The life of Brian

Brian Lister tells Gordon Cruickshank about his giant-killing cars, the company and Archie Scott Brown, who would have been 70 this year

On July 4, Stirling Moss will open a engineering factory near Cambridge. Not the normal outing for a motor racing celebrity you'll agree, but the company involved has a name redolent of success on the track, of heroism, and of brilliant talent shining against all odds. The name is Lister, and the factory does not make, sponsor, or even mend racing cars. Not any more.

"It was success beyond my wildest dreams." The world of motor racing is more usually strewn with disappointment than fulfillment, so it is refreshing to talk history with the man who says this Brian Lister. His story has the perfect ingredients: small outfit versus big team; clashing hero overcomes problems to achieve fame, if not fortune. That the hero, Archie Scott Brown, came to a tragic end, and the underdogs withdrew at the peak of their fame might add a strain of melancholy; but Lister, fit and hearty in his 71st year, doesn't show this, 38 years after he decided to withdraw from sportscar racing, having humbled the works Aston Martin team, and with a thriving order book.

Instead of being carried away with the romance of winning in Lister's glory days between 1954 and 1959, he remained focussed on the overall aim promoting the Lister company name. And it worked: in the short term by bringing in orders for racing cars from Europe and America, and more generally by giving the firm a flag to wave in engineering circles. "Once we got out, it gave me an entry to any buyer's office I wanted," says Lister. "We got one very big customer as a direct result. One ICI manager was a great motorsport fan and invited us to quote. There were no favours, but we got the job."

Today George Lister & Co makes shrink-wrapping equipment and parts for TV transmitters, and barring two brief returns, has nothing to do with racing. The firm making the Jaguar-powered Lister Storm uses the name with Brian's approval. "The new Lister does reflect on us, and I'm proud of what Laurence Pearce is doing. To qualify at Le Mans is tremendous. And participation builds morale; our workforce is proud to be part of the success, even from as far back as the '50s." The first of those two small returns to racing came in 1964?, when Rootes contracted Lister to build the special Sunbeam Tigers it had entered for Le Mans. But the job did not call on Brian Lister's design skills: "They supplied all the bits; we just put them together."

The second definitely was a Lister project. Watching the continuing success, and increasing value, of historic Listers in the '80s and the appearance of some less-than-entirely honest examples, Brian decided his firm ought to be among the beneficiaries. For the company's anniversary in 1990 he authorised a small run of new chassis, to be built to the same design by the same men, hoping they could compete in their own category with the 30-year-old cars. But the authorities disagreed, and at the same time the '80s boom turned to dust. The project came to a sudden halt. Did these projects mean that he was missing the sport? "No. We were very lucky it lasted as long as it did. But one had lost a lot of friends, quite apart from Archie. I rather lost interest in the sport and wanted to get back to building up the business.

"You can have four or five years of success if you're lucky, but unless you're totally and utterly dedicated, other things take over. Success breeds commercial success; you have to take your eye off what brought you success in the first place."

In Lister's case, the unlooked-for result of Archie's board-sweeping success in the works Lister-Jaguar in 1957 was orders from Briggs Cunningham in the USA and elsewhere which fully occupied the works, instead of forming a sideline. But did that mean the racing operation had become profitable? "Well, shall we say it was losing less," Lister says wryly. "The chassis was coming to the end of its life. It would have been very difficult to keep our participation in racing going, and it could have endangered the company, whereas the whole idea was to promote the business."

The chassis was a simple, rugged affair, designed by Lister himself; with equal-length front wishbones and a de Dion rear axle located by a sliding block, and from its early MG power up to monstrous Chevrolet V8s it changed little. "I didn't look on myself as an innovator at all. I was just trying to put something together that worked."

And how did he know it would work, when he drew up the Lister-MG in 1954? "I didn't. The de Dion was the easiest system to make work, whereas independent systems were in their infancy and would have taken too much time and money to develop." That pragmatic approach seems to characterise his career.

Engineering-trained at the family firm in Cambridge, he first dropped an MG engine into a Cooper T14 chassis. When it blew up, he ordered a chassis from John Tojeiro and installed an 1100cc JAP V-twin. The lightweight result was quick, if temperamental, and showed commercial promise. "I'd had the idea of producing the Tojeiro with the air-cooled engine, and John Tojeiro was all for it, as he was just starting his own business."

His sales pitch was to enter a Cambridge University Automobile Club sprint at Bottisham aerodrome in 1951, where he expected to beat everyone. That he met Archie Scott Brown there is a matter of record; but it was not complete chance. "I'd heard that there was a remarkable driver putting an MG through its paces at a Cambridge 50 Car Club events, but the Bottisham sprint was our first meeting. I should have run rings around him with the Tojeiro." Instead, he was almost matched by this cheerful character, only five feet tall, who seemed to ignore his own handicaps.

Born in 1927, the German measles Archie's mother had suffered during her pregnancy had affected the limbs of the unborn child. His legs had been straightened to some extent by surgery in his youth, but remained foreshortened. His right arm was also severely stunted, with a vestigial palm instead of a hand. There was no logical way he could drive a car quickly; yet he was matching a purpose-made racing car in a thoroughly tired MG TD. Ignoring the laws of physics, he flung the machine from side to side with his tremendously strong left arm, steadying the wheel with his right stump when grabbing another gear.

Lister made an immediate decision; he would ask this unlikely tyro to drive his car, and concentrate on building. "He was so impressive; I thought 'to get the best out of the car I need someone who can drive like this, and here he is'. So I offered him a drive." Archie was very pleased; he was struggling to wring more performance out of his MG, and his erratic income as a tobacco salesman wouldn't stretch to buying a racing car. It was an ideal pairing.

Archie's regular successes in the Tojeiro-JAP against larger cars through 1952 and 1953 set a giant-killing pattern. Brian could see that he had no need to employ a known professional to carry the flag, or to develop the chassis design which was maturing in his head, and he trusted the man who was preparing the JAP, Don Moore. Moore's MG expertise made it logical to use MG power in the first Lister, but as the demand for power pulled in first Bristol, then Maserati, Jaguar and Chevrolet units in later cars, the trio of Lister, Scott Brown and Moore remained constant.

All three were self-taught. Lister even designed the majority of the bodywork himself, working by intuition. "All my bodies were designed to have the minimum cross-sectional area. I tended to ignore aerodynamics since I didn't know enough about it."

The first exception was the 1955 Lister-Bristol, some examples of which carried 'Dan Dare' bodies with tail-fins, designed by Tom Lucas, an engineering student at Cambridge. "We windtunnel tested it in the university labs, more for directional stability than anything. It was one of the first bodies to be tunnel tested." The wooden model still sits on Lister's desk.

The other 'outside' design carried the signature of Frank Costin, high priest of aerodynamics. Intended to prolong the life of the chassis design into 1959, its sixth season, the dramatic body shape brought no advantage, according to Lister. "It's interesting that the cars designed by Costin were no quicker than the '58 cars, and the drivers didn't like them. He'd got the lift right, counteracted that, but I don't think they were a superior car; in fact quite the contrary. They were bigger, and on the kind of circuits we were competing on, airfield circuits, the drivers wanted as small a car as possible."

Knowing that his own 'keep it simple' approach was not enough to carry the team forward with a new chassis, Lister had employed Costin full-time to design a platform for 1960. In the event, Costin was there for only nine months, as the team's withdrawal in 1959 abruptly stopped the project.

Since the aim was always a commercial one, customers received exactly the same as Archie. But what customers didn't get was Archie, whose lurid driving style blossomed with the arrival of Jaguar power in 1957. DSJ called him "a tiger", and he tackled every car with the same grit – a Grand Prix Connaught, his own Zephyr, a lightweight Elva, the Murkett brothers' 2.4 Jaguar. Whether or not it was his physical problems which made him a fighter, fight he did except on those occasions where his own fitness was questioned, here and abroad, and the authorities tried to stop him racing on safety grounds. Then Archie closed up in himself, but it was his friends in racing who fought his corner, and won. That was the measure of their respect. And affection: good-looking, amusing and charmingly wicked, Archie was welcome anywhere, a man whom women adored and men admired. Brian looks into the distance: "Archie was a remarkable man, a remarkable driver. It's difficult to imagine how talented he was; someone disabled who becomes a driver Fangio admires." For all his business practicality, it's clear that Lister is also a sensitive man.

Asked about the unsuccessful Formula Two project, whose two manifestations appeared in 1956 and 1957, Lister returns to practicalities. "I felt that we should move into singleseaters to sell cars to club racers and get local publicity, not for Formula One glamour. Besides, F1 engines would be difficult to obtain. I thought I saw a good market, but..." But the F2 plan was sidelined by the sudden revival of Lister fortunes, flagging somewhat in 1956 with the unreliable Lister-Maserati. When Jaguar retired from racing at the end of that year having achieved its third Le Mans victory, it released sponsorship cash and D-type engines which blasted the team to the head of the sportscar results league. The F2 car never raced.

So, barring the one-off Monzanapolis special, there are no single-seater Listers dominating historic racing as the sportscars do. And how: a quiet amusement comes over Brian's face as he says "I haven't kept records since we stopped racing, but considering how many we probably made and I can't be too accurate on that (little smile) and considering the successes chalking up all over the world every weekend, I should think there must be some kind of record about the number produced and the number of times they figure in the results.

"We've got a great enthusiast in the States–  Syd Silverman, who used to own Variety magazine. He has five of my cars – 10 per cent of production! – and one of the Sunbeam Tigers we built for Le Mans, and he's running those cars pretty well every weekend. He reminds one of how racing used to be in the '50s."

So are the cars in their original spec? "I think he has a few tweaks: the brakes may not be quite the same, and I believe he uses water-cooled overalls like fighter-pilots do. He has two Jaguar-engined cars, two Lister-Chevrolets, and the Lister-Maserati."

The Jaguar and Chevrolet-powered Listers were supremely efficient, using the best, simple, strong engines from each side of the Atlantic. But it was to Italy that Lister and Moore first turned to replace the Bristol lump for 1956. Maserati's 2.0-litre A6GCS sportscar engine looked perfect: compact, light, powerful, and a bloodrelative to the Grand Prix-winning 250F. It was inserted into the old Lister-MG, by then retired, and a new, clinging body built around it, low and tightly bulged over the wheels – a style which became a Lister trademark.

Luckily no customers bought Maserati engines; the unit was a disaster. "We had so many problems with it. They were a peculiar company in those days; they sent a couple of camshafts over that hadn't been hardened. We weren't to know that; we installed them and ran the engine with the cam-covers off, and it was as if there was a cutting tool where the followers were – it was just taking metal off. They sent a piston to us once – blank, to machine as desired!"

So has the car been sorted now? "Yes. I went to Mid-Ohio last June and it actually finished the race. I thought how pleased Don Moore would be, but when I got back to the hotel that evening there was a message that Don had died that day. How he would have loved to know that the car had gone well."

Lister himself did not drop out completely from racing after 1959: he served on BARC and BRSCC committees until 1974, including a year as chairman. "It was a way of putting something back into the sport," he says as though he had not already brought enthusiasts one of the most exciting drivers and some of the most impressive cars in the business.

He leaves the impression of one who weighs his choices carefully, with common sense having the casting vote. He entered racing for a particular result; he used proven techniques and machinery, wisely eschewed innovation, avoided being side-tracked, and was strong-willed enough to retire when it made sense. Had Archie not been killed when he was, the chances are that Lister's racing exploits would still have ended in 1959.

Hindsight, of course, changes the significance of events, as Lister's thoughtful closing comment tells: "We didn't appreciate its importance then; even when we were beating the Aston Martins, the atmosphere was more like winning your first club race." Even history can be fun.