1952 Tojeiro-Jap – road test

2015 / 2016 Drive-My

Lister’s first car. John Simister in the ex-Scott Brown Tojeiro-JAP. The A-Lister. Once raced by Archie Scott Brown and designed to a template that went on to underpin the AG Cobra, this V-twin chimera is the first car ever to carry a Lister chassis number. John Simister anticipates greatness.

What is it? A four-wheeled Morgan three-wheeler? An outsized go-kart with the engine at the wrong end? A mutant made of leftovers from an abandoned team of car and motorcycle racers?

None of the above. No hotchpotch this, it’s the first car that Brian Lister ever built and it has the chassis number to prove it. (Controversial, that, as Lister liked the number so much he also put it on something else. More later.) Anyway, that’s Brian Lister as in Lister-Jaguar, Lister-Maserati, Lister-MG and Lister-much-else. Lister, too, as in Archie Scott Brown, he of the reduced right arm, short legs and astonishing racing talent, the driving part of the Lister team’s driving force.

1952 Tojeiro-Jap - road test

Right. Insect-like Tojeiro-JAP is lots of fun to drive on cross plies and a damp track; steering wheel fitted today is much smaller than the one twirled by Archie Scott Brown.

Scott Brown drove – rode? No, drove – this car, which cemented the bond between racing-car driver and racing-car builder. But the car’s provenance goes yet deeper into historical significance. It’s not a Lister; Brian’s contribution was to adapt it to take the 1.1-litre JAP motorcycle engine. It’s a Tojeiro, the second car of that name to be built by John Tojeiro, based like Lister in Cambridge. He later made a larger version of this chassis concept, transverse-leaf-sprung independent suspension and all, clothed it with a barchetta-like body and sold the design to AC, who named it Ace. And, later, Cobra via Carroll Shelby’s ministrations. It all started here.

1952 Tojeiro-Jap - road test

So it’s a Tojeiro-JAP. John Tojeiro probably had in mind a regular four-cylinder engine for his pioneering chassis (made with steel from Brian Lister’s family engineering firm, George Lister and Sons), but Lister thought the air-cooled V-twin would do a better job by producing ample power with less weight and complexity. This was to be a competition car, so smoothness and civility appeared nowhere on the list of desired attributes.

I’ve arrived at the Longcross test track in Surrey to meet the Tojeiro-JAP. My transport there was my Fiat 500 Twinair, by way of two-pot solidarity and aural preconditioning. The Tojeiro is painted in a striking metallic green with a blue cast, the finishing touch of owner David Lee’s restoration. Neat black fabric tonneaux cover the front passenger space and the top half of the tail. He showed it to Brian Lister a couple of years before the latter’s passing on 16 December last year: ‘It’s much smarter than it was when I built it,’ Lister observed.

1952 Tojeiro-Jap - road test

The number on the low-slung, tubular chassis, with its armature of thin tubes to support the body panels, is BHL 1: Brian Horace Lister 1. And why not? It’s a Lister interpretation of Tojeiro’s raw material, after all, completed a few months before road registration as KER 694 on 21 April 1952. In those bureaucratically carefree times it didn’t matter, then, that in 1953 Brian Lister assigned the same chassis number to the first Lister-chassis Lister, an MG-powered machine with a barchetta body and registered MER 303. That one later became a Lister-Maserati with a ‘flat-iron’ body. What would today’s DVLA computer make of that, with no local licensing offices left to see the material, metal side of the digital-date non-computation?

1952 Tojeiro-Jap - road test

Clockwise from top right The car in its original form, seen here with Archie Scott Brown behind the wheel; latticework supports a fabric tonneau; JAP V-twin produces only 66bhp yet made it a class-winner.

There’s an insect-like quality to the Tojeiro-JAP, its thorax and abdomen suspended within gangly appendages. It even has antennae, albeit swept back and over to the left side, and a single, large, compound eye formed of vertical grille bars. Or are they the mandibles? The antennae are the two exhaust pipes, oddly asymmetric unless you accept that the two cylinders, angled 60° apart, form one-sixth of a continuum of rotational symmetry.

So the two cylinder heads are the same as each other rather than mirror images, as a tidier mind – or one anticipating longitudinal mounting in a car rather than transverse mounting in a motorbike – might have envisaged. (That said, Morgans used similar JAP engines too.) So the right-hand cylinder’s exhaust sprouts straight from the top of the engine, crossing past its partner just behind the left front wheel. The engine’s 90° re-orientation from JA Prestwich’s intention has also necessitated remote SU float chambers for the Amal carburettors, to avoid fuel starvation under acceleration and in corners.

In his excellent book Archie and the Listers, Robert Edwards describes the genesis of the car that Brian Lister named ‘The Asteroid’. Lister got the JAP idea from reading in The Autocar about a JAP- powered trials car built by J Onslow Bartlett, who had mated the engine to a Jowett Jupiter gearbox and made a small run of suitable bellhousings so others could do the same. The resulting concoction went very well but had ‘an apparently insatiable appetite for valves’.

Lister was pleased with The Asteroid’s performance and had high hopes when he entered it in a Cambridge University Motor Club sprint. Yet here was this battered MG TD lapping almost as quickly, driven by Scott Brown who was close to broke at the time, his MG having consumed most of his earnings as a tobacco salesman, and trying to make ends meet by working for engine builder and successful racer Don Moore.

Lister decided to give Scott Brown – lighter than Lister, and clearly a quicker driver – a run in the Tojeiro and entered him for a CUAC meeting on 2 March 1952. Not only did Archie win the 750-to-1100cc class, he also won the next class up. This double win happened five more times in 1952, with success repeated a further six times in 1953 including some outright wins. Sometimes Scott Brown would lap the entire field even when a race was just five laps long.

Don Moore had tuned the engine for 1953, the extra power accompanied by extra unreliability to the extent that Brian, his wife Jose and Archie usually towed the Tojeiro to races. Yet, strangely, two of its valve-dropping incidents occurred when it was being driven gently on the road. The harder it was driven, the happier it seemed to be.

1952 Tojeiro-Jap - road test

It’s time, then, for me to pilot the beast and sense what Scott Brown sensed more than 60 years ago. Its JAP engine is in a calmer state of tune now than in 1953, although its current 66bhp should be enough to propel 400kg of minimalist machine with spirit. I climb over the side of the cockpit (there being no doors), position myself on the sketchy seat, flick the ignition switch and press the starter button.

The cold engine takes a while to catch, but when it does there’s a percussive blatter and a busy background chatter. The latter is coming from the exposed valvegear, rockers shuttling busily, horizontal, noncoaxial valve springs rapidly squashed and unsquashed. Who ever thought it was a good idea to have the entrails open to the elements like this, oil lost to the wind, grit ever-present? Makes no sense to me.

‘Tojeiro made a larger version of this chassis, clothed it with a barchetta body and sold the design to AC’

Directly ahead of me is a non-period but vital gauge showing the temperature of the two cylinder heads. A large revcounter is to the right, a smaller speedometer to the left. What will happen if I rev the V-twin with vigour? Will it shake the car to bits? My vertical-twin Fiat has clever engine mounts and a six-decade advantage in NVH expertise. In 1952 you just went with the vibe.

Let’s find first gear. This is best achieved by selecting second beforehand, using the synchromesh to still the shafts. The little lever has an external gate to help you differentiate the first/second plane from that of third/fourth, to keep reverse out of the way and to help remind you that the gear positions are a mirror image of normality. That’s a legacy of the Jowett Jupiter gearbox donor’s steering-column shift.

Nice light, easy clutch. Keen throttle. We’re off, blatter-blatter-blatter, pistons thumping, torque abundant. Second gear – oops, it’s outside the gate, but it seems to have slotted home cleanly. Third, fourth, we’re flying now. I’ll let the engine warm through and then we’ll see what it can do. David reckons it’s good for 101mph.

The track is damp and I really don’t know yet what the rules of engagement are with the Blockley crossplies and what feels like a hair- trigger steering response. I sense a lot of end-swapping potential, so I’ll take it gently in the bends. Those tyres are mounted on period Turner wheels in magnesium, themselves bolted to exposed brake drums. The brakes seem fine, but there’s no handbrake.

After Scott Brown won a 1200cc race in it at Thruxton on 25 May 1953, Brian Lister sold the Tojeiro to Peter Hughes, the editor of Scotland’s Top Gear magazine (long before today’s eponymous title). Lister and Scott Brown were moving on to greater things, but Hughes continued to campaign the Tojeiro through to 1957, mostly in Scotland and with several hillclimb wins. He then sold it to GMG Oliver in Durham, who re-registered it KPT 2. Hughes, sadly, died in a road accident the following year, the same fateful year in which Archie Scott Brown met his end.

In 1959 the Tojeiro moved on to Alistair Dent Hutton who re-registered it again as 3 DPT, which it retains to this day. Nine more owners added their names to the logbook or to the V5 that superseded it, culminating in 1982 with Frank Gourlay who returned it to Scotland. It was there that David Lee found the Tojeiro in 2009.

By this stage it existed as a part-refurbished rolling chassis with wheels and the large, high-mounted 16.75in steering wheel by which Archie Scott Brown controlled it with his one good arm. It also came with a Ford-based engine of 1172cc, originally the company’s staple sidevalve unit but enhanced with an overhead-valve conversion. This was Oliver’s doing, upon which the Tojeiro had been officially renamed in the logbook as the Oliver Special.

It arrived at David Lee’s house in a horsebox. David soon set about rebuilding the Tojeiro to its original Lister form, with aluminium bodywork recreated by Mark Palliser of Leominster from period photographs, reverse-engineering of the chassis by Geno Hoskins of Llanbister who also fashioned the gearchange gate, and an engine from David Andrews, based at Henstridge Airfield. This expert on JAP V-twins has had new crankcases cast in aluminium to replace original magnesium items, usually corroded beyond repair. Robin Tojeiro, who runs a register dedicated to John Tojeiro’s work, advised David throughout.

In 2012, having gained a daytime-only MoT on the basis that it lacks the otherwise-required full complement of lighting, the Tojeiro returned to the track. Its competitiveness appeared undiminished after 60 years, David winning his class at the Bo’ness hillclimb on 8 September. On Guy Fawkes night he showed it to Brian Lister, who approved of the resurrection as mentioned. David and the Tojeiro took to the track once more, on 24 May last year, to win the class at Shelsley Walsh hillclimb against other small-engined 1950s sports cars.

That, then, is the Tojeiro-JAP’s competition history to date, apart from when David’s friend Clive Wilson raced it at Castle Combe a couple of years ago. Clive, having driven it in the required angry style, found scope for a few improvements in set-up, which David enacted. The right-hand mirror fell off during the race, its rivets riven by vibration.

Otherwise, David has simply enjoyed squirting his mad machine around the lanes. ‘It’s a great car to drive to the pub,’ he reckons.

The Tojeiro is benign, ultra-progressive, a lot grippier than I’d thought and a delight to control

The track has dried, mostly, and I’m going to give the Tojeiro another go. I slide back into the driver’s seat, adapting myself as well as I can to the driving position. The backrests are a neat design, inverted pockets on their rear faces slipping over tubular hoops, and one backrest is thicker than the other. Thus is the Tojeiro adapted for different leg lengths. Even those of shorter limb, such as your reporter, find the right leg in very close proximity to the steering wheel, nowadays smaller and lower of column than the Scott Brown spec.

This means that when I pluck up the courage to perform a power slide or two, on a still-wet section of track, my hands meet my right knee during the opposite-lock phase unless I shift them on the steering wheel’s rim. That’s never ideal, because it’s easy to lose the sense of where straight-ahead lies, but in discovering this I also discover that, far from being a highly strung swapper of ends, teetering on the brink of drama, the Tojeiro is actually very benign, ultra-progressive, a lot grippier than I’d thought and a delight to control. You can feel absolutely everything, and more.

So the way the nose darts to your command as you enter a fast bend, and the tail then helps point that nose entirely according to the power channelled through it, is simply the way rear-drive racing cars on crossply tyres were back in the 1950s. It feels initially precarious to a driver calibrated on radials and a default to stabilising understeer, but there’s nothing to fear here. If it gets out of shape, you instinctively rein it back in.

And the pace? David, bravely, has seen 6200rpm on the revcounter, at which the needle conveniently points straight up. I don’t venture beyond that 5200rpm power peak, perhaps through a subliminal fear of getting a face full of shattered valvegear, but the JAP engine pulls with gusto, vocally yet

not eardrum-splittingly, from around half that engine speed. Below it, there are occasional hiccups and an off-cam flatness, but there’s ample torque to keep the acceleration flowing through the gear ratios. Changing gear needs a firm, committed hand, though.

Hying along the straight, face braced against the turbulence, forehead numbing in the icy blast directed over the top of the aero screen, I imagine the lurid autobatics Archie Scott Brown must have enjoyed in the Tojeiro-JAP. It’s a machine that, once you have mastered its recalcitrant gearbox and learned the required trust, could easily become an extension of your body. What little mass there is seems always to work with you. I’ve discovered no modem car that gives quite such intimacy, although a lightweight single-seater might.

I rip along the straight one more time. In the comer of my right eye I see a round aluminium shape sucked into the slipstream and hurled, bouncing, onto the track and thence to the undergrowth. The mirror has vibrated off, again. ‘Don’t worry,’ says David on my return to the car park. ‘I have a spare.’

THANKS TO H&H Auctions, which is handling the sale of the Tojeiro-JAP by private treaty, www. classic-auctions. com.

Car 1952 Tojeiro-Jap

ENGINE 1097cc V-twin, OHV, magnesium block (originally), aluminium heads, two Amal carburettors POWER 66bhp @ 5200rpm

TORQUE 67lb ft @ 4400rpm

TRANSMISSION Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive

STEERING Rack and pinion

SUSPENSION Front and rear: double wishbone geometry with transverse leaf spring acting as upper wishbones


WEIGHT 400kg (approx)


Top speed 101mph.

0-60 mph 8.0sec (approx)

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