With the re-release of the iconic Sinclair C5 set for later this year, the designer of the original vehicle, Tony Wood Rogers speaks to Fran McElhone
Inventor Tony Wood Rogers is best known for designing and engineering the iconic 1980s enclosed electric pedal trike, the Sinclair C5, which, despite being a massive flop, gained global cult status. But he doesn’t want to be.
“I want to be known for my piano invention,” he tells me from his home in Woodbury, before playing me a few bars of his favourite chorale on his treasured former Royal Festival Hall grand piano.
Afterwards, I follow Tony as he darts over to where his latest designs are for a contemporary and striking “wing piano” which he hopes will make it to production soon. He explains that whereas the strings of a piano are overstrung, meaning that however good the instrument, the intonation could potentially be adversely affected, Tony’s invention is a parallel strung version, shaped like a wing.
“I always wanted to be a concert pianist,” he continues enthusiastically. “I’d really like to be known as a musician, the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do with my life is play the piano.”
But instead of pursuing professional musicianship, Tony embarked on an engineering degree (“running away” to play the piano part way through, before returning begrudgingly to complete the course when he was caught out by his father).
So, for now, it’s the C5 and its infamous commercial failure but affable legacy, that the 69-year-old’s best known for. Except, I find that he sort of isn’t: search Sinclair C5 on the internet and virtually all references posit Sir Clive Sinclair, the company owner and vehicle namesake, as the designer.
But what really happened, is that in the late 70s, just after Tony had founded the Exeter Academy Language School, Sinclair enlisted Tony to investigate the feasibility of an enclosed single seated electric three-wheeler with a maximum speed of 30mph, in other words, a diminutive environmentally friendly vehicle for the urban environment (which later became known as the C1).
He did this, and more, designing and engineering several versions: the C1 (one seater, 30mph), C10 (two seater) and C15 (motorway vehicle) all predated the C5 (one seater, 15mph), which Tony test drove on the steep lanes on Exeter’s periphery. Tony also looked into battery-powered planes and magnetic levitation trains.
“The legalities about putting it on the road weren’t clear then,” he tells me. “So we didn’t worry about that at first.”
In February this year, it was announced that Sinclair’s nephew is set to release a revamped, streamlined version of the C5 called the Iris eTrike.
I want to know what the original designer thinks about this new version. He answers indirectly. “Would you want to be in such a small enclosed vehicle on today’s roads, with today’s traffic?” he asks. “The original idea was for a single seated, town car with a speed of around 30mph, this we called the C1, and which is precisely what Grant is proposing now, 37-years on,” he adds.
The C5 was regarded as pioneering in electric vehicle technology when Tony drew up the plans in 1983. But, widely regarded as being released prematurely, it failed to win over the commercial market.
But while it was a high profile commercial flop, it was a hit with individuals including Prince William and Prince Harry, who reportedly rode around the palace grounds on theirs, Elton John who had two, and three times Formula One winner Ayrton Senna who had who had a glossy black one “that looked the business”.
“We sold about 20,000 in a couple of months, despite the negative press; that’s wow!” says Tony convincingly. “But it was a marketing and strategic mistake,” he admits. “The components were rubbish, and the gear box was deleted before production, which would have made it go up hills: we should have taken more time to develop it first.
“It was the failure of the C5 which killed the programme which is a tragedy,” he continues. “It was my idea to do the C5 first, I can admit that. Clive was a genius, we’d have sped up electrical vehicle technology had things been different.
“But it refuses to die! It’s a wonderful accolade for the British who love a good failure!”
So Tony, who thus spent his life at the helm of his language school, recently completing his second Masters degree at Exeter University becoming an honorary research fellow, quite modestly named his memoir, which he wrote for his grandchildren, My Fantastic Failures.
And, so often absent from reports about the vehicles, he also wrote it to “set the record straight”. “Clive is an inventor and he invented lots of things, but he didn’t invent the C5!” he says with good humour. “I do feel like ringing up the editors. It annoys me. But I never wanted to be a designer or an engineer; I had to take the commission because I had an expensive divorce settlement going on at the time!”
He shows me his original handover document with the first ever sketch made of the C5, type written, with the odd blob of Tippex. “See, it’s dated January 1983, just so you know it really was me who came up with it!
“But anyway, I’d like to be known for my new piano, can you mention that?”
The original C5, conceived by inventor Sir Clive Sinclair and designed and engineered by Tony Wood Rogers, was first released in 1985.
The C5 was an enclosed one seated electric pedal tricycle with a maximum speed of 15mph with a price tag of £399.
It failed on the commercial market but was widely regarded as revolutionising electrical transport technology at the time.
A new streamlined version of the C5, which is road-legal and capable of reaching speeds of 30mph, akin to the original C1 version, has been unveiled by Sinclair’s nephew Grant and is set for release later this year with a price tag of £3,500.