded straight into the distribution lorries, which leave the site when they are full and travel to one of the three distribution centres; Hayes, Preston or Oxford. The plan was that there should be a stockpile of vehicles in time for the launch so that delivery could be made well within the statutory 28 days.

In the autumn of 1984, Hoover started assembling, disassembling, and reassembling 100 C5s, both to find out what snags there would be in the process and to train the operators who would do the work. Two production lines were installed, each of which could produce 50 vehicles an hour. At the outset, there was no plan to work shifts, but by bringing both lines into play, and introducing shifts as necessary, up to 8,000 C5s could be produced every week.

It was a tremendous testimony to the integrity of everyone involved with the development of the C5 - and the sub-contractors and suppliers ran into hundreds - that the press was unable to get hold of anything like a true story concerning it. The Engineer published some inspired guesses but, having presumably overlooked the fact that the C5 might have been built to the electrically-assisted pedal cycle regulations, multiplied its top speed by three. A non-professional (and, if it comes to it, an unprofessional) photographer produced a hazy photograph which was published in the Mail on Sunday in October 1984, but it was incredible that anyone who had managed to take a photograph of a vehicle - even a photographer that bad - could have got the accompanying story so wrong: could it, in fact, have been a sop to his conscience that the photograph was so poor and the detail so inaccurate? Following that publication, Sinclair Vehicles sent a letter to all contractors and suppliers who were in the know, assuring them that it had not been one of the "planned leaks" for which the motor industry is known.

It is 10 January 1985; the snow on the ground is beginning to thaw as I trudge up the hill from Alexandra Palace station to the hall where the launch is to take place. While it is a relatively still and quiet winter's day outside, the hall is buzzing with activity inside: people milling around collecting press packs from girls dressed in grey with touches of yellow, the theme colours of the occasion; many of the men are wearing pullovers in shades of grey and yellow as well. We troop into the arena, and take our places on tiered seating which puts me in mind a dolphinarium. Even as we sit there, hardened journalists are subbing their press handouts. Sinclair Vehicles and Sinclair Research staff are moving about nervously; the atmosphere is awash with adrenalin.

Clive Sinclair speaks: "Good morning ladies and gentlemen; thank you very much for coming to this press conference today. It is of course a world first - the world's first press conference held in a plastic bag... I'm going to start in a rather unusual fashion by telling you what we are not announcing today, because there have been some fairly confusing leaks. We are not announcing a conventional car. Sinclair Vehicles Ltd is dedicated to the development and production of a full range of electric cars, but today we have an electric vehicle, the first stage on the road to the electric car... There have been several reports that the vehicle is made of fibreglass; in fact it's not: the body is the world's largest, mass-produced injection moulding. It's astonishingly light, and astonishingly strong, moulded in the ICI wonder plastic polypropylene which has absolutely marvellous properties for a vehicle... enormously tough, enormously durable, obviously completely free from rust. The pigmentation is in the material itself, so no matter how scraped or scratched or bumped it gets it's never going to lose its colour, never going to deteriorate... Another fallacy is that the vehicle is powered by a washing machine motor. True, the Italian company that makes these motors does make washing machine motors - but they also make torpedo motors. This lightweight, highly efficient motor is specially developed for our vehicle... Another (very understandable) fallacy is that on a low-speed vehicle, wind resistance doesn't matter... the truth is that if you're designing a vehicle efficiently - and of course we are concerned with the ultimate in efficiency - wind resistance matters an enormous amount. A cyclist travelling at 20 mph is using 90% of his energy overcoming wind resistance. The reason people have come to the conclusion that it doesn't matter up to 30 mph in a car is that cars have such appalling road resistance. But the C5 doesn't; we've gone to tremendous lengths to get the road resistance very low, and having achieved that on an ordinary flat road, the wind resistance became dominant so we put a great deal of effort into achieving a very low drag factor... Almost everything has been designed and tooled from scratch for us - the lights, batteries, motors, electronic control system. Because of our work at Sinclair Research, the electronic control system is very advanced and we have a custom chip that monitors everything and controls everything - get into the vehicle and you don't have to think about it; it's all done for you...

We were very concerned right from the start with safety. For that reason we asked the Department of Transport who we should talk to and brought in all the best advice we could. We've gone to great lengths to make the vehicle very visible both in daylight and at night, and to make it tough. We're very much of the view that by encouraging people to be on three wheels rather than two we will be adding considerably to safety on the road...

Now, before I hand over to the managing director of Sinclair Vehicles, Barrie Wills, I'd just like to introduce the vehicles to you."

Music which is deemed suitable for such occasions blares out. Further down the arena are six cardboard boxes in which something appears to be happening. The fronts of the boxes are covered with translucent paper, and six lights come-on; then six C5s burst through, driven by six grey and yellow girls. They drive right round the arena and line up side-by-side on the finishing mark. It is a solemn moment.

Barrie Wills recounts his introduction to Clive Sinclair, his initial scepticism, and how he was won over to the electric vehicle.

Wills went on to explain the constitution of Sinclair Vehicles "similar to Sinclair Research, a small, high-calibre team of people, principally product development and marketing oriented with a very heavy dependence on the resources and expertise of sub-contractors".

"We're developing a family of traffic-compatible, quiet, economic and pollution-free vehicles for the end of the Nineties. You're seeing the baby of the family today, the C5, a completely new form of practical personal transport designed to meet the new legislation for electrically-assisted cycles." Wills outlined the legislation as it applied to the development of the C5. "Using a package that was designed around the seating position of a Ford Capri, we developed it for production, laying down standards well in excess of the legislative requirement, imposing upon ourselves a system of testing based upon the United States automotive self-certification patent."

Then came a video film which took us through the development, testing and manufacture of C5s. "The Prescott hill climb circuit was used to test both hill climbing performance and brake descent. Parts of the track were flooded and many of the tests were conducted in sleet and snow." Just like the weather outside that day. "Accessories to make the C5 an all-weather vehicle have been designed and are seen here... Waterproof side screens fit on front and rear wheel arches and are attached to the body shell by Velcro. The protective cape and hood is also attached by Velcro at the front and sides of the vehicles. Subsequent to this stage, a fashion designer has developed the cape principle into an attractive weathercheater, which is a cross between a ski jacket and a mountaineering anorak. This includes a clever form of apron which encloses the cockpit area while allowing freedom of arm movement for signalling."

Back to Barry Wills "... The last thing we needed to produce C5 was a vehicle manufacturer. The manufacture and assembly is far closer to that of a domestic appliance than it is to a vehicle, and after a very exhaustive review, we chose Hoover's Merthyr Tydfil plant for the assembly. They have put together a dedicated assembly facility which was progressively equipped, manned and commissioned during 1984." He showed slides of the facility. "... Since 1 November 1984, an excess of 2000 - and the count at 10.30 this morning was 2507 - saleable vehicles have been built in preparation for the market launch today. We expect to produce in excess of 100,000 units in 1985, creating some 200 new jobs at Warwick and at Merthyr Tydfil.

"The C5 is the subject of a massive three-month, 3M mail-order launch advertising campaign under the theme of "A new power in personal transport". The first press advertising will appear tomorrow, and the first TV commercial tonight. We going to show you that TV commercial now."

Intimate, persuasive voice: "Imagine a vehicle that can drive you five miles for a penny; a vehicle that needs no petrol, just a battery; and that takes the press of a button to start, the squeeze of a lever to stop. That needs no licence, no road tax, and you can drive it whether you're 14 or 40. A vehicle that costs just 399. The Sinclair C5 is a new power in personal transport. The Sinclair C5. 399. Want to buy one? Want to see one? Or simply want to read all about it? Just dial 100 and ask for Freephone C5 - now."

Barrie Wills continues: "Mail-order maximises initial quality awareness through the reinvestment of higher sales margins directly into advertising. This provides the best possible platform for retail introduction, which we anticipate in the UK before the summer using retail chains such as white goods stores, supermarkets, do-it-yourself stores, and department stores. Our marketing plans are made possible by a series of major innovations in the after-market. These dispense with the need for a conventional car dealer and service workshop infrastructure. C5 servicing is franchised to Hoover: 19 Hoover service offices nationwide, employing over 400 service engineers, have been equipped to undertake vehicle maintenance on a door-to-door basis. 300 Sinclair battery centres have been established using Comet Group stores and service shops and selected Woolworth stores. These are already equipped to provide initial and replacement batteries, installation kits and additional battery chargers, and to handle any customer warranty problems on behalf of the battery manufacturer, Oldham. During the mail-order phase, door-to-door delivery is being handled by United Parcels from three strategically located warehouses...  C5 heralds a revolution in personal transport. We need now to pay tribute to all those who have contributed to making it all possible: Lotus Cars, Hoover plc, Oldham Batteries, Woolworth, ICI, the 80 suppliers of components, the suppliers of services and equipment, the Electricity Council, the Welsh Office, the Department of Transport, British Aerospace, Motor Industries Research Association, the Transport and Road Research Laboratory, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and the UK Safety Organisation, and the University of Warwick. Above all my team at Sinclair Vehicles - the best team of people I've ever worked with. Together, we are also a new power in personal transport. Thank you."  

This official photograph shows that the driver of a C5 is higher up than the driver of a Mini. Unofficially, the driver of the C5 is its stylist, Guy Desbarats, and the Mini is a cardboard cutout.

There is going to be a chance to drive the vehicles later, but now it's question-time: the first question from The Times: "Can you tell me where I can buy one now; where is it on sale?" A benign opening question which sets the pattern for a generally friendly session - just like the QL. We disperse. Some people start to queue for their turn on the C5; others take a stroll round the sideshows - C5 Driver magazines, C5 Driver hats, C5 Driver pullovers, a C5 video-game, C5 mugs, C5 bags, C5 carrier bags, C5 caps, C5 duster, key-rings, sun visors, badges, T-shirts; the specially developed garments. I queue up with Bill Sinclair for a ride on the C5; we're allowed one circuit of the arena, and compare notes, exhilarated and excited. Then the moment the lens boys have been waiting for: Clive Sinclair climbs into a C5 and press photographers crowd round. How will the press receive this? I pick someone at random: "Have we seen history being made today?"

"Yes, but not in the way that Sinclair hope for. It's a shame that this vehicle could destroy credibility for the future when Sinclair comes up with real vehicles. They're so keen to come up with something, that they've had to come up with something that people really weren't expecting. And a lot of people are going to view it, I think, as a toy rather than a serious vehicle to use on the road. And I'm worried about the road safety aspect, and I think a lot of other people are."

"But isn't this to introduce people to electric vehicles at an amazing low-price - just as the ZX80 opened the market for home computing?"

"Yes, I think that's probably the idea, but the ZX80 wasn't playing with lives. This is a gamble, you're playing with lives - young people out on the roads."

"That's true, but surely an enormous amount of thought has been given to safety?"

"Obviously a lot of thought had to go into the safety aspect, but I still think that is still too great a risk to allow 14-year-olds on the roads in one of these - I've got a 14-year-old son... imagine trying to cross lanes on a dual carriageway to turn right."

Can it be that the new legislation has sown the seeds of the downfall of the C5? Would you let your 14 year-old out on the main road in one of these? Anyone who has suffered the nightly truamata of the 16 year-old out on the moped will know the answer.  

"Apparently they're marvellous little vehicles - though I've yet actually to see one..." 
Seldom has has a new product received such a wealth of attention from the cartoonists.

Was launching the C5 in the bleak midwinter a calculated (or miscalculated) risk? The timing was such that production was under way, and the launch could hardly have been held up until the possibility of a bright spring day. Details were beginning to leak out to the press, and from that point of view it was right that the official story should be released as soon as possible lest the erroneous speculation should have done more harm than good.

And although Sinclair Research and the home computer market was quite separate from Sinclair Vehicles and the C5 market, the two did meet in Clive Sinclair, who knew that success with the C5 would reflect well on the home computer market which was beginning to run into problems.

Some said that Sinclair was at the peak of his success and the press was looking for an opportunity to degrade him. Some might, but generally I do not think that is a fair assessment, especially with hindsight. The C5 was welcomed in some quarters - on the cycle tracks of Stevenage, at Lowestoft, by the GLC: County Hall's chief traffic engineer Ken Huddart called it a positive step forward in road safety. There was some neutral reaction; in the House of Commons, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport Lynda Chalker averred that the C5 was "no more dangerous than a pedal cycle". One or two people who had lost their driving licences through a passion for alcohol made news by purchasing C5s so that they could once more become mobile menaces. In Glasgow, Stella Small said that since 1981 she had been successfully running a milk float which she had bought second-hand from the Co-op.  

"Of course I was riding on the pavement, oshifer! I don't think I'd have been safe on the main road, do you?" 
Ron McTrusty at it again.

The vehicle was deliberately launched as the C5 in the hope and expectation that the public would find a name for it. As it was, names such as Doodle-Buggie, Hoover Hedgehog, Skinny Mini and a Voltswagen came and (mercifully) went. But generally, the reaction was adverse. The C5 was "rapped" (as the journalists say) by insurance chiefs, road safety officers, and coroners. Dr Paul Knapman, Westminster coroner, predicted that one day a C5 driver would die in a crash. "It's just a matter of time" he said. In those independent isles, Man and Guernsey, the C5 was to be treated as a car - which effectively ruled out its use as it stood since it had neither speedometer nor horn.

Industrial unrest precluded the visit of the Prince and Princess of Wales to the Hoover C5 factory scheduled for 29 January. What this might or might not have done for the vehicle is worth another pause for thought. At about the same time, it was announced that plans for starting up the second C5 production line had been delayed, although sales in excess of 5000 vehicles were claimed for the first month after launch.

At the beginning, Sinclair was inclined to blame James Tye of the British Safety Council for the adverse reaction; Tye had publicly stated that the launch should be called off, because the BSC was unhappy with the safety of the C5. To be fair, he had said: "Bear in mind, it is a well-designed thing for what it is"; it was just that his eyes had been among the first to lose their scales. The other side of the safety coin was that RoSPA (the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents) had helped to compile a C5 safety booklet, which was handed out freely at the launch.

All this was to no avail. The C5 had massive publicity, and had it been able to stand on its own merits, it doubtless would have done, whatever the critics said. As it was, that seductive exhilaration which won everyone over to the C5 on the test track quickly evaporated by the feeling of vulnerability among real traffic. A cost-cutting exercise to get the price down to the magical 399 (which in any case was pushed up to 428 when the delivery charge was taken into account) should not have been achieved at the expense of a single accessory such as the high level plug-in reflector bar. For whatever reason, all those vehicles which were tried by the press - naturally out to test reliability and safety to the very limits - should never have failed.

Those who know what a tremendous amount of development work went into the C5 to make it reliable and safe cannot help but be saddened that the end product did not appear to carry those marks of Sinclair's 7M investment.

Rodney A M Dale 1985. Reproduced by kind permission of the author.

When I submitted these texts to Rodney Dale for proof reading, his letter in reply included these two interesting fragments, reproduced with permission:

"What doesn't seem to come over is the sudden feeling of exhilaration being deflated. I rode/drove a prototype C5 round Lotus's yard - skips of scrap metal etc. towered above me, a couple of huge lorries were manoevering to deliver whatever they had. And yet I felt no feeling of danger, or lack of safety. Many other people had tried the C5 and felt the same. But at Ally Pally, it suddenly dawned on everyone at about the same moment that it wasn't so safe after all. A 5-foot pole with a fluorescent flag would have worked wonders."

"I remember another story about testing the C5 on the road - to maintain secrecy, this was done on the day of Prince Charles's wedding, as everyone was indoors glued to the telly."

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