RACING CARS FROM THE FIFTIES
THE RAIN WAS TRAVELLING horizontally and the wind, straight from Siberia, was sweeping across the old airfield. I huddled further into my new duffle coat, but I didn't pull up the hood over my 12year-old head. I was listening to two of my heroes, chatting on the roof of the clubhouse atSnetterton, a vantage point from where you could see much of the circuit. The driversone tall and black-haired, the other short, with a half-formed right arm - were geeing each other up, talking of their latest racing sports cars.
The dark-haired one, Roy Salvadori, had just started to win everything going with a lovely little Maserati A6GCS, the first we'd seen in England. The other was struggling for recognition; but, using his renowned sense of balance to its utmost he was handling a mysterious new slabsided car with incredible finesse and skill. 'Just you wait till we get a bigger engine in it,' said Archie Scott-Brown.
The year was 1954 and only two years earlier the new car's constructor, Brian Lister, had frightened everybody in sight with a grasshopper-like device called an Asteroid Tojeiro-JAP. It amounted to two massive tubes laid out side by side in his shed near Cambridge by a man called John Tojeiro, who was later to use the same principles in what become the AC Cobra. These two tubes were powered by the earsplitting engine from a dirt-track motor cycle. Apart from a Jowett Jupiter gearbox, four spindly wheels and a few skimpy body panels, there wasn't much else to this fearsome contraption. It's power and torque-to-weight ratios were fantastic, but the big 11 OOcc JAP threatened to vibrate Lister's teeth out, so he found another driver. This was Scott-Brown, a hard-charging tobacco salesman. They were customers of Don Moore, a garage man with a genius for tuning who occupied premises in Cambridge, near Lister's family engineering firm. As Don with his lightweight P-type MG was nearing the end of a highly-successful career in sprinting, Archie was taking over with the Tojeiro-JAP, Lister standing on the sidelines as its proud entrant.
He soon got fed up with that. Although Listers had fabricated all the bits, Tojeito's name was on the car, so he took much of the credit. Lister decided that he would be better off promoting the name of his family firm with a car of his own creation. Hence the first Lister, driven by Scott-Brown at the local Snetterton circuit, and most other places in Britain in 1954, with a Don Moore-tuned 1.5litre MG XPAG engine. Like the Tojeiro in many ways, it was based around two hefty tubes. But it was far more sophisticated, with coil spring suspension, wishbones at the front, a frame mounted final drive and de Dion tube at the back in place of Tojeiro's Cooper-inspired leaf springs. Inboard rear brakes reflected Brian Lister's feelings about unsprung weight, and helped with excellent handling in the hand of Scott-Brown.
In fact it went so well that Archie qualified it third for the British Empire Trophy race at Oulton Park. . . until the stewards decided that it must be dangerous to drive with one hand (Archie rested his weak arm on the wheel with a delicate grip when gear-changing). So they declared him unfit to drive. Everybody else who had ever seen him drive protested long and loud, and a few weeks later the RAC granted him an unrestricted licence. But by the time the year ended it was clear that the substantially-built Lister-MG was underpowered when compared with the lighter space-frame Lotuses. Just you wait till we get a bigger engine. . .
Brian Lister was ever conscious of the importance of protecting the reputation of the family firm, which traced its origins to 1890. He would do almost anything to save a square inch in frontal area, but nothing to compromise the strength of the chassis. If it weighed enough to slow it down, it needed more power, and the body needed to be made more slippery; Archie could handle the extra performance, but Lister could not bear the thought of a car folding up under him.
And so the Lister-MG became the Lister-Bristol with 2.0 litres of Don Moore's best for 1955. Customers clamoured for Lister chassis, adding 10 wins to the 13 that Archie achieved that year, only Salvadori's Maserati providing consistent opposition.
The answer seemed simple for 1956: fit the lighter Lister with a Maserati engine. But what Don Moore didn't know was that the
Italian twin cam was uncommonly badly made and it only ran like it did with the facilities of the A6GCS's owner, engineer Syd Greene. It took all season to sort it out and Lister's racing fortunes were at a low ebb as 1956 drew to a close. His eyes were on the new Formula Two and the CoventryClimax engines used by rivals such as Lotus and Cooper. So Lister was far from happy when a customer, diamond merchant Norman Hillwood, decided to drop a Jaguar engine into a Lister frame. Hillwood said that if Lister didn't do it for him, he'd do it himself with a secondhand chassis; so Lister gave in and built the first Lister-Jaguar in 1957.
At that time, much of the money for racing came from the oil companies; Lister was contracted to BP, while Esso were helping support Aston Martin and the Ecurie Ecosse's ex-works Jaguars. It left nothing competitive to bear the name BP in their British market, so Lister came under pressure to build a works Lister-Jaguar that could outrun the Astons and Ecurie Ecosse D-types. Sir William Lyons at Jaguar was keen to supply the latest D-type power train as a way of doubling the odds against Astons.
Brian Lister thought again. It made more commercial sense to produce a large-capacity short distance racing car rather than to pour money into Formula Two with precious little support. So he uprated the Lister-Bristol chassis to take Jaguar's engine and gearbox, a combination that became almost invincible with Scott-Brown in 1957, only Salvadori being able to pip him with an Aston opened out to 3.7Iitres. A hectic winter season in Australia and New Zealand saw Archie driving nearer the ragged edge as everything was hurled against him.
By the time the 1958 season started, Lister-Jaguars being produced for customers on both sides of the Atlantic with some chassis being sent to America for Chevrolet engines. But it was Briggs Cunningham's Lister-Jags that won everything until the spaceframe Maserati Birdcage appeared. Scott-Brown continued to win wholesale in Britain until a short-sighted Kansan, Masten Gregory, who raced in spectacles that he later revealed gave him such poor vision that he never knew how fast he was entering a corner, proved his equal. Gregory also had the endearing habit of standing up in the cockpit and jumping out just as his car was about to crash!
They were duelling furiously at Spa as Scott-Brown's works Lister-Jaguar grazed a trackside memorial to the British driver Richard Sleaman, who died there in 1939; then it hit a signpost that local ace Paul Frere had said should be removed. Scott-Brown died soon afterwards and Lister wanted to quit on the spot. But he had existing commitments to customers, so with the family firm's name at stake, the ListerJaguars roared on. They acquired bodies designed by Frank Costin, who had achieved wonders with Lotus and there was even a Birdcage-like spaceframe project before new works "driver Bueb died in somebody else's car. Costs were spiralling and Lister quit.
But you couldn't stop his cars. They raced on in private hands, everywhere from Le Mans to the sprints in which the Lister-JAP had started, until- with quite a number of replicas -they came to dominate historic sports car racing, events very much like those run in Britain and America in the late 1950s. The most nostalgic are the ones with the 1957 body, painted in the works colours of green with a broad yellow stripe, to match the badge that Brian Lister first laid on a bonnet in 1954.