Scotland’s forgotten car: the Scamp

The scamp was designed and built at Prestwick.
The scamp was designed and built at Prestwick.
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IT had a top speed of just 36 mph, could travel a maximum distance of only 18 miles on a full charge and looked like it had driven straight out of a Noddy cartoon.

But fifty years ago the Scamp, a car designed and built at Prestwick, was envisaged as the future of private car ownership; a revolutionary vehicle which, it was hoped, would make Scotland a world leader in the then nascent electric car market, long before US and Japanese motoring giants like GM and Nissan got in on the act.

It was clear the Scamp was never going to rival the Mini in the 1960s.

It was clear the Scamp was never going to rival the Mini in the 1960s.

The Scamp was a genuine oddity. For a start, it wasn’t even the product of a car manufacturer, but rather an aircraft firm - Scottish Aviation.

The company was founded in 1935 by businessman David McIntyre, who was born in Govan in 1905, and the Duke of Hamilton. The two men shared a passion for aviation, becoming the first pilots to fly over Mount Everest in 1933, and together they bought 350 acres of land in South Ayrshire, on which they built the Scottish Aviation factory and Prestwick Airport.

Initially the company specialised in aircraft repair work, being kept busy during the Second World War overhauling battle-weary Spitfires and Dakota transport planes. But after the war Scottish Aviation expanded into manufacturing, producing aircraft of its own design.

Their most successful model was the Twin Pioneer. Introduced in 1955, 87 of these popular light transport planes were produced for both civil and military operators, its rugged construction and ability to land and take-off on tiny, rough airstrips in the most inhospitable locations making it a favourite of the RAF, who employed it extensively in the jungles of Malaya and Borneo.

But in 1957 Scottish Aviation was robbed of its inspirational chairman when David McIntyre was tragically killed in an air crash in the Libyan desert. What was more, falling military orders as the government cut back on defence spending left the company facing an uncertain future.

The downturn in the aviation industry in the early 1960s forced the company to explore new commercial ventures. And so Scottish Aviation entered the car business.

All they needed now was a model - something unique. Something that offered motorists an alternative to what the automotive big boys had in their showrooms.

By the early 1960s the British government was becoming concerned that rapidly growing private car ownership would lead to serious urban traffic congestion and pollution in the years to come, and called upon the motor industry to come up with a solution.

Scottish Aviation responded to the government’s call, with the company’s assistant chief designer Dr W.G. Watson believing he could solve both problems - traffic congestion and pollution - in one vehicle: the electrically-powered microcar.

“What I wanted was a quiet, fumeless, highly manoeuvrable and easily parkable car - and something that would undercut the Mini by, say, £150,” he explained at the time.

With backing from the Central Electricity Governing Board, which planned to sell the car through its nationwide network of high street showrooms, in 1964 Dr Watson and his team set to work.

After toying with a variety of designs, including a three-wheeler reminiscent of the Reliant Robin - made famous by Del Boy Trotter in TV’s Only Fools & Horses - Watson settled on a more traditional four-wheeled arrangement, with two seats, a lightweight glassfibre body and four 48 volt batteries powering two electric motors.

The prototype was completed in 1965. With its bug-eyed appearance, boxy styling and odd proportions, the toy-like Scamp, as it had now been named, was unlikely to win any design awards.

But, measuring just two metres long by one metre wide, Watson had certainly achieved his aim of creating an easily parkable microcar.

And some of the motoring journalists who test drove one of the twelve pre-production models Scottish Aviation produced at its Prestwick facility were modestly impressed by the highly manoeuvrable little Scamp.

“I found it extraordinarily easy to handle,” wrote a Press Association correspondent. He also praised the car’s good acceleration, ‘excellent all-round visibility’ and, despite its diminutive size, felt there was ‘plenty of room for two adults’.

But its Achilles heel was the feeble top speed of 36 mph and chronically short endurance of the batteries, which gave the Scamp a maximum range of a measly 18 miles before requiring a recharge.

Nevertheless, in 1966 Scottish Aviation announced plans to commence full production the following year. But first the Scamp had to pass a road worthiness test conducted by the Motor Industry Research Association.

Unfortunately, the roadtest was nothing short of a disaster, revealing major problems with the Scamp, including unreliable electric motors, a suspension system that was prone to collapse and a boot door which at one point, according to the tester, “flew open and the spare wheel fell out”.

Already having serious doubts about the Scamp’s commercial viability, the tester’s damning verdict was enough to convince the Electricity Board to pull out of the troubled project.

Their withdrawal was a blow, but Scottish Aviation weren’t ready to give up on their microcar just yet. In an attempt to raise the Scamp’s profile and change negative public attitudes towards electric cars, they brought in racing legend Stirling Moss to promote the vehicle.

But no amount of celebrity endorsements could disguise the car’s fundamental flaws. It was clear that the Scamp was never going to challenge the Mini’s dominance of the small car market in the 1960s.

Dr Watson believed that “zinc air” batteries, which were lighter than conventional batteries and could hold a longer charge, increasing the range three-fold, held out the promise of turning the Scamp into a practical mode of everyday transport.

However, the batteries were still under development and it would be some years before they were ready. Even then, their cost would make the Scamp prohibitively expensive in comparison to its petrol-powered rivals like the Mini and Fiat 500.

By the time the Scamp was displayed to the public for the first time, at the Ideal Home Exhibition in February 1967, Scottish Aviation had already decided to pull the plug on the project.

With their attempt to break into the motor industry a failure, they turned their attention back to the aviation side of the business, until finally being swallowed up by the State-owned behemoth British Aerospace in 1977, thus bringing the era of independent Scottish aircraft manufacturing to an end.

Of the thirteen Scamps built, only four are believed to survive - three are owned by museums, while a single example is in private hands.

But though ultimately a flop, the Scottish Aviation Scamp did point the way for the future. After many false dawns, it seems the electric car’s time has now finally come. Virtually every major car company now has an electric vehicle in its model line-up, and they’ve become the transport of choice for Hollywood stars keen to display their eco-friendly credentials, like George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio.

In the UK, sales of electric and hybrid vehicles are currently running at around 10,000 per month, and rising fast.

Had things worked out a little differently with the deeply flawed but undeniably ground-breaking Scamp fifty years ago, today Scotland might - just might - be a serious player in the burgeoning electric car sector.

Perhaps, though, Scotland’s unloved little Scamp was just a little too far ahead of its time.