Motoring Memories: Studebaker Scotsman, 1957 1958 motoring memories
1957 Studebaker Scotsman. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Although Studebaker had a long and respected reputation in the automobile business, by the late 1950s the onslaught of competition from the Big Three (General Motors, Ford, Chrysler), and American Motors (formed out of Nash and Hudson in 1954) was taking its toll on sales. It had joined with Packard to become the Studebaker Packard Corporation in 1954, but the Packard’s prestige had run out and it would disappear in 1958.

Studebaker had to do something to rejuvenate sales, so for 1957 it decided to offer a stripped down, bare-bones model that it hoped would steal market share away from the lowest priced models offered by the Big Three, and AMC’s popular Rambler. It also had its eye on the rising import penetration led by a funny looking little beetle-shaped car from Germany.

Although AMC was planning to bring back its small, 100-inch (2,540 mm) wheelbase Rambler in 1958, renamed the American, it was still a period of big cars, towering fins and lavish chrome. Garish three-tone paint jobs were common, bumpers were massive and grilles were studies in glittery flamboyance.

Sometimes cars seem to be just out of sync with their times, and this Studebaker seemed at odds with that gaudy era. It wasn’t the first time there had been a disconnect: huge multi-cylindered 1930s Cadillac V12s and V16s, Packard V12s, and mighty Duesenbergs for example, were all wrong for the Depression. And in the oil crisis ravaged 1970s, gargantuan Cadillac Eldorados and Lincoln Continentals were definitely at odds with rising fuel economy and emissions concerns.

And so it seemed was the Studebaker Scotsman in the flashy, fin-fad fifties. But desperate companies will do what seem to be desperate things, and the Scotsman was one of them. Even its name was meant to evoke visions of a thrifty Scottish mentality.

The Scotsman was introduced in May 1957, mid-way through the model year. It was based on the Champion model and came as a two- or four-door sedan or two-door station wagon. To create the Scotsman, Studebaker stripped the Champion so bare it evoked memories of the 1942 war-time “black-out” cars built just before the industry shut down for the Second World War. But the $1,776 sticker on the two-door did allow Studebaker to advertise it as “America’s lowest priced car.”

To save money Studebaker painted the grille and hubcaps rather than chrome plating them, although a buyer could pay extra to have chromed hubcaps. The bumpers were normally chromed but a very frugal customer could save more money by having them painted too.

In keeping with its thrifty demeanour, Studebaker offered few options on the Scotsman. A basic heater, not the “Climatizer” fresh air type available in other models, was standard, but electric windshield wipers were extra (vacuum was standard). Inside, armrests and a passenger side sun visor were extra, and the parsimonious buyers had to suffer their economy quietly because a radio was not even available. The Scotsman was indeed, as Studebaker advertised, “devoid of costly gadgetry,” right down to an automatic choke.

Driver and passengers were always reminded of the Scotsman’s starkness. They rode on basic grey vinyl seats surrounded by a painted cardboard interior and rested their feet on rubber mats. The rear side windows did not go down.

Underneath, the Scotsman was pure Champion, which meant independent suspension with coil springs in front and a solid axle at the rear with a 2,959 mm (116.5) in.) wheelbase. A 3.0-litre (185.6 cu in.) side-valve, inline six that traced its heritage back to the original 1939 Champion, sent its 101 horsepower to the rear wheels through a three-speed, column shifted manual transmission. No automatic was available.

In spite of Mechanix Illustrated’s witty Tom McCahill saying the Scotsman “went over like girlie pictures in a nudist camp,” Studebaker sold a surprising 9,000 of them in its first short model year, more than twice as many as the company expected. Apparently the impending recession put a lot of motorists in the mood for a back-to-basics, no-frills car.

Studebaker took the Scotsman into 1958 with minor changes. While the Champion got the quad headlamps and tailfins that were in vogue at that time the Scotsman carried on without them.

The Scotsman was offered through the 1958 model year and then, in spite of a good showing of almost 21,000 sales, it was discontinued in favour of the new 1959 Lark model. Like the Scotsman, the Lark was fashioned out of the Champion, which it replaced.

By cutting the Champion’s wheelbase by 203 mm (8.0 in.) and its length by 696 mm (27.4 in.), Studebaker created the Lark compact. By reducing the stroke 9.5 mm (3/8 in.) the engine was reduced from 3.0 litres to 2.8 (169.6 cu in.) for better fuel economy. Horsepower also dropped from 101 to 90.

The Lark was an instant success, selling more than 130,000 1959 models, and the forlorn Scotsman was soon forgotten. But it had helped Studebaker over a rough patch, and while the ugly duckling didn’t exactly turn into a swan, it did post some unexpectedly good sales numbers.

Connect with Autos.ca