Sir Clive Sinclair

London Hotel Magazine – 03-1985

Christopher Long calculates how Sir Clive built an empire out of computerised 'toys'...

By Christopher Long

See Print Journalism Index

See Main Index

It's very tempting to describe Sir Clive Sinclair as a staggeringly successful toy manufacturer.

He is, after all, the man who gave executives and students the pocket calculator. He's the man who introduced us to home computers. He's the man who almost bankrupted himself to bring us a 2-inch flat-screen pocket-size television.

He's also the man who's about to sell the British a wrist-watch radio and he's the man who earlier this year introduced the revolutionary and highly controversial 'C5' battery-powered urban beach buggy – the first in a range of 'alternative transport'.

Sir Clive would hate to be described as a toy manufacturer and he would be quite right. He may indeed have built a personal and corporate empire worth over £130 million out of such 'toys', but what he has really done is to turn our fantasies into realities at the extreme forefront of advanced technology.

Even more important, he has used one of Britain's oldest successful business techniques to show the world the way into the 21st Century.

The trick is quite simple: he has done what Lord Nuffield did with the Morris motor car and what Josiah Wedgewood did with his china – he has offered the great mass of people the opportunity to buy the best at prices they can afford.

You start by assuming that everyone is entitled to products that incorporate the most advanced technology, design, styling and performance and you then somehow solve the problem of fitting all those requirements into a product that can be priced and marketed within the reach of the common man.

If this means you have to completely re-think how to run a business, how to organise a production technique, or how to get low-priced volume sales to the customer, then that's what you have to do – if you're a Nuffield, a Wedgewood or Sinclair.

Sir Clive Sinclair at 44 is already a national 'guru' and the brains behind an ideas empire worth over £130 million. Sinclair believes in small creative groups (only about 50 directly employed at the Sinclair Research Laboratories in Cambridge and only about 25 at the Vehicles plant in Birmingham). Production, distribution and after-sales service is farmed out – leaving the creative caucus free to develop the next new idea.

So it's hardly surprising that his friends, colleagues, competitors and the country-at-large have dubbed him 'Uncle Clive'. He gives us the little treats we yearn for but he can never resist giving us an avuncular homily at the same time, pointing out our errors, getting us to question our assumptions and harnessing his massive IQ of about 154 to pose solutions to problems that we humbler mortals don't even know we yet face.

Sinclair's revolutionary and controversial 'C5' – "My business is consumer products that are basically electrical, and the electric car falls into that category. I don't see any greater difference between computers and cars than between computers and hi-fi."
With a range of 50 miles on one lead battery, the C5 can cover 1,000 miles for the price of a gallon of petrol. At £399 it is just the first in Sinclair's proposed 'family' of electric vehicles.

In fact, one suspects that Sinclair would prefer to remembered as the man who changed the way we do things, think about things, make things and sell things, rather than as the great entrepreneur he undoubtedly is.

He wouldn't like either charge but I suspect he would resent being considered a national 'guru' rather less than being considered a wizard of high-tec toy design.

Sinclair's success is something of an enigma:

"I suppose my own example was my father, although I was only a child when he had his business. At school I got interested in mathematics and that led on to electronics. I arrived in the field just at the time that semi-conductors became available to individuals. It was an exciting and very stimulating time."

He left school at 17 and decided against a college education in electronics (because he thought research was way ahead of what was being taught) and became a technical journalist for four years.

"I knew I wanted to start a business and the first thing was to find out how. Journalism got me about, gave me freedom and the opportunity to learn at someone else's expense," he says.

At the same time he started a small mail-order business selling electronic components and hi-fi kits from his bed-sitting room in Islington – until the day his land-lady found out. His small business boomed.

A quantum leap – The Sinclair QL. "We depend on people who have a great tolerance for new ideas: the sort of person who, if you put it down in front of them, would want to play with it straight away." In fact Sinclair's long-awaited QL launch was a fiasco because it was five months before the £399 personal computer was available to meet the demand.

"Around 1960 my idea was to get into making pocket radios because they were just beginning to be possible: the first ones were being made in the States and Japan but weren't being imported. I designed one and found backing to produce it. I left my job but then the backers changed their minds."

This was a lucky stroke in retrospect because in 1962 Sinclair went ahead anyway, discovering that product launching by mail-order was more competitive and produced easier cash-flow. It's a marketing device he has used ever since.

Five years later, in 1967, Sinclair moved to a redundant mill house in Cambridgeshire – birthplace of the world-famous, world-first, pocket calculator.

"I'm not interested in business just for the sake of making a product, any product," he says. "The only point is to make something people like and want and which is therefore successful."

That's just what the pocket calculator was, but his success led him into a flirtation with digital watches – a flop from which he was only rescued by an injection of government cash which allowed him to develop instead a 2-inch pocket television which again almost ruined Sinclair Research.

"I'm convinced there are enough new products waiting to be put on the market to last me the rest of my business life. I can see a whole range of ideas that I want to do and they're always swimming round in my head."

Sony produced their version for more than £200 but Sir Clive's had sold well at below £100 and despite some doubts about its reliability.

But the real break-through came in February 1980 when he launched the Sinclair ZX80 – a home computer costing £99.95 (9 ins x 7 ins x 2 ins). which opened the flood-gates to the home computer boom. They sold 100,000 in no time.

A year later in 1981 Sinclair introduced the ZX81 which sold 500,000 in the first year at under £50 each, picking up a Design Council award for the product and a Young Businessman of the Year award for its inventor.

1982 saw the arrival of the ZX Spectrum at £125 – a more powerful tool aimed at the microcomputer market. Again sales boomed and again exports accounted for 60-70 per cent of sales and paved the way for the larger, vastly more powerful quantum leap, the Sinclair QL microprocessor.

Unfortunately its long awaited launch in 1983 suffered a characteristic Sinclair flaw – demand was under-estimated and it took four months to get production and delivery sorted out. However, his knighthood in January 1983 must have been a comfort.

This year has seen the launch of his famous and highly controversial C5 – a battery-powered, three-wheeled, single-seater runabout car. At £399 and with a range of 50 miles between recharges, it promises 1,000 miles for the cost of a gallon of petrol.

"I've been toying with this idea of doing an electric vehicle for about 12 years," he says. "two or three years ago there was enough innovation in all kinds of fields and now we've designed a car completely from scratch. Other people's problem solving made our project possible."

The way he has achieved the C5 creation illustrates his whole vision of the future.

"I believe the next 15 years will be among the most momentous in our economic history – a major turning point. The 1990s will differ from the 1970s as profoundly as the 19th century from the 18th.

"We shall have jobs, virtually all of us, and this will generally be more interesting and satisfying. Many of these jobs don't exist yet and can only be guessed at. By the 1990s trade unions will have withered, their purpose complete. Less than 10 per cent of people will be in manufacturing and no-one working in a group of more than a few hundred. But we do not need a manufacturing industry to be wealthy."

Instead, he says, Britain will do what she does best: creating new product ideas and then exporting the production to the Third World as soon as they're established where they can be made more cheaply, leaving us to think of the next idea.

"By the 1990s we must turn from products of the material to products of the mind – books, video tapes, TV programmes, computer programmes, design services and consultancies of all sorts.

[In 1985 the Internet was still about eight years away. Sir Clive might well have been anticipating its arrival, although without having any idea that his home computers were the vehicles that would make this possible!]

"Where others produce we can design. Like farming, which once employed 60 per cent of all labour, we are now vastly more efficient with only two per cent on the land."

And so, he predicts, we will see individual wealth to rival a Roman emperor's: "If war can be avoided, we will have the most golden age man has ever known".

But while he foresees all this (and cars travelling perfectly safely at 200 mph) his own lifestyle is far more prosaic. Fame and fortune have, if anything, made him shyer and more retiring in public.

His London office is almost spartan; his money is a means to an end; he indulges himself with a Porsche (recently given to a girl-friend!) and his three children from a 22 year-old marriage that ended in divorce this year.

He runs several miles each morning – to give himself time to think, he says, and describes himself as basically a lazy man who, rather than working 12 hours a day, prefers poetry, the theatre and studying mathematics and economics. He is a trustee of the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra and, curiously, chairman of British Mensa.

And, most comforting of all, he doesn't even play with his own computers very much, preferring a slide-rule. As a mutual friend of ours has said, he's just a very simple man with enormous intelligence, extraordinary vision and he's a natural entrepreneur who is desperate to make his mark on the world.

Like Nuffield. Like Wedgewood. And ordinary enough that, on the day his visionary car of the future was launched this year, his London home was flooded by a simple failure of good, old-fashioned, low-tech British plumbing.

© (1985) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated. No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.

Christopher Long

Home Career Press Print Radio TV & Film 3rd Party Trivia Projects Personal Etcetera Sound Images Index