Lawrence Whittaker On Lister And Legacy
Lawrence Whittaker, CEO of The Lister Motor Company and Warrantywise, sat down with Straight4 to talk about the past and the future of everyone’s favourite “little” car company. From sourcing V12 Jag’ lumps from scrapheaps to running (and winning) against elite brands with zero budget, here’s a story of passion conquering the world … (And to celebrate that motorsport passion, you’ll find the first-ever in-game screens of the Lister Storm coming to GTRevival!) ….
Legend has it that you and your dad were at the Lister factory in 2012 sourcing parts for a Lister Knobbly when you were presented with the opportunity to buy the company. Any truth in that legend and, if so, how exactly did that all happen?
LW: So in about 2011, my dad, who spends his retirement restoring vintage cars, bought a Lister Knobbly. That came all in parts—a chassis, boxes of parts, and all sorts of bits and pieces completely dismantled from New Zealand.
He started trying to restore the car and, through restoring it, we ended up sourcing from George Lister Engineering, which was basically the holding company for Lister Cars. That was the company started in 1890 which was owned by Brian Lister’s grandfather who’d started this engineering company called George Lister Engineering.
We contacted them because they were still in operation, and we wanted them to make us some parts to bring Dad’s Lister back on track. So we went down to see them in Cambridge and they had all sorts of things lying around—blueprints, books, you know, for making their bodies, they had chassis, they had the rear axle jig, they had all sorts of things.
And from there, they introduced us to the owners—they didn’t own the car company, the car company was sold in 1986, but they’d kept the engineering company—and we were introduced to Lawrence Pearce who owned the car company and from there, we sort of ended up doing a deal.
So now they have the contract to build Listers for us using a lot of the original parts that we found when we went down to see them.
The car company has only had 3 owners in 70 years—it was Brian Lister, Lawrence Pearce, and now us. We ended up buying 5 different companies and piecing it all back together and that’s how we ended up buying the Lister Motor Company.
What was it about Lister and the marque that so fascinated you?
LW: What fascinates me about the Lister marque is, obviously, the racing pedigree. You know, when you consider an original Lister Knobbly sold for around £2 million and some have even sold for more than that. The value of the vehicle is so high because of the racing success of the marque. And obviously, the success that the company had from the very first car they made in 1951 up until Brian Lister stopped producing cars in 1960 was absolutely phenomenal.
I mean, they won every race in their class and at every level right through the ’50s, and it became the most popular, most successful sports racer of the ’50s including, you know, Jaguars and Ferraris and everything else they used to race against.
They enjoyed fantastic success in the ’50s and then again with Lawrence Pearce in the 1990s and 2000s. I mean, winning the GT3 championship in the year 2000, that was another huge success.
I've been a car enthusiast all my life and collected cars and I have a large car collection, but when the opportunity came along where I could buy a company that would enable me to become a car manufacturer—well, if you're as passionate about cars as I am, there’s nothing more exciting than buying a company where you can actually manufacture your own cars.
The Lister Storm GT has quite a special legacy in the real-world of motorsports, as well as in sim racing. Making its debut in the GTR game back in 2004, its V12 engine, the largest lump fitted to a production car since WW2, was a phenomenon. Can you talk to us a little about the legacy of that car and its place in Lister mythology?
LW: You know, in most people’s lives, they remember the Storm better than the Listers of the 1950s because it’s more modern and obviously featured in a lot of games, and that always surprises me. It’s always lovely to hear how much people love racing the Lister Storm. I think it was just a very, very special time for motorsport where you had McLaren F1s and the Porsche 993s, the 959s and things like that, you know, all racing together. I mean, it’s such an absolutely marvellous time for racing cars, a magical, mystical time, where Lister was racing right through ’96, ’97, ’98, ’99, to 2001, 2002 right up until 2006.
The Lister Storm had an awful lot of success with the Jaguar V12 engine—a completely redesigned engine by Lawrence Pearce, but made more powerful and lighter, and it eventually ended up at 7 litres. But you know, I think that at the time, the Lister was such a revered car because it was the same recipe from the 1950s.
You had a very, very small British car company beating huge companies with a budget that was very, very small. I remember someone saying that the Lister budget was the same budget that some of the larger companies would spend just on their wheels and tyres, and that was the budget for the entire vehicle!
I think that’s the magic that Lister has—that they were able to succeed and win even though the budget wasn’t anywhere near what it would be for some of the larger manufacturers.
It’s the David and Goliath story which so many people resonated with. Here is this little company from Cambridge that could come and compete at a world level and win.
Are there any Lister Storm GTs still running from the early-2000s and did you ever get a chance to drive one? If so, what are they like?
LW: No, I've never driven a Lister Storm. I’m good friends with Tiff Needell who is the one of the ex-presenters of Top Gear, and there’s a really good video where he drove one for the TV show on BBC One.
Is it true that V12 engine was sourced from the production Jaguars from the ’50s and that some were sourced from Jags that were ready for the scrapheap?
LW: So the V12 engine block originates from the 5.3L V12 Jaguar engine used in the E type Jag’. Of course, it’s heavily modified for the Storm. But essentially, yeah, it’s a 1950s-designed block. You know, Lawrence Pearce, who owned Lister at the time when they were racing the Storm, he still believes that’s one of the best engines ever made in terms of its reliability and its power-to-weight ratio.
It’s an easily modifiable engine and produces great results at any capacity—a 5L, 6L, or 7L.
I think they did use some used blocks. But you know, sometimes an old block has a benefit over a new block as long as it’s not too old, because once it’s been running for 10,000 miles or so, the block settles down and the metal is stronger as a result of that. Whereas if you make a brand-new block, sometimes it can suffer from fractures and things like that.
Using the original blocks was just a happy coincidence that seemed to do well in the modifications.
The Lister “Knobbly” is back in production, taking the blueprints from the 1950s to recreate these legendary racers. What are they like to drive?
LW: So, yeah, the Lister Knobbly is back in production. I own one myself and I have driven it many, many times. They are remarkably fast. I mean, having driven a lot of modern cars, I think one of the things that’s really surprising when you drive a 1957 Knobbly is just how powerful it is. There’s a 3.8L Jaguar XK engine in there, which produces 350bhp in a car that weighs 800KGs. So the power-to-weight ratio is absolutely off the scale.
And when you compare 0-to-60 times and top speed, you’re looking at a very similar figures to the latest Audi R8, which, you know, when you consider the Knobbly was from 1957...
The thing that strikes you is how absolutely rapid the car is. Obviously, it’s got an awful lot of power going through the rear wheels, and one of the best things about the Knobbly was the ability to drift around corners.
The last race run by Lister was at Vallelunga in 2004 which, of course, was won by a Lister Storm. Will we ever see Lister back in motorsport?
LW: So we still race, but in the historic racing world. We have a lot of the Lister Knobblys—we’ve built 20 cars now—and there are quite a few of them racing in historic races like the Silverstone Classic, the Stirling Moss Trophy, some Goodwood Members meetings, all around the world really. There’s lots of races in America, too, so, yeah, Lister is still producing racing cars, but as a company with a race team, we haven’t got any plans at the moment to enter motorsport with our own race team.
But never say never!
And so, while we all wait and hope for a return of Lister, at Straight4, the legendary Lister Storm is now in-game and getting its physics sorted. Here’s an inside look at what this beast looks like in GTRevival. …