One of the technological oddities of the 1980s is making a comeback of sorts. The nephew of Sir Clive Sinclair – the man responsible for the famous but flawed C5 – is marketing an updated version of the diminutive electric vehicle called the Iris eTrike. The new street-legal, one-person hybrid electric/pedal-powered tricycle is billed as faster and safer than its '80s predecessor and sports a Plexiglas canopy, so it can be used in all weathers.
Sir Clive Sinclair was a familiar figure on the tech scene in the 1970s and '80s. The eccentric inventor and businessman was notorious for his products either hitting the bull's eye or missing the target entirely. On the one hand, he came up with the Sinclair Executive, which was the world's first slim-line calculator, and the ZX-81 and Spectrum computers, which pioneered the transition of the personal computer from the lab and office to the home.
On the other hand, he also marketed a brilliant yet flawed micro-television that relied on a proprietary battery, which killed sales. Then there was the digital watch that fell apart when you put it on, had a battery that lasted only ten days, and would short out if it got near a nylon shirt.
But Sir Clive's most famous failure was the C5 – a one-person electric vehicle that he thought would be the biggest leap in personal transportation since the Ford Model T. Introduced with great fanfare in January 1985, it was a recumbent tricycle in a plastic casing that used a 0.34 bhp electric motor run by a 12V lead-acid battery to give the driver a break from pedaling. Its top speed was 10 to 15 mph (16 to 24 km/h).
The C5 certainly drew a lot of attention, but only a few thousand were actually sold. The little vehicle was street legal, but it was also tricky to operate, the batteries didn't provide much range, the first motors were so poor that they were rumored to come from a vacuum cleaner, and it was completely open to the weather.
But the biggest problem was its size. It may have been compact and easy to store, but I can state from personal experience that it was terrifying to drive in traffic – it rode so low that it was practically invisible to car drivers, despite its little red flag, and so slow that it was next to impossible to keep out of anyone's way.
In the end, the public stayed away in droves, production ceased after only eight months, and Sinclair Vehicles went into liquidation.
That was in 1985, but in 2017 Sir Clive's nephew Grant Sinclair, who used to work in the family business, has created a new version of the C5 and is marketing it through his company, Grant Sinclair Design. In an interview with the BBC, Grant said that his Iris eTrike has a much better chance of succeeding today because of the infrastructure of bike trails and lanes that didn't exist 30 years ago, and because people are much more used to electric bikes.
The Iris eTrike certainly looks different from the C5. It's larger, faster, and it's enclosed in a hinged plastic canopy made of aviation acrylic. Grant says that this not only allows riders to continue to use the vehicle in wet weather, but it also acts as protection against muggers who sometimes lurk around bike trails.
The Iris eTrike is essentially an electric hybrid recumbent tricycle with a chromoly steel trike chassis set inside a monocoque Quantum Foam EPP body. Grant said that the trike design was chosen for more stability and user friendliness. It's also intended to make the rider feel more secure by sitting them more upright and higher than other recumbents to provide more visibility, safety, and comfort. Unlike the C5, which felt like riding in a roller skate, the Iris eTrike stands chest high, so it's easier for drivers to see. In all, the Iris weighs 55 kg (121 lb) including battery and charger.
Grant says that the body is based on aerodynamic helmets used for velodrome bike racing and helps give the Iris eTrike a top speed of 30 mph (48 km/h). The upright bucket seat is molded into the body and to keep the rider cool there are built-in air vents with charcoal air filters. Since it's intended to be used on the road, it also has LED headlamps, turn indicators, and brake lights.
The Iris eTrike can be pedaled through its eight-speed race bike gearing, or the rider can switch to electric mode and let the 750+ Watt mid-drive motor take over. Powering this is a 48 V lithium-ion battery that provides a range of 80 km (50 mi) and takes about an hour to recharge. Grant says that the Iris has "go-kart like handling" thanks to the twist-grip handlebar throttles and the twin hydraulic disc brakes.
Inside the Iris eTrike there are other very non-'80s features, including a backlit LCD display showing speed, distance, battery charge, power mode, and a universal smartphone dock for listening to music or linking into the Iris' built-in rear view camera. There's even a lockable rear compartment that can carry up to 50 l (1.77 ft3). Since the Iris is marketed to businesses as well as consumers, there are bespoke body skins available for company fleet purchases.
The Iris eTrike Extreme is available for £3,499 (US$4,361), and there's also a 250+ watt Eco version priced at £2,999 ($3,738). Delivery is slated for the last quarter of 2017.
The video below provides a tour of the Iris eTrike's features.