The court of King Archie

The most famous Lister still in existence is going under the hammer. Motor Sport was offered the privilege of time at its helm
Writer Andrew Frankel | Photographer James Lipman

It wasn’t the thought that was strange, so much as the timing of its arrival. If you are busy juggling power and steering as someone else’s very valuable racing car slithers around beneath you on a damp track, your brain should have space for nothing else. Anything less than undivided attention would seem an abrogation of duty. But the thought still found a remote recess, tunnelled in, lodged there and wouldn’t go away. It was simply the hope that in 1958, when Walt Hansgen hurled this very Lister-Jaguar to victory after victory in SCCA events across America, he knew how much fun he was having.

It’s not a given. Often in my regular life, testing cars with number plates, I drive old road cars that seem twice as much fun today as they did in period, because they’re now seen in the context of modern machines that are heavier, softer, more comfortable and less responsive. Likewise the Lister. Most times I talk to professional racing drivers who’ve been given permission to race at, say, the Goodwood Revival, they tell me they’ve not had so much fun since they were last in a race car with no downforce and a surfeit of power over mechanical grip. Or at least that’s the view of those who love driving as well as winning.

Driving a Lister-Jaguar as fast as possible could not be reduced to the role of a mere job, or considered in any way routine, even if you found it quite enjoyable and realised you were lucky to have it. Because driving a properly sorted Lister, as this car so clearly is, ranks among one of the most enjoyable things I have ever done with a steering wheel in my hands.

How that wheel got there is one of simple expediency: this Lister is one of the star lots of RM’s Monaco auction on May 10. Any bona fide Lister would qualify for that description, but this isn’t just ‘any’ Lister. This is the original factory prototype of Lister’s offering to the sports racing car market for the 1958 season, better known to you, me and everyone else as the Knobbly. It was first raced by one of very few people I’d describe as a genuine hero of mine, the ridiculously courageous and fast Archie Scott Brown. The offer to test it before it heads off to its new home was simply too good.

Knobbly Listers are often and erroneously thought to be synonymous with Lister-Jaguars. They are not: not all Lister Jaguars were Knobblies, and not all Knobblies were Jaguar-powered. If you think of a Lister, however, I’d bet that the image now swimming before your eyes is not powered by MG, Bristol, Maserati or Chevrolet, but a Jaguar car with impossibly low bodywork draped over the wheels and engine to negotiate its way cleverly around the Appendix C minimum windscreen height rule for period sports cars. That car is the Knobbly.

This chassis was the first to be shown to the press and offered for sale. It was essentially a development of the Jaguar-powered (but not Knobbly) prototype, built specifically for Scott Brown for the 1957 season. He won 11 of 14 races he contested and equalled or broke the outright sports car lap record at every circuit he visited. Lister was not the first garagiste to use Jaguar power in a sports car – the concept had already been tried by HWM, Cooper and Tojeiro to name but three – but of them all, the Lister was in a class of its own. Sadly Archie’s ’57 car, by far the most successful Lister ever to race, no longer exists.

The design philosophy behind the new car was to make it as low as possible, to reduce its centre of gravity, while minimising its frontal area, a job made difficult by the size and height of the straight-six twin-cam engine, which was therefore tilted by 15 degrees as it had been in the ’57 car. Bodies were offered in aluminium or magnesium alloy weighing half as much, but potentially combustible (the catastrophic consequences of which would claim the life of Scott Brown later that year in another car).

The Jaguar engine was available in a range of capacities from the 3-litre limit mandated for the world sports car championship to 3.8-litre for Formula Libre events such as those in which Hansgen would barnstorm around the US.

Beneath the body the car was fundamentally conventional, but beautifully executed with a tubular ladder frame chassis, double wishbone front suspension and a De Dion rear end with inboard brakes. Multiple gear ratios providing for top speeds all the way from 140 to a potential 200mph were available for the standard four-speed Jaguar transmission.

It seems the prototype was originally intended for Ecurie Ecosse, but nabbed at the last minute by Briggs Cunningham. That’s why the car is variously referred to as EE 101 (the number on the original chassis plate), BHL 101 (for Brian Horace Lister) and even BHL EE 101. They are all the same car and, unlike certain other alleged Listers that might or might not have been built in Cambridge in the 1950s, its provenance is undisputed.

Cunningham wanted the Lister because his own cars were now obsolete, as was the most obvious alternative – the Jaguar D-type. Of cars that were readily available to customers, the Lister appeared to be the quickest thing around. He bought two that arrived just in time for Sebring, this car to be shared by Scott Brown and Hansgen, the second (BHL 102) for Ed Crawford and Pat O’Connor. At the start Archie was able to mix with the works Astons and Ferraris, but in one of the earliest signs that the Jaguar XK engine cared not in the least for its 3-litre displacement, the motors blew on laps four and six respectively. Archie’s car suffered the additional indignity of being rammed and mounted by Olivier Gendebien’s Testa Rossa as it slowed to a halt. The Ferrari nevertheless recovered to finish second to its sister car, but only after Archie – wearing Pirelli tyre tracks on his shirt and helmet according to Robert Edwards’ essential Archie and the Listers – had considerately hung around for long enough to direct Gendebien’s dismount.

The car then stayed in America for Hansgen to dominate in SCCA racing up and down the east coast, winning his class with consummate ease. The advent of more slippery Costin-bodied Listers in 1959 (not to mention Cooper Monacos and Scarabs) spelt a less successful season and the car was retired. Since then it has spent time on both sides of the Atlantic, being restored once in the 1980s.

Today the car looks gorgeously authentic and lightly battered from stem to stern. I hope its next keeper does whatever is required to keep it mechanically on top of its game, but leaves the war wounds to speak for its history.

I’d feared I’d struggle to get comfortable in a car designed for the heavily disabled Scott Brown with his substantially abbreviated lower limbs. In fact there’s legroom enough, more than a C-type and about the same as a D-type. What you notice more is how low you sit, even though visibility all around is excellent, at least if you’re reasonably tall. There is no attempt to civilise the surroundings. All around is bare aluminium, punctuated by dials that aren’t easy to read at a glance.

I don’t know what specification the engine has – it’s a wide-angled 3.8 with triple Webers (though Cunningham engineer Alfred Momo made an experimental 3.75-litre motor that will be sold with the car) – but even within these confines power outputs can vary considerably.

I expect this motor is in a reasonably sensible state of tune because the car feels competitively quick, but the power flows evenly from fewer than 3000rpm up to my self-imposed, conservative 5500rpm limit. The noise is of course pure Jaguar, while the gearbox is characteristically slow and precise. A racing dog box would be far quicker and more satisfying to use, but Jaguar’s strategy in the day was to use syncromesh on the basis that, in long-distance racing, time lost would be more than balanced by the increased likelihood of a tired driver not ruining the box and therefore the race.

The pedals are not arranged for comfortable heel-and-toe downshifts, so you have to be careful not to lock the rear tyres under braking as you can in a D-type, but the brakes themselves are magnificent for a sports car of this era. I’m told the inboard rear discs can overheat in extremis, but there is no chance of that at a freezing cold Donington Park.

It diverts entirely from the D-type script through corners. My early laps were damp, but the nose would communicate the incipient understeer on turn-in through a gentle lightening of steering loads in a manner that was little less than exquisite. Immediate gentle application of power would actually make the car run a little wider still, but if instead you lifted just enough to make the nose angle back into the turn and then squeezed the throttle, the Lister would enter a broad phase of gently drifting neutrality, a place of automotive ecstasy in which I’d happily live out my days.

You can of course press harder and reach an unlikely attitude to the road, but I preferred to leave this area as a safety net, a little leeway for when you hit a sodden patch of asphalt.

Sometimes, giving back someone else’s million-plus car is a relief, simply because you’ve done your job and everything remains in the same number of pieces. Not today. It is no exaggeration at all to say I had to have quite a stern word with myself, accept my work was done and that nothing was more important than the car remaining in a fit state to be sold.

I have been very lucky to drive most front-running 1950s sports cars, but none that combines raw pace through a corner with such sweetness on the limit as this.

Inevitably the course of Lister history changed irrevocably after Scott Brown lost his life at Spa in May 1958. Drivers as eminent as Stirling Moss and Jim Clark would continue to succeed in Cambridge cars, but Brian Lister’s heart was not in it now that Archie was gone. On July 23 1959, Lister announced its withdrawal from all forms of racing.

Many Listers exist today, far more than were built. Some are original, some purport to be so, others are sanctioned recreations and some are plain fakes. Almost all replicas are Knobblies, however, and you can see why. Imitation has always been the sincerest form of flattery and time spent in the first Knobbly leaves no doubt as to why this is the most imitated of all.

Rebuilding the past
A new batch of Knobblies is being made... with official Lister approval

Most Lister fans will know already that a new batch of Knobblies is being created by Lister Cars with, importantly for those concerned about the cars’ credibility, the blessing of 87-year-old Brian Lister.

Warrantywise CEO Lawrence Whittaker and his father bought rights to the Lister name from Laurence Pearce, the man who’d taken the marque back to Le Mans in the 1990s with the distinctive Storm. Most of the original jigs and drawings still existed at George Lister Engineering, the company founded by Brian Lister’s grandfather in 1890. The Whittakers commissioned George Lister Engineering to create a series of new Knobbly chassis while Shapecraft would make the bodies and Crosthwaite and Gardiner the complete Jaguar powertrain, including the engine and gearbox. If you wanted a Chevy instead, that could be arranged, but no one has yet asked.

The result will be a newly created Knobbly, to original factory specification, that’s entitled to call itself a Lister. Whether it should be regarded as a replica, recreation or a continuation car is a battle of semantics in which I’d rather not engage. It will be sold with complete FIA papers and should be eligible to race wherever an original Lister is eligible to race, though it should be said that eligibility alone is no guarantee of an entry.

What the car should guarantee is that you can have a Knobbly that looks and behaves just like an original Lister, but for a fraction of the cost. Whittaker has priced each complete car at £250,000 plus VAT and confirms they are eligible to be registered for use on the public road.

His plan for now is to make 10 Knobblies, after which he wants to make one-offs of the earlier Lister-MG, Lister-Bristol and Lister-Maserati. He has no plans at present to make any Costin-bodied cars, nor a recreation of the unique spaceframe coupé that was made but never raced in period by the works.

Lister was good enough to bring the first of three Knobblies to Donington, in a state of near completion. Though I am no Lister expert, the quality of the workmanship is of the highest order and, comparing it to the Cunningham Lister, it seems as authentic as conceivably possible. Whittaker assures me his cars will be quicker because he maintains Lister supplied one specification of car to his customers while retaining a slightly superior spec for factory models.