Dream big: plotting the rebirth of a British sports-car icon
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"Driving home, my dad said to me, 'you know we could buy all this and make a Lister from scratch'.
"I remember thinking, 'is that a good idea?' But we talked about it all the way home for four hours and when we got home we decided that we were going to seek out who owned Lister and try to do a deal."
That is how Lister Cars owner Lawrence Whittaker recounts the beginning of an adventure reviving a great British racing and sports car company, inspired by the discovery of a treasure trove of old parts, blueprints, tooling and chassis jigs mothballed in a factory.
A trip from the North West to Lister's Cambridgeshire premises on the hunt for classic car parts, led to buying the company itself and reviving a legendary British motor racing name.
First to roll out the factory doors were ten new versions of the renowned Lister Knobbly, built exactly to original specification and costing £300,000-plus.
Next came £1million cars endorsed by Sir Stirling Moss, road-going versions of the Knobbly and a revival of the sleek Lister Costin.
Now the company has taken on a new lease of life, is starting to deliver a fresh breed of high-performance Jaguar-based cars and Lawrence has an ambition to one day build a new Lister, creating an exclusive British supercar.
Lawrence's pride in the company and drive to get that car made was clearly evident when he showed me design ideas earlier this year at Lister’s new headquarters in Blackburn, Lancashire.
Last month, he revealed publicly a picture of what it could look like, tweeting to the world 'New Lister Knobbly – and yes, we will build it!'
The story of Lister's rebirth began in 2012. Lancashire businessman Lawrence and his father Andrew had travelled down to the home of Lister in Cambridge looking for blueprints after Mr Whittaker Senior bought a 1950s car to restore.
"He'd bought a Lister Knobbly in boxes," says Lawrence. "Literally in boxes."
Lister made its name in the 1950s, when Brian Lister created his formidable eponymous racing cars on a relative shoestring.
Lister punched above its weight, competing with the great names in motor racing, including Ferrari, Aston Martin, Jaguar and Maserati, and famously winning races with the talented disabled driver Archie Scott Brown.
The Knobbly earned its unusual name from its body shape; the curved bodywork kept the car as low as possible, with the bumps making room for important elements such as the wheels and engine.
Despite only 50 original Listers being made between 1954 and 1959, they won or were placed in more than 2,000 races around the world during that period.
After Scott Brown's death in 1958, Brian Lister eventually moved away from racing - but his car maker's name was later revived under new ownership, with Lister racing and selling highly-tuned Jaguar XJS-based cars in the 1980s and its own Storm and LMP cars in the 1990s and 2000s, including at Le Mans.
In an attempt to restore his Knobbly in 2012, Andrew Whittaker had contacted George Lister Engineering, the parent company of Brian Lister Light Engineering under which it had been formed in the 1950s. It said it had some parts and he should come visit.
"We drove down to Cambridge and when we got there, they had a big wooden box full of Lister parts from the fifties," says Lawrence.
"They had to get a fork lift truck to get it out from where it was hiding, no one had ever looked at it for years and years and years."
Along with a 1980s picture of then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visiting the factory, the box contained almost everything you would need to build cars to the original specification, including blueprints, and chassis and axle jigs.
The Whittakers, who had built up car warranty firm Warranty Wise from a kitchen table enterprise to a multi-million pound business, are also a pair of committed car enthusiasts and - naively looking back now admits Lawrence – decided to take the leap and start making Listers.
They tracked down Laurence Pearce, who had bought the car company name from Brian Lister and made cars from the 1980s through to the early 2000s, but discovered that things were not quite as simple as they could be.
"We really had to negotiate for quite a long time," says Lawrence. "There was a lot of different Lister companies that we had to buy: Lister Jaguar Ltd, Lister Storm Ltd, Lister LMD Ltd, Lister Heritage Ltd, Brian Lister Light Engineering, which was the oldest company."
Lawrence says that what kept him going was the rich heritage of Lister and the more digging he did the more he discovered the deep affection for it.
Confirming the value placed on the name, at the same time as the Whittakers were pulling together the pieces of the company there was a big sale price achieved.
In 2013, a Lister-Jaguar Knobbly Prototype was sold at RM Sotheby's auction at Monterey, in the US, for $1.98million (£1.27million at the time).
But it was things that money can’t buy that really appealed about Lister.
"At Goodwood, they still hold a Brian Lister Light Engineering plaque above one of the pit lanes because they were among the original cars that raced at Goodwood," says Lawrence.
"So there's Ferrari, Aston Martin and then Brian Lister Light Engineering. That's really special, Goodwood will keep that up forever because that's part of their heritage as well."
By 2014, which was Lister's 60th anniversary, the Whittakers had put everything together to start building continuation cars, including getting some of the now octogenarian original engineers out of retirement to help train workers and apprentices and oversee production.
In order to be allowed to take part in historic racing, a major draw for potential buyers, continuation cars must be made exactly to original specifications.
Continuation cars have become a money-spinner in recent years for heritage-rich big car brands such as Jaguar and Aston Martin.
Among other cars, the former has made its nine lost XKSSes and the latter 19 new DB4 Zagato GTs.
But five years ago, such a move was less known and Lister is a more niche name than Jaguar or Aston Martin. However, any fears Lawrence had that the £300,000 plus VAT cars wouldn't sell were soon allayed.
"When we released the press release for those cars they sold within two months, every single car," he says.
"When I sold the first car I'd just moved into a new house, I was in the loft unpacking and someone had seen an article - he was one of my first customers - he rang me and said 'I'm just ringing up, I'd like to buy one of these Lister 60th anniversary cars'. And I sold him the car while I was still in the loft.'We sold those ten cars really quickly."
One of the great things about launching that first batch of cars was the passion for the Lister name that soon became clear, says Lawrence. But he could never have expected what happened next.
Stood on Lister's promotional stand at the Race Retro show, a familiar figure approached and stopped to look over the cars.
It was one of Britain's most famous racing drivers, Sir Stirling Moss, and he wanted to talk Listers.
Lawrence explains: "He said 'this Knobbly is my favourite car I’ve ever driven' and I laughed a bit and I thought he was just being polite, but he said: 'Oh, no, honestly, it's absolutely my favourite car.'"
"A couple of weeks later I got a letter saying could I come down with my dad to Susie [Stirling Moss's wife] and Stirling's to lunch. So we went down and Stirling was so excited about Lister and he said 'I want to do something together.'"
Lawrence explains that he told Sir Stirling that was very nice, but that Lister probably couldn't afford him and had been forced to spend a lot of money on the research and development for the ten versions of the Knobbly it was already making – cars that despite a £300,000 price tag were proving to be far from a money spinner.
The racing driver had only ever endorsed one car before, the outlandish limited edition Mercedes SLR Stirling Moss and Lawrence feared there was no way Lister could match such a deal.
"He said 'I'm not bothered about that. I have never endorsed a race car and if there's one race car that I want to endorse it's this one'" recounts Lawrence.
Sir Stirling fondly recalled how he'd loved the Lister as giant-beater that he had raced at Goodwood, Sebring and Silverstone, and he wanted to support its rebirth.
"We did a deal and that was it, the Lister Stirling Moss was born. The only racing car ever endorsed by Stirling Moss, which was such a coup for a small company like Lister to get."
What was special about that run of cars is that they were built to the exact same super-lightweight works specification, using magnesium alloy instead of aluminium for the bodyshells, that Moss had raced to victory at Silverstone in 1958.
While a surprising number of Lister's customers are brave enough to put their expensive and rare cars through their paces on the track and in competition, the initial run of continuation cars were barred from one important thing for classic car fans – being able to drive on the road.
Demand for a Lister that could be road registered led to the next chapter of the story.
The launch of this repeated the success of the Knobbly continuation cars in immediately pulling in orders - and the first of the Costins are now being delivered to customers.
Building continuation cars to the exacting specification required is a time-consuming and expensive job, hence the price tags running into hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Customers obviously need to be wealthy, but Lawrence says "they are all from different backgrounds but they're the same in that they all have a love for racing.
"We have sold one or two cars to people who are more likely just collectors, who want to put it away as an investment because of the low volume of the cars, but most people are passionate about driving the car or racing the car."
By the start of 2018, Lister was an active car maker again and the Whittakers were living the dream of reviving a great British racing car firm.
So, would it have been possible to simply have continued in that vein and built a profitable company that only made five to ten very exclusive cars each year?
When I put that question to him, Lawrence sat and thought for a few moments before answering "you probably could".
"I think it would be really difficult,' he added. 'We've certainly not made any money out of the continuation cars.
"When we started, the business plan was to try and make money out of it, of course, but there was a lot of things that threw a spanner in the works that you would never have known about.
"Things where we've had to do so much work, which has eroded any profit, to get the cars out there."
Fellow British sports car maker Morgan makes about 700 cars a year and a small profit, says Lawrence, which is considerably more than Lister’s ten annually with the Knobbly and Costins.
"I really think you need to be making volume to make profit. I think making ten of anything is never going to be such a success, unless like Eagle you're charging £650,000 a car.
"We charged £300,000, which with hindsight was far too low, we sold a car to one of our first customers and he sold it for £100,000 profit.
"It's easy to think now with hindsight 'well, what a mistake.' But when you're starting to sell ten 60th anniversary Knobblies, when no one has a clue what they are worth, well you've got to go with something haven't you?
"And you'd rather sell cars that not sell them. So, even though the price point proved to be a bit low, I don't regret that because it got the cars out there. That was important for building the brand."
The success of the continuation cars, which built up a three-year order list to work towards in the Cambridge factory, became a springboard to take Lister to the next stage.
The history of Lister shows a strong link to Jaguar, from the late 1950s cars that used its engines to the tuned and modified XJSs of the 1980s, and Lawrence said he looked at the F-Type and thought it was ripe for a revival of that.
"If there’s anyone that’s going to tune Jaguars, it's Lister isn't it?" he says, pointing out that while Mercedes has AMG and BMW Alpina, at the moment no one really does the same for Jaguar vehicles.
So Lister went to work on Jaguar’s F-Type coupe. The idea was not to simply add a few cosmetic touches and tinker with the engine to deliver a mild power upgrade, but to create a car with a new character and exclusive feel. Something that stood true to the Lister name.
The basis of the car is a brand new £90,000 5.0 litre supercharged all-wheel drive Jaguar F-Type R.
Lister's engineers went to work on the F-Type R to upgrade the engine, the exterior and the interior for the limited run of 99 LFT-666s (pictured below), which cost from £139,950, and were originally to be called Lister Thunders. Top speed is quoted as 334km/h and 0-96km/h takes 3.2 seconds.
"It took a lot of time and money to get it perfect," says Lawrence. He describes it as a balancing act, as he wanted the Lister to have not just extra horsepower but also reliability and driveability.
Under the bonnet, a new supercharger, intercoolers, and air filtration system were fitted, while the engine was remapped. A new exhaust system also added extra potency, with the final power coming out at a devilish 666bhp (500kW).
"It suits the car perfectly", says Lawrence. "Driveability is still there. I've driven plenty of 700bhp cars and they can be almost undriveable, with too much power sometimes. That car is perfectly balanced.
"I think part of the success of the car is because I've had such an eclectic car history. I've probably had 350 to 400 cars in my life. That's enabled me to be more critical than most.'
He adds: "I'm lucky enough to have a car collection of my own and if I get up in the morning, walk out of the house and want to drive the Lister more than anything else, I know that we've succeeded."
The exterior of the LFT has also had a muscular makeover, with a full suite of carbon fibre modifications, including the front bumper, rear splitter, side skirts, and a bonnet option.
Particular attention has also been paid inside, with Lawrence saying that he wanted a Rolls-Royce or Bentley level interior. The car has a full new hand-stitched nappa leather interior from British specialists Bridge of Weir, including even the headliner and dashboard.
As soon as the Lister LFT was announced, at the start of last year, orders started to come in, with 30 sold off the back of stories in the press and a video of the prototype. The company now has a forward order book that is full for at least the next year.
So who is buying? A diverse bunch, according to Lawrence, who says he didn't design the LFT with any particular customer in mind.
"People who want more exclusivity, something special," he says. "You're only going to see 99 of them - not all of them in this country - so you’re not going to pull up next to one at Sainsbury's."
He adds: "I know everyone who drives the LFT, they fall in love with it, because it's the noise, it's the power, it's the comfort as well. It's not an uncomfortable car. I don't like uncomfy cars, I don't like bone rattling cars. Some people love that, but it's just not for me."
Lister will make the LFT at its new £5million headquarters on the outskirts of Blackburn, where Lawrence has installed both the car company and his other business Warranty Wise at a landmark out-of-town spot.
A light and airy open showroom space sits downstairs, which should eventually be filled with Listers but for now houses an historic Lister, a couple of new LFTs, and some of Lawrence's own eclectic car collection, all in mint condition.
On the day I visited, cars on show included his Mercedes SL Pagoda, original Honda NSX, VW Karmann Ghia and even an old Lamborghini tractor.
Next up for the company will be the LFP (pictured below) – another highly tuned and modified Jaguar, but this time round based on the F-Pace 4x4. If all goes to plan it should take the crown of the world's fastest SUV, beating even the Lamborghini Urus with its 321km/h top speed.
Priced at about £140,000, it will again be based on a 5.0 litre supercharged Jaguar engine, tuned to put out 500kW and benefitting from carbon fibre weight saving and a full leather luxury cabin.
Plans were also revealed in late-March for the LFC, a tuned convertible Jaguar F-Type.
While car fans have welcomed the return of Lister, Jaguar Land Rover doesn't exactly seem to have embraced it, perhaps because it has its own in-house Special Vehicle Operations Arm now.
Lister has to buy its base cars, rather than sourcing them direct from Jaguar and Lawrence indicates he'd welcome a closer relationship.
The real prize for Lawrence remains building an entirely new Lister and this is somewhere that a proper tie-up with Jaguar to supply engines and parts could really pay off.
He hints that Lister's ambition lies in perhaps making tens of new cars each year, perhaps with a run of 100. That's a long way from the 181,000 Jaguar sold in 2018 and closer to the output of hypercar makers Pagani and Koenigsegg than to even Lotus or Morgan, which made about 1,600 and 700 cars in 2018, respectively.
But developing a new car is an extremely expensive business – even for low volume makers – and building from a base of the tried and tested parts and engines of established car makers creates a substantial advantage.
A hidden example is wiring looms, says Lawrence, which are so expensive and complicated that without manufacturer support building a car isn't viable.
Many would consider it a shame if a revived famous British name like Lister had to go to BMW or Mercedes instead of Jaguar’s British engineering for this.
For now though building that new car remains an ambition rather than imminent plan for Lister, albeit one that Lawrence has pledged to deliver on.
So, how does what they have achieved at Lister compare to how Lawrence thought it might turn out six short years ago when the Whittaker family took it over?
"When you're building a car company up from scratch you think this is what I want to achieve and this is what's viable," says Lawrence.
"I really think we've exceeded all of that, but not through my skill. I think we've exceeded it through one thing I've been amazed at, which is the public's response to Lister.
"Lister has been more than I ever expected it would be, but I think what’s really special about it is the public has made that happen rather than me. It's just how people have responded to it."
If Lister can continue the pace it has set since its revival - in an adventure that has gone from spare parts in boxes, to making sought-after continuation cars, and a fresh batch of Jaguar-based sports cars - you expect that response will continue.
Particularly, as Lawrence says he wants Lister to succeed, but he wants to do it the right way and appreciates his role as 'the custodian of the brand'.
He says: "Brian Lister said to me, when I got to know him quite well in the last few years of his life, 'Don't ever do anything to Lister to damage the good reputation that I've built up.'"
- Daily Mail