Carmaker whose curvaceous Lister-Jaguar swept all before it on the racing circuits of the late Fifties until a tragic accident
Having built what was arguably the most successful racing car of the 1950s, Brian Lister turned his back on the sport at the height of his success when the other half of one of British motor racing’s most celebrated partnerships was killed while racing in one of his cars in 1958.
The Lister-Jaguar was virtually unbeatable on British circuits after its introduction in 1957 and the meteoric success that it brought to Lister’s small manufacturing plant near Cambridge caught the public’s imagination. Consistently outperforming bigger constructors, such as Aston Martin, Lister’s front-engined one-seater swept all before it. Affectionately known as “the knobbly” for its curved body work, it also made a star out of the driver Archie Scott Brown — a charismatic figure with a curled moustache who beat a severe disability which effectively rendered him partially lame and one-handed to climb to the top of the sport.
Scott Brown’s death after crashing a Lister-Jaguar during a race in Belgium in 1958 caused Lister to retire from the sport. Lister was particularly hurt by criticism that the Lister-Jaguar was unsafe. When asked about the car’s reputation for poor braking as he careered around corners, Scott Brown had responded, “I’ll carry on without them old boy”. Soon after Scott Brown was killed when he crashed at a corner while vying for the lead with his great American rival Masten Gregory. The car had burst into flames and Lister received further criticism that its ultra-light magnesium-alloy bodywork, which fitted snugly around the tubular ladder chassis, was inflammable.
An RAC investigation found no faults with the car, but Lister’s grief was such that he began to withdraw from the sport. However, a commercial version of the car went into production in 1958 with great success.
Brian Lister was born into an engineering family in 1926 and attended Perse school in Cambridge. His father’s business, George Lister & Sons, specialised in manufacturing torpedoes, and Brian was apprenticed there in 1942. He spent most of his spare time tinkering with car engines, starting with an MG, and emerging covered in grease when being called to dinner.
He developed his first racing car with an MG engine in 1954, entering it into a race in Snetterton and winning with Scott Brown behind the wheel. The successful entry of the small unheralded team put plenty of noses out of joint in the racing paddocks. Fellow drivers, who did not take kindly to the prospect of losing against a driver who they regarded with disdain rather than admiration because of his disability, complained that the Lister was a safety risk and Scott Brown’s licence was temporarily revoked.
However, Lister’s father was impressed at this early success and agreed to diversify the family firm into a racing team. When Jaguar decided that its D-type — which had won the Le Mans 24-hour race for three years in a row — needed replacing with a new model, its boss William Lyons donated the engines and gearboxes to Lister. Lyons believed that Lister could adapt the engine into a winning car and keep the Jaguar name in the forefront of racing and at little cost to Jaguar. It proved to be a masterstroke.
Lister was remembered as an unfailingly courteous man with a predilection for colourful bowties. He was described as diffident and could not have been more different than his flamboyant friend, Scott Brown. However, Lister was transformed into a different beast altogether with a drum kit in front of him, playing with his jazz band, the Downbeats.
He is survived by his wife Josephine Prest, and by their daughter. He sold the company in 1986 and the new owner Laurence Pearce revived the Lister-Jaguar marque with a new range of cars based on the concept of souping up already rather racy Jaguar XJS’s and giving them an eye-watering top speed of 200mph.
Lawrence Whittaker, managing director of Lister Cars, said: “Brian Lister was a wonderful man who was always incredibly modest about his amazing achievements. Whenever I met him, I was left with the lasting impression of his passion for British engineering.”
Brian Lister, owner of Lister Cars, was born on July 12, 1926. He died on December 16, 2014, aged 88