This successful mix of engineering and art is one man’s vision of how a car should be. Its creator proved that a feel for the materials and an eye for detail were worth any number of diplomas
If I had one car as a museum exhibit in my house I’d have a Bugatti Type 35. While I was at prep school in the mid-1930s, an uncle of mine used to hand on copies of The Motor and The Autocar, and in the adverts of cars for sale it was always the Delahayes, Delages and particularly Bugattis which caught my attention.
After being demobbed from national service in the RAF, I got hold of W F Bradley’s book on Ettore Bugatti, and I remember being very impressed by Ettore’s insistence on tidiness and cleanliness in the workshop — nobody was allowed to put a saw-mark or file-mark on any of the vices on the benches. And he was a craftsman; when he told someone to do it right, they knew he was able do it himself.
All his cars have a certain character. It’s a question of one man being in total control of a company and of the design. I felt it was the kind of thing I’d like to do, though I hadn’t built a car then.
It struck me as being an ideal set-up for pro-ducing cars — an attractive with a per fectionist running it. The Bugatti family was remarkable: Carlo the father designed silver and furniture, and was a painter and sculptor; his son Rembrandt was also a sculptor, famous for his animal bronzes. Ettore also studied to be a sculptor, but acknowledged that Rembrandt was more.
The Type 35 was introduced in 1924, becoming the 35B in 1926, and is one of the most successful racing cars of all time. Today they appear technically basic, but they are things of beauty. Among the technical achievements were a hollow front axle with forged ends, showing a practical approach to weight-saving, coupled with leaf springs mounted through a forged hole in the axle. This shows an understanding of materials and a kind of artist-cum-mechanic’s approach. Then there were the light alloy wheels with integral drums — I think he was the first to use these. Most of his cars featured a ball-and-roller crankshaft, and on all Bugattis the nuts and bolts were of non-standard diameters. What a supremely confident attitude — not so much arrogant as perfectionist.
Every part of the car is a joy to behold, even the leather flexible joints on the steering; the handbrake lever is shaped to the human hand, and the axles and steering arms are beautifully finished. A 35 is a car that looks as good with the bonnet open as shut, the mark of a super-craftsman who had a natural gift of mechanical engineering, knew the quality of materials, and had the eye and feel of a great artist. He had the ability to know what the part should look like to do the job properly. I think if you have abilities as a sculptor, you automatically make something which is pleasing to the eye. I think it was simply working in the materials that taught Ettore what he could do with them. Someone asked me recently howl learned to design and build a car; I said, by designing and building a car. I think it was probably the same with Bugatti.
Coopers, who showed that it was possible for a UK firm to build and race cars successfully, had this practical approach to car design and started the march towards today’s British racing pre-eminence, whereas Colin Chapman took a more scientific approach which led to the super-efficient but less characterful cars of today. I was surprised when I first started how few of the people constructing cars had much of a clue on how to calculate loadings; I think a lot of it was just watching what other people had designed. The person I watched was John Tojeiro; my company made parts for his cars. I knew that what he was achieving was impressive, and it came from his imagination and practical ability.
I occasionally get involved with jazz music, and the first really great musician I accompanied on the drums was Yank Lawson, trumpet player with Bob Crosby, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. When I said I’d never accompanied anyone as talented and experienced as him before, he said, ‘One rule: keep it as simple as you possibly can.’ And that was really the principle of the Lister cars. I was eager to show the prowess of the family firm as mechanical engineers, not myself as a designer. I couldn’t afford to make mistakes — it had to be right first time. And that basic simple chassis did not really change between the first Lister-MG and the Jaguars.
We made fewer than 50 cars and estimate that they have so far won or been placed more than 2000 times. Not that I would compare myself with the achievements of Ettore. Low-cost manufacture was important; our fabricated wishbones might not have the visual satisfaction of forged items, but do the job just as well. But there is a very strong character in the ‘Knobbly’ Lister which evokes that 1950s period, just as the Bugatti evoked its era — even though my workshops weren’t run quite like Ettore’s. Like him, we had a good relationship with our customers and we had faithful craftsmen working for us, but he was so autocratic that none of his craftsmen ever got the publicity they deserved. Everything had go via Le Patron. It would be quite impossible to run an outfit like that now, with one man doing the design and being the front of the operation. I can’t think that he would have put up with drivers criticising the cars as they have in F1 recently. I don’t think he would be very happy with things today, and I don’t think I would be, either, having to rely on so many specialists and their computer designs.
Ettore was a renaissance man: what better life could there be than to have his talent, have a beautiful factory and estate, and just produce elegant cars?
Brian Lister was talking to Gordon Cruickshank