Underneath the arches

The bulging wheel-arches are what makes the Lister-Jaguar visually unforgettable but, as Matthew Franey discovered at Goodwood, that’s nothing compared to what it’s like to drive.

If we have a tendency to romanticise about motor racing’s past, it’s because sometimes, just sometimes, the considered opinion is that the past was better than the present. Of course memories tend to fade and the basic principles of man, machine and race track are as true today as they ever were in the 1950s or ’60s. What has without doubt changed, for want of a better word, is the sport’s professionalism. Now at nearly every level, the team with the best budget, wind tunnel or driver wage bill is all but guaranteed to be the one that stands atop the podium come flag-fall, while the minions of the sport make up the numbers on the grid.

I raise the point not as criticism of the way things have evolved — that has been discussed in the pages of this magazine many times before — but as a reminder that it was not always the case. Look back in history and you will and the odd David among the many Goliaths.

Forty odd years back should be enough. A time when British drivers were making their mark in Grand Prix racing but the rise of the garagiste Formula One constructor was still a few seasons away. For British car manufacturers the quickest way to raise awareness of their product was to go sportscar racing and none did it more successfully than our two most famous marques — Jaguar and Aston Martin.

At Le Mans in the 1950s the duo claimed 16 out of a possible 30 podium places including six memorable wins — and while Ferrari dominated the sportscar world championship in terms of tides, Aston Martin’s redoubtable DBR1 still succeeded in taking the crown in 1959.

It was a time when British drivers in British cars could take on the best that the rest of the world had to throw at them and win. What chance then did a small Cambridgeshire engineering firm have ofbuilding its own sportscar and beating the lot? As history shows, not a bad one, in fact.

Intent on securing some marketing benefits for the family firm, Brian Lister set about building a race car. His Lister sportscars were of simple design and basic construction and this self-taught car builder was not too proud to seek help when he needed it. In his earliest days of racing he met and hired Archie Scott Brown, the driver now synonymous with the Lister marque, after he realised that this uniquely talented racer – he competed on a par with the likes of Stirling Moss despite a malformed right arm and legs – was better suited to getting more from his machinery. He also searched high and low for engines that provided enough power to suit Scott Brown’s typical charging style. In turn the curvaceous sports racers used MG, Maserati, Jaguar and Chevrolet blocks but it was in 1957 and ’58, with the 3.8-litre D-type units from jaguar that Scott Brown and the Lister proved that this was an era when a designer’s keen eye and a still keener driver was enough not simply to win the odd race but, on occasion, humble the works manufacturers.

At the end of 1956 a customer-owned Lister had in fact already been built. with a Jaguar engine and Lister himself was persuaded the unit’s ideal mix of good horsepower and impressive torque suited the car well. When Scott Brown was unleashed on the circuits of Britain, he was nigh-on unstoppable. In 1957 he won seven out of the eight sportscar races, fending off the close attentions of Les Leston, Roy Salvadori and Duncan Hamilton in their Astons, Jaguars and HWMs with car control sans pareil. At Goodwood he drove as only Scott Brown could drive, passing Salvadori’s Aston DBR1 around the outside of the fearsome Madgwick corner for the lead of the Sussex Trophy and then repeating that same feat later in the year to clinch the Goodwood Trophy from Jack Brabham’s Tojeiro.

The Lister-jaguar you see on these pages was never actually driven by Scott Brown but its authenticity is unparalleled. A true ‘knobbly’ in all respects, right clown to its still original bodywork, it is as close as you could ever hope to a car that Scott Brown drove. Around its rather agricultural (in size rather than quality) steel-tubed chassis is draped ill-fitting but lightweight aluminium. Panel gaps would not meet modern quality control but as Lister himself said, his cars were built to go fast rather than look pretty.

Sold by the factory to Equipe Nationale Belge for the 1958 season, the car was entered for Le Mans where it had to comply with the governing body’s new ruling over engine capacity. Fearful of ever-increasing speeds, the CSI restricted Le Mans entrants to 3.0-litre engines, a size that didn’t suit the destroked Jaguar XK block. As a result Listers didn’t fare well at La Sarthe in 1958 but in Britain, with their use of the wide-angled 3.8-litre engine, they flew. Several years after it raced at Le Mans, the larger block was fitted to the bright yellow sportscar. It remains in that configuration to this day and, as such, represents one of the most original Listers ever built.

On the sweeping curves of Goodwood it also represents one of the most challenging racers you can imagine. Not because this is an ill-handling sportscar, rather because it is genuinely quick. In 1957 Scott Brown averaged nearly 90mph on his way to victory there and that, don’t forget, on hard tyres and skinny rims.

From the cockpit the Lister takes some getting used to. The driving position is low-slung, with your knees above your hips and your shoulders pushed left, towards the centre of the car, by the flared wings of the body-hugging seat. Through the perspex aeroscreen it is hard at first to take your eyes off the bulging wheel arches that seem to rise high above your line of sight and induce a mild form of tunnel vision. The gearlever, attached to a standard D-type four-speed gearbox, is notable as well, more for the blistering heat it manages to conduct from the transmission into the palm of your hand than any real failing. The plane from first to second is notchy in comparison to the other shifts, but no more so than on the D-type tested in this magazine a few months ago. What’s more, downshifts, if properly heel-and-toed, are as effortless as you could wish.

Which is no bad thing, for where the Lister does show its age is in the areas Of ergonomics, driver comfort and sheer effort required to drive it quickly. Even sitting in the Goodwood paddock, waiting as the oil in the dry sump tank warms, the heat build-up in the cockpit is fierce. Ventilation is almost non-existent and the only solution is to get some air flowing through the car by getting out onto the track.

The engine is uncomfortable at low revs, coughing and popping as you ease away. It’s not helped by a long first gear that doesn’t particularly suit the circuit and prevents the engine from getting “on cam” sooner. A good blip of the throttle licIps to clear the three Weber carburettors and power delivery from 3,500rpm round to the 5,800 redline is at first progressive and, towards the end, fearsome.

It is power that is matched by noise. With just that thin alloy sheet separating your ears from the straight-six at full cry the aural assault is intense. From a gruff, bubbling groan the pitch rises until you are attuned to an intense bass howl that Pervades the senses and makes the whole car reverberate. If you wonder how Scott Brown got the inspiration to launch himself around the outside of cars On tile circuit’s most terrifying corners, just stand beside the car when it pulls Out of the paddock at this September’s Revival meeting. Then you will know.

As with nearly every detail on the Lister, the suspension is simple but effective. Double wishbones and coil springs at the front act alongside the de Dion-sprung rear wheels — used by Lister because it was “the easiest system to make work” and involved little in the way of development costs. Nevertheless, it is light years ahead of a D-type’s live rear axle and consequently the feeling is less gentle, wallowing tourer and more taut, lively racing car.

Listers that are raced frequently in historic events have stiffened their front anti-roll bar. By the time this car comes to race at the Revival meeting it too will have followed this route but for now it runs to the original specification. What that translates to around Goodwood is a car that will happily charge its way into corners but is less accommodating on the way out of them. Watch those prominent wheel arches as the Lister apexes the circuit’s fast corners at Madgwick and St Mary’s and you will note how the load-bearing outside corner wants to tuck under, pitching the car into a series of undulations. Disconcerting at first, it takes no small amount of courage to keep the throttle pedal buried as the Lister powers away. The weight shift when cornering on the limit is enough to unsettle the rear which is where Scott Brown’s talents would have come to their fore. Tail slides and opposite lock are not in this instance the sign of a wild driver, they are the way to drive this car as fast as possible.

The weighty steering doesn’t make oversteer angles that easy to maintain, for while not overly heavy it is less fluid than you might wish; your direction of travel changes in staccato-like bursts with every tug at the thin, leather-rimmed wheel. Through the seat of your pants you can feel the Lister alter tack with surprising urgency and quick hands are needed to stop yourself overstepping the margin between drift and spin.

With solid disc brakes all round — in-board at the rear — retardation is no problem, although at Goodwood you don’t pay a particularly high price if your car is not fantastic under braking. At only two points do you really need to bury the middle pedal and the Lister comfortably sheds speed as you negotiate the long Lavant corner and then the tight chicane at the end of the lap.

Through these slower sections the sportscar shines. Attack each turn as hard as you dare, use the Jaguar engine’s torque to drive clear of the bend and crouch down in the cockpit as the Lister rockets towards the start-finish line. By the time you pass the timing tower, the hand-painted speedometer is indicating well in excess of 100mph and for the briefest of moments you can glimpse across and nod knowingly at the few people collected on the pitwall.

This is Goodwood motoring at its finest. Stepping out of the car for the last time and watching as the owner thunders out of the pits it is easy to close your eyes, listen to the full throttle roar as he accelerates clear and imagine racing as it used to be. Not necessarily better, but certainly better sounding…

Our thanks to Goodwood, the owner of the Lister-Jaguar, Paul Parker and Lynx Engineering for their help in making this feature possible.