In the mid-to-late '50s, an engineering company in Cambridge, England, built some of the fastest road-racing cars in the world and sold them in kit form to anyone who wanted to win. And win they did, taking home trophies across the European continent and spreading their victorious ways to America, where they were a dominant force in big-bore events for the next decade. Much of the company's success was due to two men: one a young engineer who played mean jazz drums, the other an unlikely racing driver with only one good hand and a pair of deformed feet. Their future would be both glorious and tragic.
Brian Lister was following in his family's footsteps, being groomed for management in George Lister and Sons Ltd., an engineering firm that specialized in ornamental ironworks (like gates and fencing). It was a successful business, but Brian's interest was directed elsewhere. In addition to being a professional-level drummer, he had discovered racing cars and wanted to build one of his own.
His first effort was the Asteroid, a special built on a Tojiero chassis with a JAP motorcycle engine. It was quick but temperamental, and Brian discovered he was no great shakes as a driver. In 1953 he met a diminutive Scotsman who could ably manage that part of the package.
Archie Scott Brown was born in 1927, a year after Lister. His mother had contracted Rubella while carrying him, and Archie was born with only a stub of a right arm, capped by a thumb and palm that started below the elbow. His legs were both short and deformed, with no shinbones, and tiny clubfeet pointed to the side and backwards. Despite these setbacks, Archie grew up as normal as could be expected and, due to his charming personality and handsome face, became quite a hit with the ladies. He also had an astounding sense of balance, which led to his winning college contests to see who could balance the longest on a stationary bicycle. When he discovered racing cars he knew he had found his future. After performing well in his own MG, he was offered the opportunity to drive the Asteroid for the 1953 racing season.
The Lister/Scott Brown association immediately gelled in small, club-level events. But they both knew the Asteroid had limited potential, and Lister convinced his father to front him 1,500 to develop a Lister racing car that could be used to promote the company's engineering abilities and to sell copies of it for profit. A decision was made to sell them only in kit form to limit the liability to the Lister parent company if something should go wrong on the track. The reasoning went that if they didn't build the car, it would be hard to say they were at fault. Plus, kit cars were not required to pay the stiff purchase tax levied on complete cars.
The first proper Lister was introduced in 1954. It had an advanced (for the day) ladder frame with equal-length front wishbones and coilover shocks, while at the rear a DeDion setup worked with a Salisbury final drive unit. Brakes were Girling drums all around, and power was from a modified MG TD mill. The aluminum body was simple but handsome, and the combination proved competitive right out of the box. Soon Lister upgraded to Bristol six-cylinder engines (the same powerplant later used in the AC Ace-Bristol) and the first customer cars began to show up at the circuits. By this time the drum brakes had been replaced by Girling discs.
Archie and the Lister-Bristol were a match made in heaven, and immediately they became the scourge of the 2L class in Britain. In 1956 Lister inserted a Maserati 1500cc engine into their old Lister-MG chassis, but the Italian six-banger proved to be underpowered and temperamental.
THE IMMORTAL LISTER-JAGUAR
Normal Hillwood was a London diamond merchant who ordered a bare Lister chassis in 1956, then added a new Jaguar engine and gearbox. Lister reluctantly put the parts together for Hillwood and the first Lister-Jaguar proved, much to their surprise, to be a workable combination. The timing was perfect, as the Jaguar factory racing team announced they were quitting and their sponsor, British Petroleum, offered to bankroll the Lister team if they would use Jaguar engines. (Arch-rival Esso Petroleum supported the Aston-Martin team.)
The factory Lister-Jaguars followed the same basic layout as the Lister-Bristols, but were beefed up to take the increased weight and power of the Jaguar D-Type mill. The aluminum body was an austere, blocky shape resembling a doorstop with four bumps over the wheels. It was nicknamed the "flatiron" body.
Archie didn't waste any time coming to grips with his new steed. In his second race he beat the Aston-Martin factory team by 10 seconds! Archie was a sight to see, drifting the big Lister sideways into corners to save the brakes. His sense of balance was uncanny; just when it was apparent he couldn't possibly regain control of the lurid-sliding Lister, he would gather it all back in and go thundering down the next straight! Among the drivers he defeated in like equipment were Stirling Moss, Roy Salvodori, and Ron Flockhart. Lap records piled up at tracks across England, and by 1957 he was the driver to beat!
The next year, Lister introduced an improved model with a new body that was quite attractive despite having numerous bumps and blisters to cover the wheels and running gear. It was nicknamed the "knobbly" body, named so from a British expression for "covered with bumps." Customer orders continued to pile in, and a number were sent to America for the team owned by millionaire Briggs Cunningham. Cunningham's lead driver was Walt Hansgen, and he had been winning everything in sight in 1957 driving a white Jaguar D-Type. In the Lister, he picked up right where he had left off, sweeping past all before him.
TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY
Another American customer was a tall Texan named Jim Hall (later of Chaparral fame), who ordered a rolling chassis through the sports car dealership he shared with Carroll Shelby. Instead of the Jaguar engine, they fitted a Chevy 283 with a Latham super-charger. It was not a complete success (due to the belt popping off the blower), but soon other Yanks were happily slipping Chevys between the Listers' framerails. Although quick, the Chevy V-8 was then in its developmental infancy and less reliable than the proven Jag six, so the Lister-Jag had a better race record than the Stovebolt version. Back in the U.K., Archie was still wiping up the competition. But the 1958 season was to end sadly when Archie was killed at the treacherous Spa circuit in Belgium. His Lister slid wide into a concrete post commemorating the death of British Grand Prix ace Richard Seaman at the same corner in 1939. The Lister rolled into a ball and its experimental magnesium body burst into flames. The valiant Archie died the next day from his burns.
Restorer John Harden, racing...
Restorer John Harden, racing a Lister at the recent Monterey Historic Races at Laguna Seca, CA, pushes this Lister- Chevy hard. Muscle is from a 5.5L bored and stroked 283.
Pretending he's a world-famous...
Pretending he's a world-famous race car driver, author Harold Pace not only poses with the last knobbly Lister-Jaguar made, he also got to drive the machine around the track.
The Lister-Jaguar looks great...
The Lister-Jaguar looks great from any angle. This car wears its original 16-inch Dunlop alloy wheels with knock-offs.
By 1958 Jaguar racing engines...
By 1958 Jaguar racing engines were either 3.0L for FIA events or 3.8L for sprint races in Europe and America. This one is a 3.8 with triple Webers and should put out around 300 hp.
The aluminum-paneled cockpit...
The aluminum-paneled cockpit is short and narrow. No-nonsense is the operative expression!
Two Lister-Chevys (numbers...
Two Lister-Chevys (numbers 58 and 2) and Lister-Jaguar (number 62) dice it out in the Monterey Historic races through the famed "corkscrew" portion of the track.
A knobbly-bodied Lister-Chevy...
A knobbly-bodied Lister-Chevy leads a Devin SS at Laguna Seca. The Devin used a chassis and suspension based on the Lister design.
The Lister-Maserati used a...
The Lister-Maserati used a long-nose version of the "flatiron" body, but the Maserati six motor sounded better than it ran.
The Lister-Chevy had a taller...
The Lister-Chevy had a taller hood line than the Jaguar version. Note the vents cut in the sides to cool the monster mill.
The Costin body is cleaner...
The Costin body is cleaner but no more exciting than the knobbly. Manifold magnate Vic Edelbrock Jr. races this potent Costin Lister-Chevy.
This Costin-bodied Lister-Jaguar...
This Costin-bodied Lister-Jaguar is painted in American colors (white and blue), as is the Devin that follows.
The Lister is among the royalty...
The Lister is among the royalty in racing history.
Although the Lister team considered giving up, they knew this was not the decision Archie would have wanted. For the 1959 season they came out with what they hoped would be an improved model, with a super-slick long-nose body designed by famed aerodynamicist Frank Costin.
It looked great, but it was heavier than the old knobbly version, and the Lister chassis was getting long in the tooth compared to the mid-engine cars that were starting to show up. Cunningham bought several Costin-bodied cars for his team, but they proved no faster than his old knobblies. Still, the team racked up enough points to win their SCCA Class Championship for 1959.
Lister withdrew from racing at the end of the 1959 season. Their cars were now entering obsolescence, although privateers would continue to win amateur events through the early '60s. Total Lister production was around 56 cars, the vast majority sold in kit form. In 1964 Lister built three fastback Sunbeam Tigers with Cobra engines that ran at LeMans. More recently, Lawrence Pearson licensed the use of the Lister name for the Lister Storm, a Jaguar-powered coupe that has been very successful in European GT racing.
A TURN AT THE WHEEL
As a side note, one of the best things about being an auto-motive journalist is having the opportunity to occasionally drive cars we've dreamt about, and a few years ago I jumped at the chance to wring out an original knobbly Lister-Jaguar at a private test track in Texas.
The cockpit was pretty cramped for my 6-foot frame, but once underway all was forgiven, as the full-race Jaguar D-Type engine sang a siren song through its triple side-draft Weber carbs. The four-speed Jaguar gearbox snicked from gear to gear and the handling was predictable and tossable.
The Lister, shod with narrow bias-ply Dunlop racing tires, is meant to be drifted with a looser style than modern racers with wide slicks. The big Girling aluminum-caliper disc brakes (same as on competition Cobras) really haul the big car down, but be prepared to work on your calf muscles before you run one for any length of time! The big steering wheel takes some getting used to, but the Morris Minor steering rack is quick and direct. How Archie mastered this beast with his limited physical facilities is incredible!
The Beck-Lister is a lovely...
The Beck-Lister is a lovely car that can be built authentically or customized (like this stroker Chevy-powered example). The windshield is borrowed from a Porsche Spyder kit.
Lister-Jags and -Chevys had a short retirement. After being put out to pasture in the late '60s, many came back with a vengeance in the late '70s when vintage racing stirred to life. They are still highly competitive, and collectors have pushed prices to the upper-six-figures for original cars. As with most collectible cars, there are also ones with questionable histories.
This combination of exclusivity and performance has led to several sets of replicas. In the '90s the company making the Lister Storms also built a short run of knobbly Lister-Jags for use in historic events. These were exact replicas and the chassis were built in the old Lister factory in Cambridge (overseen by Brian Lister) and are true continuation cars. Also in the '90s, the Lister name was licensed to a British company that sold custom body panels for Jaguar XJ sedans and the XJS. Lister North America in Oklahoma was a dealer for them, and later came out with its own design called the Lister-Corvette. It was a svelte, modern rebody kit for the C-4 Corvette, not a replica of the original. They were sold in kit and turnkey form, with body panels made by noted Porsche cloner Chuck Beck.
Beck also fell under the spell of the original Lister shape and later borrowed a knobbly example to model from for his own company. He stretched the wheelbase to give more driver room and fabricated a strong chassis that accepted Corvette suspension and running gear. Still in production, Beck-Listers have been steady sellers and have embarrassed Cobra replicas at many kit car track events (which seems only fair, considering the Lister's legacy).
Avanti Motors, based in Villa Rica, Georgia (just outside Atlanta), currently sells a 'glass-bodied Lister in three stages of completion for the home builder (from a $12,000 Stage I version to a Stage III that bases at $22,500). They find that, along with the car's unique styling and how easy it is on the pocketbook to build, many of their cus-tomers are Chevy fans who are not interested in the Ford/ Cobra scene. Avanti Motors can be found on the Web at www.avantimotors.com, or at (770) 456-0900. KC