The Other Cars of Brian Lister
"In the fifties," says Brian Lister, "you still had two distinct types of successful racing car designers. There were the designer / artists, such as John Cooper and myself, people with an engineering background who designed intuitively, and the designer / scientists such as Colin Chapman. I happen to have been involved in racing at the right time and when we had to make the decision to quit, in 1959, because our racing activities were becoming a drain on the parent company, I was able to do so without regret. It was clear that the days of the designer / artist were numbered and, besides, I had achieved far more than I ever thought possible."
If Brian Lister left racing at the right time then, equally, he entered it at the right time -- and with the right people. He doesn't express it in so many words, but it is clear, talking to him and walking around the factory of George Lister & Sons, that dealing with the right people, in the right way, is important to him. His workforce show him an affectionate respect and his pride in his men's craftsmanship is self-evident. We paused by a piece of heavy fabrication and he pointed out the skill of the welding and the care he had put into finishing the job. "This chap, Bob Gawthrop, was with us back in 1954, when we first started making cars, and he helped build them." When I asked if I might take a photograph of Brian Lister he insisted on gathering all the men still in the workshops who had worked on the first Lister cars, 30 years ago.
George Lister, Charles Flatters and Harry Branch established the engineering firm of Lister, Flatters and Branch in 1890. By 1919, Flatters and Branch had retired and George's sons, Alfred and Horace, joined the firm which was re-named "George Lister & Sons". Alfred died in 1929, and George a year later, leaving Horace in sole control. His sons, Raymond and Brian, eventually became directors and, on Horace's retirement in 1954, joint managing directors.
Originally the business was sited in Abbey Road, Cambridge but, in 1967, with council assistance, they moved to larger premises in nearby Cherry Hinton. "In our racing days, we rather upset some of our neighbours with engines being revved in the small hours and, like all racing teams, our hours were irregular. We had, anyway, outgrown Abbey Road and, I think, even though we had retired from racing by 1964, when we started to negotiate for new premises, the council were relieved we wanted to move. They still thought we might do to Cambridge what William Morris had done to Oxford."
The company currently has 50 employees, engaged in a wide range of light engineering, from wrought iron (for which it is internationally famous, though which is actually only a very small part of its work) to building and modifying the sort of machine which automatically wraps cheese and sliced meat for mass distribution. The nature of the company is important to the story of the cars, for the racing side was financed with the specific aim of promoting its name. That is why the cars were built to the highest levels of craftsmanship, why well-used chassis (such as the 1957 works Lister-Jaguar which Archie Scott-Brown drove to 12 wins and a second place from 14 starts) were sawn up rather than sold, and why, in 1958, when a steering fault occurred on the works car, Brian personally cabled all known owners to warn them -- a concern which was unusual 26 years ago.
Brian Lister was born in July 1926 and was interested in cars from a very early age, an interest stimulated by being given, when five, an aluminium pedal car "with a wooden steering wheel, like a Bugatti". He attended the Perse School in Cambridge at the same time as John Tojeiro though only came to know him well, as mutual customers and racing rivals, much later. He was not academically inclined and left school, aged 15, to learn his trade in his father's works. His interest in cars continued and his interest in motor racing was whetted through books, especially those written by Prince Chula. "One of the best compliments ever paid me was when 'Lofty' England told me, in 1958, that the Lister team's attitude to racing reminded him of his days with Prince Chula's White Mouse Stable." Brian also had a great love of jazz and was accomplished on the vibraphone and the drums, playing with some well-known musicians. There have been a remarkable number of musicians in motor racing for some reason.
In 1946, he began his National Service in the RAF and, while serving, began competing in driving tests with a Coventry Climax-engined Morgan 4/4. This was gradually modified and lightened in order to take part in sprints.
"Then I saw the first Cooper-MG, fell in love with it and ordered one for myself. It was used both as a competition car and on the road, with a hood and large windscreen. I decided I wanted to make a name for myself as a racing driver, sized up all the classes and had the engine linered-down to 1,100 cc because that was where I thought I could get most success -- not that I got very much. Eventually the engine blew up at Silverstone in 1950 and I sold it.
"Meanwhile, John Tojeiro had started making cars and he was able to study my Cooper at leisure, eventually producing a refinement of the design. He was buying parts from our company and it seemed natural to buy a car from him."
Lister ordered a car for the 1952 season and then set about installing a V-twin 1,100 cc JAP engine, mounted transversely and driving through a Jowett Jupiter gearbox. "The car was very light, we even had a canvas section in the rear bodywork to save weight and, so far as the engine was concerned, we hit the jackpot -- when it stayed in one piece. I'm afraid, however, it was really too fast for me. I realised I'd too much imagination to be a racing driver.
"Then one day I entered it in a local sprint and was beaten by Archie Scott-Brown in an MG TD. His car should never have beaten mine and I went up to him and asked if he'd like to drive the Tojeiro in future while I concentrated on preparation." It was the start of a wonderful partnership.
In 1952/3, when the Robin Jackson-prepared engine stayed together, Scott-Brown was virtually unbeatable and would regularly lap an entire field during a five-lap race. "There were even some people," Brian recalls, "who suggested that by going so well we were rather going against the spirit of the sport.
"By June, 1953, I'd come to the conclusion that we were promoting Tojeiro s name rather well but we might do better promoting our own. I went to my father with a proposal that I built a car to carry the name of our company and he agreed to let us have £1,500 and six months in order to produce something. If we failed to deliver before either the time or money ran out, we would forget it." The Tojeiro was sold to Peter Hughes, Technical Editor of Top Gear magazine who was later to go into partnership with Scott-Brown in a garage business in Cambridge, but who was killed in a road accident in 1956.
On December 20th, 1953, Scott-Brown drove the bare chassis on the Bourne (Cambs.) airfield. It was a successful test and, in fact, apart from a broken halfshaft during a later test at Snetterton, the car proved more or less troublefree.
The chassis was wide and strong, consisting of two main three-inch diameter tubes with three tubes, each of three inches diameter, acting as crossmembers. The width allowed the driver to sit between, not on, the main tubes which led to a lower centre of gravity and scuttle height. Front suspension was by coil springs and equal wishbones while a de Dion rear axle was used. Alfin drum brakes were mounted inboard at the rear, outboard at the front. This design, with relatively slight modification, was to be the basis for all Lister sports cars.
"I decided on a twin-tube chassis, rather than a space frame because it was something I knew about, it and the suspension could be built with the tools we had available, and it was easy for the customer to maintain. I was sure that many constructors who were building space frames at the time, were not calculating their loadings."
By the time the 1954 season began, the car had been fitted with a full-width aluminium body with two pointed shrouds over the mandatory headlights. They gave the body an aggressive appearance but Lister concedes that his aerodynamic tweak was probably useless.
Scott-Brown began the season in fine style, easily winning his class and a sports car handicap at Snetterton on April 3rd, and coming third in class at Wethersfield Sprint the following day. It quickly became clear, though, that the car was under-powered for it tended to finish second to the Lotuses of either Peter Gammon or Colin Chapman, and work began on a Bristol-engined version that April. The team, however, were sufficiently encouraged by the performance of the Lister-MG to enter it in the British Empire Trophy at Oulton Park. It was there they met their first set-back, Scott-Brown was not permitted to start and his competition licence was withdrawn.
Born in Paisley, Scotland, in 1927, Archie had had the misfortune to come into the world deformed. He had the trunk of a well built man but was barely five feet high and his right arm ended in just a thumb and part of a palm. He had adjusted to this perfectly and those who knew him remember that he was one of the nicest men possible to know, full of ebulliance and kindness. Brian says, "I think when Nature takes away, she also gives back. In Archie's case he had an incredible sense of balance, he always won the slow bicycle race at school, and he had the determination to prove himself. He had enough grip in his right hand to hold a steering wheel and I recall him once, backing the Tojeiro out of the garage, twirling the wheel so the spokes became a blur.
" That Archie's "handicap" had caused no previous problems, says a lot about both the carefree atmosphere of club racing at the time and also a lot about the driver, for people had clearly accepted him for what he was. Impartial authority, however, decided to suspend his licence.
While he had been practising at Oulton Park, his driving caught the eye of Earl Howe, who made a note of his name and who was greatly surprised to learn that he had been disqualified. Earl Howe immediately became an ally over the coming weeks as Archie, Brian, and others, campaigned for his reinstatement.
Ken Wharton took over the car at Oulton Park, where it retired with oil-cooling problems. Lister then looked for a replacement driver and, after testing several, chose Jack Sears whom Archie had recommended. Sears was yet another local man. It is extraordinary how, sometimes, a particular area or team will produce a number of talented individuals who go on to distinguished careers. Jack Sears was to become one of Britain's best sports and saloon car drivers and is currently the chairman of Silverstone Circuits Ltd.
Jack took a win and two seconds in races with the car, and a third in class at Prescott before relinquishing the drive to Archie whose licence was restored in June.
The Bristol-engined car was completed in time for the British Grand Prix meeting at Silverstone on July 17th. The second car was virtually identical to the prototype except it now had 142 bhp from the Don Moore-prepared engine. In the Unlimited Sports Car race, Archie finished fifth overall beaten only by works Aston Martins and C-type Jaguars, and won his class by miles. The team had arrived. Moreover the race was televised and, watching at home, Horace Lister was astonished by the number of times the commentators mentioned the name "Lister" -- there was nothing less than 100% support for the project thereafter.
For the rest of the year, the Lister-Bristol driven by Archie Scott-Brown was the only challenge in the two-litre class to Roy Salvadori driving Sid Greene's Maserati A6GCS. That the Lister was possibly slightly inferior to the Maserati is perhaps demonstrated by the fact that when Stirling Moss drove it in the International Meeting at Goodwood in September had to take second place to Salvadori. Admittedly it was by only three-fifths of a second and he set the fastest lap, but it was still second place. That Scott-Brown was, on occasion, able to beat Salvadori gives some measure of the man, and that in only his first full season.
During a season which brought him five wins, eight seconds and two thirds in the MG-powered car which was retained until the end of the year, and three wins, six seconds and a fifth in the Bristol car, Scott-Brown emerged as one of the best of the rising British drivers. He still had problems about being accepted, however, the organisers of the Tourist Trophy rejected his entry, as did the BARC in September, which is why Moss drove the car. Yet here was a man who went on to drive works F1 Connaughts with distinction and who was invited to drive a BRM in the Grand Prix d'Europe at Aintree in 1957 (after testing the car, he declined).
. His entries for Continental races were invariably turned down (though he raced in the States and Down Under) and it was by a cruel twist of irony that he was to die as a result of an accident during the 1958 sports Car Grand Prix de Spa, the first time his entry had been accepted in Europe.
Archie and Masten Gregory, both in Lister-Jaguars were having a furious dice for the lead when the little Scot was caught out at Clubhouse Bend by a road which had just been rained on. The car crashed and caught fire, and though he was dragged clear by a gendarme, he succumbed to his burns and injuries 24 hours later.
It was at the exact spot, and in the same manner, that Dick Seaman had lost his life in 1939, and the same doctor attended both men. Both men were also among the greatest drivers Britain has produced. It was typical of Archie that among the last words he uttered was a message for Brian not to feel too bad about it.
That tragedy lay in the future. For the 1955 season, the works Lister-Bristol was retained, but without the bulbous headlight covers, and detailed modifications were made to the chassis. The MG unit in the prototype was changed to a Bristol and the re-bodied car was sold to Ormsby Izzard-Davies who entered Allan Moore in it. The 1955 production car, with 12 in drum brakes and changes to the suspension and steering layout, featured a startling body designed by Thorn Lucas with the aid of a wind tunnel and a model. It was probably the only one built by a small constructor of the time to be wind tunnel tested (Frank Costin, whose name became a byword for racing car aerodynamics, has never used a wind tunnel for designing racing cars and, even today, tunnels are used far less frequently than is popularly supposed). Given the state of the art at the time, the final shape was probably no more efficient than most of its rivals.
In order to protect the interests of the parent firm, the cars were sold by Brian Lister (Light Engineering) Ltd and they cost £465, less engine and tyres. Five production cars were sold, plus the refurbished prototype, and they enjoyed a fair degree of success, all but one were fitted with Don Moore-tuned three-port Bristol engines with the camdrive changed from chains to gears. The exception was a Rover-powered car for Tony Murkett whose garage business sold Rovers -- in Cambridge, naturally.
Scott-Brown had a marvellous season, with thirteen wins, four seconds and two thirds. Particularly sweet was the return to Oulton Park for the British Empire Trophy, from which he'd been disqualified the previous year. Taking it easy in his heat, he finished second to Reg Parnell's new 2½-litre works Aston Martin but, in the final, he stormed away, winning by 25 seconds from Kenneth McAlpine's Connaught with the Aston a further 15 seconds adrift.
The customer cars added to the growing list of success. Jack Sears, in the car he co-owned with Bill Black, took three wins, a second and a third. Noel Cunningham-Reid, another local man who was to progress to the works Aston Martin team and co-drive with Tony Brooks to win the 1957 Nürburgring 1000 kms, took two wins, a second and a third in the Six Mile Stable car. David Hampshire had two wins in John Green's Lister, Tony Murkett won a single race with the Rover-engined car, Allan Moore took two seconds and a third while, on the hills, Ken Eaton had a class win and two class seconds. Listers came first (Hampshire / Scott-Russell) and third (Moore / Holt) in the two-litre class of the Goodwood 9 hour race. Archie's entry was rejected.
Though the Bristol engine was both powerful and reliable, its height (29 inches) was a severe handicap with a front engined car and for 1956, Brian decided to get around the problem by employing a two-litre Maserati A6GCS unit. The result was a low, stunning looking car, whose shape had been loosely based on Col. Goldie Gardner's record-breaking MG EX 179. The height to the top of the scuttle was just 27 inches, frontal area was reduced by 20 per cent, and the car had shed weight, not least by a switch to Girling disc brakes.
If ever a car looked the part, it was the 1956 Lister-Maserati but the engine was the weak link. When the car was completed, Scott-Brown set off in it to test at Snetterton and had gone very few miles before it developed serious problems in the cylinder head due to lack of lubrication in the cylinder head -- the oil filter had been badly made. There was a three week delay awaiting spares. A new camshaft then proceeded to shed its metal before Don Moore’s eyes, as though it were being machined. The Maserati factory had not hardened it.
The problems continued throughout the season and, by the end, all Scott-Brown and Lister had to show for their efforts were three wins and two seconds.
The Bristol-engined cars, however, were still going strongly, Birmingham garage owner, Austin Nurse had a terrific season with the ex-John Green car taking five firsts, five seconds and three thirds. He shunted his car heavily at Silverstone in July and then bought and completed a chassis body similar to the Maserati car. This he fitted with a Bristol engine, the body acquiring a huge bulge. The car took a win, a second and three thirds. Gilbert Baird drove it the following year (four wins) before selling it to Josh Randles who successfully hill-climbed it for some years.
The remains of Nurses crashed car were bought by Tom Kyffen who converted it to Jaguar Power. This was the car Bruce Halford drove in 1958 and Jim Clark had in 1959.
Allan Moore continued to drive Izzard-Davies’ car in 1956, picking up six seconds and a third. Cunningham-Reid added a win and three seconds, while John Horridge’s Ecurie Bullfrog car took a second and two thirds.
In total, there were perhaps ten early Listers built. Brian Lister himself does not know the exact figure for the company records have been lost and the picture becomes confused when one takes into account frames which were scrapped. Two are believed to survive though doubtless others are now “absolutely genuine” Lister-Jaguars.
Towards the end of 1956, London jeweller, Norman Hillwood persuaded Lister to sell him a chassis in which to install a 3.4 Jaguar engine. Though initially against the idea, Brian eventually agreed and from then on it was but a short step to building the Lister-Jaguars, a move helped by the encouragement of BP’s Bryan Turle.
The Jaguar-engined cars fall outside the scope of this article. The story of the Lister-Jaguars has been told many times, nowhere better than in Doug Nye’s book “Powered By Jaguar” (publ. Motor Racing Publications Ltd., 28 Devonshire Road, London W4 2HD). It is enough to say that all the Jaguar powered cars, save one, used basically the same chassis as the original Lister-MG. The rear track was widened two inches in 1957 (to 52 inches) and the wheelbase, and front and rear tracks were increased slightly the following year. the one exception to this rule was the Costin-designed spaceframe car, completed by Jim Diggory after Lister retired from racing in 1959. This will be dealt with in a future MOTOR SPORT article on the cars of Frank Costin.
The Bristol engined cars continued to enjoy some success through 1957 and 1958, but were fast approaching the end of their racing lives, especially with the advent of the Coventry Climax FPF engine.
In 1957, the 1500 cc Formula Two came into being and Brian designed a car for it. The result was a slightly ungainly front-engined car built around a conventional square-tubed space frame. Contrary to what has been written elsewhere, the rear suspension was not independent, using a form of “Chapman strut” evolved simultaneously with Lotus. Like all Lister’s cars, it had a de Dion layout, though the tube was articulated after the manner of the Mercedes-Benz W125 and W163, the Grand Prix cars of, respectively, 1937 and 1939. It was built to take a Coventry Climax engine and though one was fitted to check out the installation, it never actually ran. In fact, neither a fuel tank nor a gearbox was ever fitted.
In order to keep the car narrow, the propshaft followed a central line with the driver above it. Brian quickly realised that the driver was seated too high for the car ever to be competitive and it was sawn up.
The power train was the source of the failure of the 1958 F2 car as well. This was an extremely pretty front-engined machine with the engine offset to the driver’s left so he could sit low in the car with the propshaft travelling in a straight line by his left side. This was to avoid the complication and power loss of an angled propshaft. This led, however to the left hand halfshaft being much shorter than the right which caused excessive loading on the universal joints. It was a problem which could only be overcome by a major re-design and the success of the Jaguar engined sports cars was such that there was little spare time in which to do it.
Scott-Brown tested the car but never actually raced it. The project passed into private hands but achieved very little apart from a fourth place at Mallory Park in 1959 driven by Bill Jones.
In July 1959, Lister announced his intention to withdraw from racing at the end of the season. The team had received money from BP and engines from Jaguar, but the cost of maintaining and repairing two works cars, while employing Frank Costin and an assistant to develop future models, was proving too much. The company had entered motor racing to promote its name, not to be financially damaged by the sport.
Then, on 26th July, Bruce Halford and Ivor Bueb, the two works drivers, had both crashed heavily during an F2 race at Clermont-Ferrand. Ivor died a few days later, Brian hearing the news immediately after learning about Jean Behra’s death at Avus. He withdrew his team immediately.
As he says now, he quit at the right time, while still ahead. It subsequently became clear that the Costin spaceframed car would not have been an advance, the writing was already on the wall for the large front-engined sports car.
The company had one other excursion into motor racing when, in 1964, Marcus Chambers, Competitions Manager of the Rootes Group, commissioned them to build three Sunbeam Tigers for Le Mans, but this was sub-contract work to Rootes’ design.
There were also plans, at one time, to market a special version of the E-type Jaguar, but the idea was dropped.
Now, of course, Forward Engineering have permission to use the Lister name on a series of conversions and developments they apply to the Jaguar XJS, and some of those developments were carried out by George Lister & Sons. It is remarkable tribute to a small company who were involved in racing for just six years, produced less than sixty cars, and withdrew a quarter of a century ago, that the name is still respected.
It is also appropriate, for that was one of the reasons for going racing and Brian Lister says that the company’s racing record has opened many doors to his business and helped it expand. In every respect, their involvement with the sport surpassed their wildest ambitions. – M.L