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Lister Knobbly – A road-going recreation

Words: Richard Heseltine; pictures: Alex Tapley

Here comes the road-legal version of Lister’s racebred Knobbly continuation. Who needs a modern supercar?

The stark Cumbrian landscape unspools in a blur, and conversation thus far has been conducted largely by means of hand gestures. But then it’s hard to be heard over the full-throated howl of a Jaguar twin-cam six as it reaches its sweet spot. The vast acreage of bonnet rises and falls like cleavage, the point of focus from the passenger seat being the onslaught of fresh air that bypasses the shallow wind-deflector and smacks you around the chops to the point that your face is frozen in a rictus grin.

Meanwhile, the helmsman displays not a particle of doubt as speed rises and corners are dispatched with gusto. The horror-film fog of a few hours ago has made way for weak winter sun and he’s revelling in one more opportunity to play with his new toy before the roads are salted again.

It’s giddying stuff, but then that is to be expected of a ’50s sports-racer on open(ish) exhausts being exercised on challenging blacktop. Except this is nothing of the sort. This Lister-Jaguar ‘Knobbly’ was completed only recently. It is, in modern-day parlance, a ‘continuation car’, the important distinction being that it was ordered as a road car rather than as a track weapon.

It blazes a trail for a new strain of street-legal sports-racers from this resurgent Cambridgeshire marque, but therein lies the rub. Competition tools with a nod or two to Highway Code adherence generally make for a purgatorial driving experience in the real world: think ‘will it catch before it catches fire’ start-up theatrics, Olympic-standard strop-throwing shenanigans in traffic, and a spine-rattling ride quality. More often than not, you soon pine for something that bit more user-friendly. As such, you approach this car with a degree of trepidation. 

It isn’t as though Lister doesn’t have form when it comes to making road cars, mind, but that was more in the realm of the outrageous XJ-S conversions of the late 1980s, and the uncompromisingly angular Storm GT car that followed in the early ’90s. This is something else entirely, a machine that aims to duplicate the wondrousness of the original Knobbly while also making concessions to IVA Type Approval, and doing so without deviations from the script having an adverse effect on its looks or appeal. That’s quite a tightrope to walk,
not least when your customers are, by definition, high-net-worth individuals with correspondingly high expectations.

That would be individuals such as Brian Scowcroft, who commissioned the first Lister Knobbly road car. The car collection of this sometime Formula Ford racer stretches from a V16 Cadillac to a Franay-bodied Bentley via all manner of vowel-laden Italian supercars. In this company, the Knobbly doesn’t appear out of place, that’s for sure.

But, then, it was built using much of the original Brian Lister-era tooling, so that is to be expected. The architect behind the marque revival, Lawrence Whittaker, even went as far as to persuade several company old boys to come out of decades-long retirement to act as consultants during the construction of the initial batch of ten new Knobblys, and to help train the next generation of car builders. The original plan back in 2013 was simply to produce millimetre-perfect Listers with HTP papers that could be used in Historic racing, subject to the discretion of event organisers. 

‘My father had bought an original Lister Knobbly to restore,’ Whittaker recalls. ‘While trying to find out more about the car and order some parts, he contacted George Lister Engineering [Brian Lister’s grandfather’s company], which was still in existence. They invited us to their factory and we were overwhelmed to see that they had the original chassis jigs, body bucks and other parts just lying in storage. My father and I were immediately smitten and set about acquiring the five different firms that now make up The Lister Motor Company Ltd, which was launched in September 2013.’

Moving towards production was not straightforward, however. ‘To be honest, there were a lot of hurdles to overcome when building the new Listers. It took several trips to the VOSA testing centre before they approved a car. We had to adapt more than 200 individual parts.

‘The major problem we had to overcome was the heat from the exhaust. The exhaust gets very hot and this was unbearable for passengers. It was less of an issue when racing, but obviously no good on the road. Eventually, we ceramic-coated the exhaust and put a lot of heat-resistant material in the bodywork to deflect the heat, and in the end it worked very well. However, a lot of R&D and investment went into sorting the problem.’

Demand for the new Knobblys soon outstripped supply. ‘We sold the first ten cars within two months of release, which surprised me a great deal. I am always shocked at how well Lister is received globally. People genuinely love the brand and what it stands for. I am hoping for the same when we reignite our Jaguar Tuning Arm with the Lister Thunder [based on the F-type – see last issue]. Perhaps it was because we started from such a low volume, but Lister was the fastest-growing UK car company in 2017, which we were all very proud of.’

It was Scowcroft who requested that his car be street-legal, and this example has since inspired a further run of ten purely for road use, with deliveries due to start in the summer. Resplendent in Rolls-Royce Black Kirch (‘black cherry’) to match his Phantom, it looks much smaller than you might imagine. Save for the lack of wheel spinners (denuded for reasons of pedestrian safety, apparently), and the addition of door mirrors, indicators, a sunken fuel-filler cap and twin roll-hoops, there’s little to tell it apart from a period-original Knobbly. All that’s missing are race roundels. And maybe one or two battle-scars.

It is a distinctive outline, too, with some fiendishly clever features that circumvented period Appendix K race regulations, and which led to the Knobbly moniker. These rules mandated a minimum windscreen height. To reduce frontal area while conforming with this clause, Brian Lister and artist Cavendish Morton (whose resumé also included several Tojeiro racers and the ill-starred Britannia) came up with a bodystyle that was lower than the engine height demanded, with clearance over the cams and carburettors being provided by the large ‘knobble’ on the bonnet. The scuttle sat low behind this prominent bulge, with the regulation screen therefore being at super-low scuttle height. Genius. The rear deck was level with the screen top, the overall effect even now being almost cartoonish and all
the better for it. You would never mistake a Knobbly for anything else. 

Lift up the scissor door and the cabin is much as you remember of the ’50s original, save for the slender leather seats and padded dashboard. The classic white-on-black instruments look the part, and wanton luxury stretches to a low fuel-level warning light (very Fiat 500 Nuova). The modern, flush-fitting switchgear, in contrast, appears a little out of place. Some old-style toggle switches would have been infinitely more in keeping but they would no doubt upset the IVA inspectors. 

Having stepped over the wide sill and threaded your way into position, the car’s race ancestry is palpable: the driving stance is semi-prone, while the pedals are closely coupled. It’s lightyears away from several comparable designs, however, in that you don’t need to be of tiny stature to fit comfortably, and nothing is offset.

In many sports-racers from the 1950s, you feel perched; as though you’re sitting on the car rather than in it, but often with the lower portion of the steering wheel resting on your lap. That isn’t the case here. It’s damn near perfect to the point that you feel almost as though you’re wearing the car. What’s more, the gauges are easy to read at a glance.

When describing Listers, it was once customary to mention that Brian Lister’s company made wrought ironwork and cackhandedly imply that his racing cars were unsophisticated when compared with more exalted rivals, not least those from the Continent. That wasn’t fair decades ago and nothing has changed since. They beat those ‘foreign jobs’ hollow in the late 1950s after all, albeit mostly at National level. The works prototype, driven by the heroic Archie Scott Brown, swept all before it in 1957, winning 11 races from 14 starts before the production model arrived a year later. 

Beneath the skin, the new strain similarly employs a robust tubular chassis plus double-wishbone front suspension and a de Dion rear end. Power comes from a 3.8-litre straight-six using all-new remanufactured parts around original Jaguar blocks, all assembled by Crosthwaite & Gardiner, a company that knows a thing or two about extracting improbable amounts of horsepower from the XK unit. This example produces more than 330bhp – plenty, in a car weighing just shy of 800kg, to ensure excitement. Lister’s own performance figures tout a 4.3sec 0-60mph sprint time, and a top speed in excess of 180mph. 

Not that there is any danger of us reaching such velocities today, though that doesn’t stop Scowcroft from trying. From my position hunkered down in the passenger seat, all the while ruing the decision to wear a flat cap, the Lister feels remarkably composed. It helps that the pilot knows the roads and knows what he’s doing, but still it comes as a shock that he isn’t having to work much harder.

Of course the Knobbly feels dramatic, though not in a harum-scarum sort of way. If anything, the lack of much in the way of protection from the elements only heightens the sense of rapidity. As Scowcroft puts it: ‘There are faster cars, but none feels faster than the Lister. You can do 550mph in a jet, but there’s no sensation of speed.’

After swapping seats, the sense of sainted lunacy is only heightened. Acceleration is visceral, the surprise part being that the rear tyres don’t struggle for grip despite the asphalt being a mite greasy. There’s no wheelspin, no snaking, no palaver. The rush of excitement and the absolute surrender as speed builds and the engine note hardens are worth the price of admission alone. Pass 4000rpm and the grumble becomes a bark, the surround-sound fanfare blowing your mind and assaulting your ears. It’s utterly addictive. The XK unit revs much harder than you might have imagined, too, although there’s plenty of torque low down. Given that the car has covered all of 350 miles since completion, there’s no venturing into the upper reaches of the rev range, and not least because it would equate to the sort of speed that ends in a jail sentence. Even so, the engine feels unburstable. 

The gearchange, by way of contrast, requires perseverance to master because  there’s little movement across the gate. Without familiarity, it’s all to easy to change from first to fourth. That said, you can just leave it in top and enjoy all that lovely torque. The steering is also lighter than expected, but direct and precise with it. There’s no writhing through the wheel, either.

The competition clutch, however, takes some getting used to. It’s either in or out, and those on the shorter side will find themselves pressing the last few centimetres of travel using only their toes, as the car has been set-up for someone north of average height. As such, it’s all too easy to whoops-a-daisy awkwardly off the line, especially in traffic.

Given that the Lister has the longest bonnet in Christendom, and is naturally equipped with race harnesses, it comes as no surprise that pulling out of junctions safely can be a chore. It rather goes with the territory. Tellingly, the car’s owner launches the Knobbly perfectly each time.

Then there’s the ride quality. This is the revelatory part. In no way is it soft, but then you wouldn’t expect it to be. It is, however, infinitely better than preconceptions would have you believe. It soaks up the worst of the bumps with aplomb, and doesn’t tramline. Nor do you need to slalom around potholes, as you’d be forced to in many modern-day supercars we could mention. You expect to feel every zit in the asphalt through your backside, but no, and there aren’t any percussive creaks or groans through the structure. 

Whittaker likens driving the car to playing with a well-sorted E-type, and he has a point. The Knobbly has its foibles, but not many. Anyone well-versed with old cars will have no problem acclimatising, and even those making the leap from ‘moderns’ won’t find it intimidating. Not really. On a circuit it might be a different story, but its relative civility is unexpected. 

As for the nettlesome question of value for money, it’s all relative. This isn’t a car for touring because, well, there isn’t much room
for anything other than a toothbrush and a face flannel. But as something to get the heart pumping, it’s infinitely more involving than most latter-day exotica we can think of. At £225,000 for a new ‘road’ Knobbly (this example was closer to £330,000), the Lister is in no way cheap, but it is exclusive, beautifully made, with the aluminium body alone accounting for 500 man-hours, and you’re unlikely to encounter another at events.

In addition to building ten pure roadgoing Knobblys, Lister will also make the same number of Stirling Moss editions and a batch of Chevrolet-engined versions. All in all, that will mean there are fewer than 50 cars all told. That’s quite a select owners’ club. Had we the wherewithal, it’s one we would love
to be a member of.  

Factfile – 2017 Lister Knobbly

Engine 3781cc straight-six, DOHC, triple Weber 45 DC03 carburettors Power 337bhp @ 6500rpm Torque 295lb ft @ 4250rpm  Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive Steering Rack and pinion Suspension Front: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers. Rear: de Dion axle, twin trailing arms, coil springs over telescopic dampers  Brakes Girling discs  Weight 787kg Top speed 181mph 0-60mph 4.3sec  

This article was originally published in Octane 179, May 2018

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