Obituary: Brian Lister, car designer

Born: 12 July 1926, in Cambridge. Died: 16 December 2014, aged 88.

Designer of racing cars driven with great success by the moustachioed Scot, WA Archie Scott Brown. Picture: Contributed
Designer of racing cars driven with great success by the moustachioed Scot, WA Archie Scott Brown. Picture: Contributed

For the cognoscenti, Brian Lister was synonymous with car design and the fabulously successful Lister Cars, but for the uninitiated, he was more than that, he was one of Britain’s greatest post-war racing constructors.

Readily identifiable by his colourful bow ties, the mild-mannered Lister produced the most competitive racing car of the 1950s; it is the only British racing car company to have either won or finished every race it ever entered – 2,000 races.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

With a heritage that stemmed back to the 1890s, the Lister “Knobbly”, designed and constructed by Lister in Cambridge, and powered by an MG engine, burst on to the racing scene in April 1954, debuting at Snetterton, Norfolk.

Driven by the diminutive but irrepressible moustachioed Scot, WA “Archie” Scott Brown, the car was a revelation and won, quickly becoming the benchmark for all front-engine sports racing cars.

Subsequent developments saw the Lister evolve, although it maintained its simple, rugged design, with its equal-length front wishbones and a de Dion rear axle. In 1957, Jaguar boss Sir William Lyons sanctioned the use of its D-type engines in the Lister and the Lister-Jaguar was born.

That season, with the dashing Scott Brown at the wheel, the car entered 14 races, winning 12 and setting either a fastest lap or breaking a record on each occasion; he was admired by five-time world champion, Juan Manuel Fangio.

Lister Cars were propelled to the forefront of racing but their success came to a shuddering and untimely end at Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, in May 1958, when Scott Brown crashed while trying to overtake Masten Gregory’s Lister for the lead in pouring rain; he might have survived if it had not been for the resulting fire.

Soon after, Lister withdrew from racing although supported customers until the 1960s when Lister Engineering successfully entered the field of shrink-wrapping equipment and parts for TV transmitters.

Always self-deprecating, Lister eschewed the limelight. “I didn’t look on myself as an innovator at all,” he said. “I was just trying to put something together that worked.”

Born in Cambridge in 1926, Brian Horace Lister was one of two sons to Horace and Nell. Horace, a trained engineer at Peterborough-based torpedo manufacturer Brotherwood’s, had joined the family engineering firm, established by his own father, George, in 1890, after the Great War, taking over shortly after.

Educated at the Perse School, Cambridge, Brian left in 1942 to begin an engineering apprenticeship at George Lister & Sons. Passionate about cars from an early age, he learnt his trade through renovating old cars, his first being a former police MG, then a Morgan 4/4, followed by a Cooper-MG.

In 1946, he began his two years’ national service in the RAF, chosen on the basis that he could improve his engineering skills and, with his love of jazz, hoped to play with a band because, he recalled, “the RAF had the best bands”. He always retained his love of jazz. He rejoined the family firm in 1948.

In the late 40s, Lister bought the second chassis ever produced by John Tojeiro; he fitted an 1,100cc JAP V-twin engine, resulting in a quick, if temperamental, car which showed commercial promise.

With a post-war resurgence in motor racing Lister turned to competition; he helped to co-found the Cambridge 50 Car Club and befriended mechanical genius, Donald Moore, who maintained both his and Scott Brown’s car engines.

Lister entered his car in a Cambridge University Automobile Club sprint at Bottisham aerodrome in 1951, where he expected to beat everyone. Here he met Scott Brown for the first time.

Lister recalled: “I should have run rings around him with the Tojeiro,” but instead, he was almost matched by this jovial character, only five feet tall, who seemed to ignore his own handicaps as he defied the laws of physics, flinging his MG TD from side to side with his tremendously strong left arm, steadying the wheel with his right stump when grabbing another gear. His severe disabilities were a result of his mother contracting German measles during pregnancy.

Lister immediately asked him to drive his car while he concentrated on construction. Lister explained: “To get the best out of the car I needed someone who can drive like this, and here he is.”

Scott Brown had an erratic income as a tobacco salesman and willingly accepted. He was an instant success and his regular successes in the Tojeiro-JAP between 1952 and 1953 set a giant-killing pattern.

With money from his father, Lister set about developing their new car. Inspired by Cooper, Lister built the car, with Moore sourcing the MG engine and Scott Brown driving.

Astonishingly, all three were self-taught with Lister designing the majority of the bodywork and working by intuition. He explained: “I tended to ignore aerodynamics since I didn’t know enough about it.”

A week after the Knobbly’s 1954 debut win, whilst at the British Empire Trophy, Oulton Park, another driver protested Scott Brown’s entry on safety grounds; his racing license was swiftly revoked until, on appeal, it was restored two months later. Lister kept faith with him.

Later developments saw Lister upgrade to a Bristol, then Maserati and most famously Jaguar and Chevrolet powered engines, the latter for the US market. The Lister-Jag caught everyone’s attention when it debuted in 1957 sweeping all before it.

At Goodwood in September Scott Brown demolished a field including Jack Brabham and Roy Salvadori, leading from flag to flag and winning handsomely. Six months later, he led Stirling Moss’s DBR2 Aston Martin until his steering failed.

Orders came flooding in and the car went into production in 1958. Lister was catapulted to the forefront of sports car builders, yet he achieved international success with great humility and on a budget much smaller than the major racing teams.

With the frequent deaths, Lister called time after Ivor Bueb and Jean Behra died in 1959. He did not drop out completely from racing; his last venture into racing was the preparation of the works Sunbeam Tigers for the 1964 Le Mans race; he also served on motorsport committees until 1974, including a year as chairman.

In 2014 the Lister “Knobbly” was reborn under the stewardship of the Whittaker family and turnkey replicas are now built at the same Lister factory for historic racing.

Lister is survived by his wife Josephine Prest, whom he married in 1951, and their daughter.