Darin Schnabel ©2015, courtesy of RM Sotheby’s
Numerous privateer racing drivers got it in their mind to build their own car in the 1950s, with each experiencing varying degrees of luck on the track. Brian Lister had the money and the engineering know-how, so his first racing car, which was built in the mid-1950s with the able assistance of Don Moore and Archie Scott-Brown, was an incredible success, collecting a 1st- or 2nd-place finish wherever it roamed. Its success with MG and Bristol was such that Lister soon had the financial backing of Shell/BP, as well as a deal with Jaguar to supply engines for a car that would be capable of winning the World Sports Car Championship. The result, the Lister-Jaguar, was also a world-beater, and it was eventually developed into the now-legendary “Knobbly,” nicknamed for its curvaceous but rather bumpy bodywork. Nothing performed like a Knobbly Lister — and nothing quite looked like one either. Eventually, as often happened in the 1960s, a U.S.-built engine was dropped into a British-built sports car. The result was the Lister-Chevrolet. It boasted hairy performance and was more than competitive, as it became “the car to beat.” The Listers swept the SCCA Championships in 1958 and 1959. Unfortunately, with the success of the Lister-Chevrolet, the “ultimate” Lister came at the end of the company’s life, as production wound down in 1959, after fewer than 50 cars had been produced, only 16 of which were Chevrolet-powered. The Lister-Chevrolet offered here is chassis number BHL127. In 1959, this example was finished as a Frank Costin-bodied car, and it came with a Chevrolet engine. It was reportedly owned in its early years by Chuck Howard and Tracy Bird, who raced it at such tracks as Road America and Elkhart Lake. Definitive records on Listers are in short supply for various reasons, and there is no factory documentation available for any car, but this car’s identity as chassis number BHL127 is fortunately supported by the lettering stamped into the chassis, which is in Brian Lister’s unique and instantly identifiable font.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1959 Lister-Chevrolet
Years Produced:1958–59
Number Produced:1958: seven Chevy, 10 Jaguar; 1959: nine Chevy, two Jaguar
Original List Price:N/A
SCM Valuation:$1,200,000–$1,600,000
Tune Up Cost:$1,000
Chassis Number Location:Tab on front shock tower
Engine Number Location:Left rear of block
Club Info:Sportscar Vintage Racing Association
Alternatives:1953–55 Jaguar D-type, 1958 Devin SS, 1956–58 Maserati 450S
Investment Grade:B

This car, Lot 249, sold for $412,500, including buyer’s premium, at RM Sotheby’s Andrews Collection sale on May 2, 2015.

Lister-Chevys aren’t subtle. They are really about three things: adrenaline, winning and cojones. It’s the “Long Tall Texan” thing: “I ride a big white horse / (he rides from Texas on a big white horse / people look at me and say / Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh! is that your horse?).”

The high-status guys in the pre-1960, big-bore sports racing grid can bring out their Ferraris, Maseratis, Astons and Jaguars, but if you just want to stomp on them and finish in front, a Lister-Chevy is your weapon. Note that I didn’t say that they are particularly easy — or even much fun — to drive (though I know several very good drivers who truly enjoy them), but they are very pretty and damned impressive beasts.

The hierarchy of speed and status

Regular readers know that I often hold forth on the balance between collector value and “weapons” value in vintage racing cars, and today’s subject is an interesting object lesson in exactly that.

Across the entire spectrum, but particularly in the highly prestigious 1955–61 big-bore sports racing group, there is a clear status hierarchy.

At the top are the international championship-oriented racers from major manufacturers such as Ferrari, Jaguar, etc. All of the major components of these cars — engines, drivetrains and suspensions —were built specifically for the cars, and the bodywork was invariably aluminum.

In the middle are the professional English specialist builders, such as Lister, Lotus and Tojeiro, who built frames, suspensions, and utilized aluminum bodywork — but used power and drivetrains from somebody else.

At the bottom are American fiberglass-bodied specials like Devin and various home-built cars.

At the top, collector value far outstrips the weapons side, in the middle the two parts more or less balance, and at the bottom it is all about how fast you can go, with little — if any — interest in status or collectibility. Sitting in the middle of the spectrum, the values of Listers can and do vary widely depending on the history and provenance of any particular car.

Lister’s fast history

Let’s do a little background. Brian Lister was a trained engineer who built a ladder-framed racer with an MG engine. As seems to be traditional, the car went very well, and other people wanted copies, so he found himself in the specialist racing car business.

Lister quickly went to larger engines with evolving chassis design, and in 1957 built a Jaguar-powered special for Archie Scott-Brown to drive in international competition. He did extremely well, so for 1958 Lister decided to build a run of production racers using 3-liter D-type Jaguar engines and drivetrains. To keep frontal area down, the aluminum bodywork was stretched as tightly as possible around the engine and wheels at the front of the car, resulting in a very aggressive and bumpy, or “knobbly,” appearance, which is how the 1958 cars came to be identified.

At the time, the U.S. market for these sorts of racers was very strong, and the SCCA didn’t have a displacement limit, so Lister put the 3.8-liter Jaguar engine in the first ones for export. They quickly realized, though, that the small-block Chevrolet engine made far more horsepower and weighed a bit less than the Jaguar, so arrangements were made to ship cars without engines or transmissions to Jim Hall and Carroll Shelby for completion in the United States.

Seven cars thus became Lister-Chevrolets in 1958 and proved very effective in American racing.

For 1959, the chassis remained effectively unchanged, but Lister hired Frank Costin to design a body with better aerodynamics. Costin believed that smooth shapes were more important than frontal area, so the new bodywork was much smoother, and the 1959 cars became known as “Costin” Listers as opposed to the Knobbly.

History has established that he was wrong: The Knobblies have less drag than the Costins (but the new designs had less high-speed lift). Virtually everybody agrees that the Knobbly is a more attractive and desirable design than the 1959 Costin. Of the 11 1959 cars built, only two were Jaguar-powered; the rest were Chevys for the United States.

A sharp weapon

It’s time to get back to our subject car. As discussed earlier, Lister-Chevys have a very high weapons-grade value because they are damned impressive beasts — and are the weapon to have if you want to finish in front. Any collector value is then added on top of the underlying weapons one to establish a market value for a particular example.

The major components of collector value are history and originality with a side order of aesthetics, with the result that the most valuable Listers are the few Jaguar-powered ones that competed on the European stage and have survived more or less unscathed over the years.

The Chevys, being by definition American club racers, just don’t have the panache of the FIA racers. The 1958 Knobblies are more desirable than the later Costins as well.

Risen from the ashes and reborn

BHL127 came to the United States in 1959 as a Costin-bodied Lister-Chevy and had moderate if not great success in the hands of little-known drivers.

The fact that it lost its original body and came to be a Knobbly may pique your curiosity, but the rest of the story is where it gets interesting. According to Doug Nye’s history of the various chassis, this car was campaigned into the early 1960s with a Buick engine, at which point it was sold to an inexperienced owner who installed a very strong Chevrolet powerplant.

He took it to Lime Rock for a test where, at high load and high speed, the driveshaft failed, shredding the fuel tank and sending the flaming wreckage into the woods. The driver was killed, and the car was destroyed. The driver’s family took the engine and asked Lime Rock to bury the remains of the car at the track, which they did. It was never exhumed.

Roughly 15 years later, after vintage racing had become a serious business, BHL127 reappeared as a Knobbly-bodied Lister, after which it resumed a normal racing life in European vintage racing. In terms of provenance and originality, this has to be the mother of all asterisks; it is unlikely that there is one ounce of 1959 metal in the entire car.

The car does make claim to a real chassis number, though, however tenuous. It has appropriate FIA racing papers, and it is apparently a very well-developed and fast racer, so it can enter and win (assuming the driver is good enough) at virtually any event in the world.

The car just has no collector value — only weapons-grade value — and as such is instructive. It sold for between a third to a quarter of what a storied and original “real” one would bring, so there you have it: I would say it was honestly and fairly bought as a weapon for battle without the complications or values of history. ♦

(Introductory description courtesy of RM Sotheby’s.)

Comments are closed.