SAL Scamp

Prestwick’s electric car

David Milloy

In the 1960s, Scottish Aviation Limited, an aircraft manufacturer based at Prestwick, set up a New Products Development Department (usually just referred to as ‘The Projects Department’) to explore other manufacturing areas into which SAL might diversify, with the caveat that any such endeavour should ideally make use of the rich and varied skills of its existing workforce.

Headed by engineer Gordon Watson, the Projects Department looked at a number of possible options, the most significant of which was a small electric car. It came about as the result of two pieces of observation: the first being of the battery-powered tugs used to tow baggage to and from aircraft at Prestwick Airport, and the second being the sight of commuters being picked up from the railway station by their partners.

From this came a proposal for a small electric car which, using existing battery technology, could be used for short-range journeys, such as commuting from home to the local railway station, and be charged at home overnight using its owner’s domestic electricity supply. The specifications drawn up for the car went on to add that it should have a range of at least 25 miles, accommodate two adults, be able to keep up with urban traffic, and be both small and highly manoeuvrable. Moreover, as it was intended to be a family’s second car, it should be cheap to buy and run.

There seemed little question that SAL’s skilled engineers could build such a car but selling it to the public was quite another matter, as unlike established car manufacturers SAL did not have a network of dealers through which to sell the car and provide aftersales service to purchasers. As it turned out, however, the Electricity Council was interested in the project and, through the national chain of Electricity Board showrooms, was able to offer SAL a ready-made dealership network.

Spurred on by this development, the SAL board authorised the construction of a running proof of concept vehicle. It was built by a team headed by Gordon Watson and was initially constructed without bodywork. It used two 24 volt electric motors mated to four 12 volt lead-acid batteries. Each of the two motors drove one of the rear wheels using a chain. There was no transmission in the conventional sense – just one forward and one reverse ‘gear’, which meant that the vehicle could reach the same speed going backwards as it could achieve going forwards!

Bodywork was duly fitted to the vehicle, which was little more than two metres in length. It had a range of 26 miles, was able to achieve a top speed of 30 miles per hour and had a turning circle of 16 feet. It was fitted out with lights, a windscreen and wiper, and its interior was trimmed in-house. And then it was licensed and taken onto the roads for further testing. One wonders quite what the people of Ayr and Prestwick made of this strange, silent little car as it zipped past.

The car was shown to the Electricity Council and driven by its chairman. Enthusiastic about the project’s possibilities, he ordered a dozen vehicles from SAL so that staff from the Electricity Council and the various Electricity Boards could get hands-on experience of the car, now known as the Scamp. Although very closely based on the proof of concept vehicle tested by SAL, the Scamps supplied to the Electricity Council featured glassfibre bodies and marine ply chassis, as also used by the likes of the Marcos sports car.

One of the twelve Scamps appeared in an episode of the BBC TV programme Tomorrow’s World in 1966. But although it attracted praise from Raymond Baxter, the programme’s main presenter, the reality was that much work needed to be done before the Scamp could be regarded as being fit for production. The suspension, in particular, was unsatisfactory, being apt to induce an unpleasant pitching motion on anything other than perfect road surfaces.

Although the Scamp was still very much a prototype vehicle, the Electricity Council submitted it to the Motor Industry Research Association’s facility for testing. And much to the surprise of SAL, they were to have no input into the test programme and would not be permitted to observe the tests.

The result of the tests, carried out in 1967 and 1968, was little short of disastrous, with the Scamp’s suspension faring particularly badly. No opportunity was afforded to SAL to address the problems identified by MIRA and make the necessary modifications to the Scamp. Instead, the Electricity Council stated that the Scamp was not fit for purpose and that, accordingly, it now sought to annul its agreement with SAL.

The Scamp project team at SAL strongly believed that its issues were surmountable; after all, the vehicle tested was far from being a production ready example. However, the loss of its proposed retail network resulted in the cancellation of the project.

Only thirteen Scamps were ever built, including the original, metal-bodied proof of concept vehicle. It’s understood that five still survive to this day, one of which is on public display at Lomond Galleries in Alexandria. That being so, I just had to head up to Alexandria and check out the Scamp for myself.
So what’s the Scamp like in the, er, fibreglass?

Well, for starters it’s very short and tall, and of necessity its windscreen is very sharply raked. Add in bug-eye style headlamps mounted inboard and wheels that look only a little bigger than those fitted to a wheelbarrow, and the overall impression of the Scamp is that it looks like something that Noddy might drive. But like Noddy’s car, the Scamp’s friendly looks would undoubtedly draw smiles rather than scowls from pedestrians and other road users.

Opening the passenger door reveals a bench seat for the driver and passenger to share, just the two pedals (brake and accelerator), two dials (a speedometer and a battery charge indicator), a small number of switches, and a vertically mounted selector for forward, neutral and reverse. It has everything that’s needed to fulfil its intended function and nothing that’s superfluous – modern day car manufacturers could learn a thing or two from it.

The Scamp was a clever idea that deserved to get the development it needed to go into production. But would it have found enough buyers to make it a success if the Electricity Council hadn’t withdrawn its support? I believe that it would, provided of course that its price was kept low enough to make it an affordable second car. On its own, it wouldn’t have revolutionised urban transport but if it had sold well then other, larger car manufacturers would probably have entered the market, and who can say where that might have led?

File it under ‘missed opportunities’.

[Ayrshire Magazine thanks Lomond Galleries for permitting us to photograph their Scamp.]