How Clive Sinclair pioneered the world's first Smart car and other inventions out of his A.I. Meta Lab
by Grant Sinclair 25.08.2023
In the early 1980s my uncle, the serial inventor, Sir Clive Sinclair established his 'MetaLab' research centre at Milton Hall near Cambridge in the UK, with the aim of pursuing his ideas for AI, vehicle design (including EV and autonomous) and other projects. The C-10 (below) was Clive's 1987 proposal for a two-seater eVehicle with modular polymer construction and strangely near identical design to the Smart Car of 1998 by Mercedes-Benz Group - but more than 10 years prior !
Proposed Sinclair C-10 (2-seater) Electric Smart car by Sir Clive Sinclair
I was just seven years old in 1979 when I tried the first Sinclair eBike prototype - it was based on a Raleigh Chopper and I was allowed to ride it around the loft of the Sinclair Radionics HQ, an old converted mill in St.Ives, Cambridgeshire. Two years later, I had the first working prototype of the Sinclair C5 eTrike at my Cambridge family home - it was a huge amount of fun to drive. Below is one of the first, enclosed, concept sketches, of Clive's vision for his electric trike vehicle.
Sinclair C-6 (2-seater) Electric City car concept by Sir Clive Sinclair
Clive's early vehicle inventions were inspired by the iconic 1970s Bond Bug three wheeler car by Reliant and also from Sci-fi films such as Ridley Scott's original Blade Runner. Clive originally intended his electric vehicle to have a top speed of around 30mph, but one of Clive's engineers made Clive aware of a new eVehicle legislation whereby if you limit the following: speed to 15mph, weight to 60 Kilo's and the motor power to 250 watts, then you could classify an electric trike as a bicycle and therefore produce it without type approval which simplified development and legislation. Better still, it could then be ridden on the road by anyone age 14 years or over without tax, insurance or a driving license.
Production Sinclair C5 eTrike by Sir Clive Sinclair
Lotus cars were contracted to help Sinclair with engineering, especially to get the weight under the 60 Kilo limit. This was pretty hard to achieve as suitable lead acid batteries (leisure/camper van type) that were available at the time each weighed 15 Kilo's and Sinclair's target was a 40 mile range with an optional second battery fitted. To save weight (especially for shipping by mail order) the production design had a lightweight polypropylene body, which at the time, was the largest one-piece injection moulding ever mass produced. The original canopy idea was abandoned to save further weight. The C5 now weighed 30 Kilos without batteries. Hoover were contracted for manufacturing and servicing. Clive personally invested over eight million pounds for the automated production plant capable of producing 50 vehicles an hour, staggering even by today's standards. Clive's plan was for the success of the C5 to fund for the development of the C-10 (see top) which was to be manufactured using the DeLorean car plant in Belfast.
Launch of the production Sinclair C5 eTrike (£399) by Sir Clive Sinclair
Sinclair's original target was to ship 100k units of the £399 C5 in 1985. Disappointingly, units shipped were actually far lower at 14k units, however, the C5 held the record as the worlds best selling eVehicle until the Nissan Leaf overtook sales in 2011. Today Segway are marketing similar spec eVehicles such as their Ninebot GoKart which has the same 15mph top speed and similar range to the C5. The C5 was decades ahead of its time and if it had the cycling lane infrastructure we enjoy today, it could have sold better, as some public were put off riding on the road due to its low riding position. Clive responded to the traffic visibility problem with a high vis mast add-on bundled with the product for free. Unfortunately, too late as negative press had scuppered the C5s chances of success and Sinclair's only way forward was to go back to the drawing board.
Sinclair X-bike folding bike prototype concept by Sir Clive Sinclair
Undeterred, Clive set to work on his next vehicle product: the X-Bike folding cycle concept was designed from scratch to be ultralight and to be as convenient to carry as an umbrella featuring micro wheels much like micro-scooters of today. The majority of components had to be engineered from scratch including the internal chain, cables and single sided fork frame. Later on, Clive's wheel supplier said their wheels would never take the weight of a grown man. Determinedly, Clive did his own tests and proved the wheels could in fact take a man's weight. Clive's original thinking was that it would be more useful for general public to have an affordable and convenient way of getting from A-B e.g from home/work to the bus or train station and then be able to carry the bike on public transport rather than have a higher cost, full size bike for slower, longer journeys.
Launch of the production Sinclair Zike electric bike by Sir Clive Sinclair
The Zike of 1992 (above) was an ultralight (11 Kilo) eBike that for £499 featured in-frame NiCad batteries and a motor with Neodymium magnets decades before anyone else - these in-frame technologies are only now becoming mainstream via leading eBike manufacturers today. The frame of the bike was made from a combination of aluminium alloy and a composite of glass fibre and nylon - the Zike was lighter than most eBike's of today! Clive previewed the prototype on BBCs Tomorrow's World TV show and swiftly generated pre-orders worth over £500k, shipping over 2k units inside six months.
Launch of the production Sinclair ZETA I (Zero Emission Transport Accessory) eBike conversion kit by Sir Clive Sinclair
The Sinclair ZETA (Zero Emission Transport Accessory) of 1994 was a one piece construction eBike conversion kit (with integrated motor and battery) marketed via mail order for £144.95 and simply bolted to the back of a conventional bike much like similar products of today yet decades earlier. It sold well (15k units) via mail order which was decent for a new product category. Not sitting still, Clive continued his aggressive R & D programme and introduced upgraded, smaller and lighter versions - the Zeta II of 1997 and Zeta III in 2000.
Production Sinclair A-bike folding bike by Sir Clive Sinclair
Next on the agenda was to revisit the dormant X-bike folding concept (see top). A new five year development programme gradually evolved into the A-bike of 2006, selling for £199. At 5.7 Kilo's, the A-bike was the World's lightest folding bike and featured six inch micro wheels. The product could be folded in under ten seconds, magically fitting inside a supplied small rucksack accessory. At launch, Clive's UK distributor committed to buying 25k units of the A-bike. In China, variations of Clive's folding A-bike design would outsell all folding bike rivals. Hundreds of thousands of A-bike commuters would travel to and from the bus and train station each day carrying their folded micro bike onto public transport.
Preview of the Sinclair X-1 electric bike concept by Sir Clive Sinclair
After release of A-bike (above) Clive had a crack at producing a new enclosed eBike - the X-1 two-wheeled concept was developed in 2010 and nicknamed 'the son of C5'. Remarkably, the X-1s total weight including its minute Lithium-Ion portable battery pack and ultra thin 190 watt pancake motor was only 30 Kilo's! The X-1 was previewed riding around the streets of central London on Wallace and Gromit's World of Invention, a mainstream BBC TV series from 2010.
Production Sinclair A-bike Electric folding bike by Sir Clive Sinclair
In 2015, an upgraded electric A-bike was successfully launched on Kickstarter and marketed as the lightest folding eBike in the World. The A-bike had now become a force to be reckoned with inside the cycling community.
Preview of IRIS eTrike prototype by Grant Sinclair
Clive was amazingly prescient - he founded an Artificial Intelligence Research laboratory in the mid 1980s and was working on many highly innovative secret projects such as an autonomous one man flying machine! Having such a visionary for an uncle inspired me to develop my own electric vehicle products. My IRIS eTrike prototype was previewed on BBC news in 2017. It was a top story seen by over ten million people worldwide - nerve wrecking as battery and motor samples arrived the day before filming. The public interest was unbelievable as I received hundreds of messages offering support from people all over the world.
Preview of Production IRIS eTrike® by Grant Sinclair
Whereas Clive's vision for future transport was usually geared around affordability, my own interest was to produce an enclosed bike that is Faster, Cleaner and Safer than a regular bike. I was aware of Velomobiles and HPVs (Human Powered Vehicles) - bikes/trikes that could go as fast as some cars. In 2012, I had been given a tiny remote control helicopter at a party and noticed its foam body remained intact, with undamaged motor and battery, despite me crashing it several times in a row. I therefore decided on ultralight EPP foam for IRIS's body and wanted it fully enclosed with a high riding position so it would be completely weatherproof and feel safe when riding on the street. An IRIS prototype was successfully tested by Tim Peake (Astronaut and test pilot for Apache helicopters) on mainstream TV during lockdown - Tim gave IRIS a glowing review and requested to be first to test the production design when shipping. The new upgraded production IRIS eTrike is now available for pre-order at an early bird price.