JUL 11th 2014

Best of British: New Lister Knobbly in its first race... against time

It’s not yet turned a wheel in anger but already the new continuation series of Lister ‘Knobbly’ Jags is in its first race – against the clock.

The first of a planned series of 10 new Knobblys needs to be finished in time for the Silverstone Classic (25-27 July) and then the big one, Revival (12-14 September). This year (actually 30 July) is the 60th anniversary of Lister sports cars and to have a re-created version of such an iconic racer at Goodwood especially, the scene of so many of its triumphs both in period and in historic racing, would be truly fitting.

Goodwood Road & Racing decided to drop in on the factory outside Cambridge to see how the project is progressing. Is there a smooth road ahead for the new Knobbly?

Knobbly’s second coming. Again

First, a recap. It is coming up for a year now since Lister announced plans to build a continuation run of Knobblys, the sumptuously curved late 1950s sports racer which, powered by the Jaguar D-type engine, proved a giant-killer in international sports car racing in the hands of drivers such as Stirling Moss, Ivor Bueb, Archie Scott Brown and Innes Ireland.

The decision to bring back the Knobbly was one of the first things that new owners Warranty Wise did after buying out all the Lister companies in 2013 and combining them under one new Lister Motor Company Ltd umbrella, with father and son Lawrence and Andrew Whittaker at the helm. It is not the first time the Knobbly has made a comeback – a series of continuation cars was made by Lister in 1990 to mark the centenary of a firm that began in 1890 as a blacksmiths.

As in 1990, there would be 10 cars only, based on the 1958-spec racer and all made by hand using original tools and drawings wherever possible ­– with some of the hands belonging to workers who built the cars in the 1950s. Men like ‘Chippy’ Crisp and ‘Curly’ Hutton whose names still evoke an image of plucky British underdogs taking on all-comers at circuits like Spa and Le Mans. Others from Lister’s short-lived but super-successful racing period between 1954 and ’59, including Brian Lister himself still in all his bow-tied elegance, are supporting the project.

Lister Knobbly

‘Chippy’ Crisp on the left, with Mark Hallam

The famously bulbous body is all hand-beaten aluminium, farmed out (as it was in the 1950s) to a specialist body builder, in this case Shapecraft in Taunton. Brian Lister destroyed the original Knobbly body bucks after Scott Brown was killed at Spa in 1958, but they were remade for the 1990 cars and it’s these that are being used now.

Under the bonnet is the right 3.8-litre wide-angle-head Jaguar D-type engine (provided by CKL Developments) and D-type gearbox (from Crosthwaite & Gardener). With 330bhp, 295lb ft and dry weight of 787kg, the reborn Knobbly should top 180mph, get from standstill to 60mph in 4.3sec and to 100mph in 10sec.

Despite modern machining tools and computer-aided design there are no concessions to modernity in the actual car – even the fuel pumps remain at the side rather than being relocated more out of harm’s way at the rear. As a result the BHL-C (for continuation) cars will, says Lister, be ‘race ready out of the box’ for competition up to FIA/HTP Appendix K historic racing.

Available in both racing and road forms, the continuation Knobblys cost (depending on spec) £250,000 plus tax – quite a difference from the seven-figure numbers that 1950s cars now sell for. They reckon to have sold four so far.

More heavy duty than hi-tech

Fulbourn is a village 10 miles from Cambridge and the Abbey Road factory where Brian Lister produced his first racing car in 1954. It’s long been home to Lister Engineering but now is given over entirely to building the new Knobblys. It’s appropriate that the place retains a more heavy-duty than hi-tech feel – the metalworking heritage is plain to see.

What’s not plain to see is the first of this new batch of cars. Where is it? Behind schedule is the answer. A finished Knobbly was originally promised for spring but, perhaps inevitably, the schedule has slipped – hence the big hurry now to get it finished in time for the birthday celebrations.

When we visited in June tech director Mark Hallam was confident that testing could start within weeks, all car No1 (pictured) requiring, he said, was wiring, windscreen and paint. Mark, who began at Lister as an apprentice welder straight from school, is very much a glass-half-full person. ‘Chippy’ Crisp less so. ‘The only thing I wish they’d done is made one and tried it first. It will be six months before this is going anywhere at speed.’ You can count on 74-year-old retired employees for telling it like it is…

The tubular ladderframe chassis, steering arms, stub axles, de Dion rear axle and hubs are all made in Fulbourn using a mix of original and new machines, with experienced old hands like ‘Chippy’ telling keen young apprentices ‘where the bits go and why’, as he puts it.

Said Mark Hallam: ‘We have tried to keep everything as original as possible, but some parts like the old MGA stub axles you can’t get. So we have had to reverse engineer them and make our own on a new CNC machine. It’s been the most difficult part of the project, and one where ‘Chippy’s knowledge has proved invaluable.

Lister Knobbly

Mark Hallam

‘As a result the new stub axles are very much stronger than the originals which is good because they are the most highly stressed part of the car. If one of those went at 180mph you’d know it.’

‘Chippy’, who officially retired 12 years ago, adds: ‘We didn’t have CAD (computer-aided design) and 3D scanning then. We’d do a design on the back of a fag packet, then make the part, taking little bits off until it fit, then we’d draw it. It’s the other way round now.’

Easy to make a bad copy

If the first car has a way to go yet then the idea behind it stands up – the Knobbly’s reputation in its 60th year is greater than it’s ever been, the cars more sought after. So much so that there are probably twice as many ‘Listers’ out there as Lister actually made (about 50 real ones).  As Mark Hallam said: ‘The Knobbly has been one of the most popular cars to copy because it is easy to copy badly.’

There is no need to tell the Whitakers that. The car warranty bosses Andrew (Lister’s chairman) and Lawrence (managing director) first came across Lister when they bought what they thought was a Knobbly and took it to the factory for restoration. It turned out to be a copy. So instead of restoring it the factory suggesting making them a new one – a real one. They liked that idea so much they bought the company…

Enthusiasm, a willingness to invest, and a real engineering-led workforce – with all that going for it it’s odds on that Lister’s future will embrace more than new Knobblys. Lister has done road cars as well don’t forget: the 200mph Lister Le Mans road cars from the 1980s and the 7.0-litre V12 Lister Storm that followed it. The company says future plans will be announced soon…

Great – but first please bring on the new Knobbly. Bring it down to Goodwood – where else? – for testing. Just as they did in the ‘50s, as ‘Chippy’ remembers…

‘Brian Lister would never spend more money than he had to. So when we had a week tyre testing at Goodwood we would have to drive there and back every day. Brian wouldn’t pay for a hotel. We’d leave Cambridge at 6am, flog through London, spend a day wearing out tyres at Goodwood, drive back again, do what had to be done to the car, get a little sleep then leave again at 6am.’

This time ‘Chippy’ the room’s on us!

Historic racing fan? Then step this way for the latest Revival news …

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