How to be Faithful. Restoring the first-ever Lister-Jaguar ‘Knobbly’ to its former glory was never going to be easy. Tony Dron track-tests the result and reveals all. Photography Mitch Pashavair.
Lister-Jaguar Knobbly. Tony Dron track-tests a very faithful restoration.
Somewhere along the way, this car came to be known as EE101. That’s wrong, but it’s a minor point in the history of one very important car that has been rescued and restored to perfection by its latest owner.
What we have here is the very first Lister- Jaguar ‘Knobbly’, the same car that has been seen so many times in that famous photograph with its creator, Brian Lister, posed alongside the River Cam in Cambridge. Built for the 1958 season, with Brian’s cunning interpretation of the regulations for windscreen height in sports car racing, the ‘Knobbly’ soon proved to be the car to have if you wanted to win.
One thing we know for sure is that, while it was being built, it was intended for the Ecurie Ecosse team, but then Briggs Cunningham ordered two cars from Lister and he needed them quickly, in time for the Sebring 12 Hours on 22 March that year. For that reason, Cunningham’s order took precedence and this car and BHL102 were duly exported to the USA. Contrary to some reports, apparently they both had the standard aluminium bodies and not the lighter magnesium alloy version offered by the coachbuilders, Williams & Pritchard. At that time both cars were fitted with Jaguar’s fragile 3.0-litre engine, complying with the prevailing international regulations for sports car racing.
At Sebring, Lister works driver Archie Scott Brown was invited to share BHL101 with Walt Hansgen. It wasn’t a great start for the new Listers because both retired with piston failure and, when its engine let go, BHL101 was hit up the back by Gendebien’s Ferrari.
Cunningham then abandoned the 3.0-litre engine and his preparation expert, Alfred Momo, installed more powerful and reliable 3.8-litre engines in both cars, which went on to dominate SCCA National Championship racing. Walt Hansgen scored many victories in BHL101, its outstanding history and chain of ownership over the following decades being well-documented to date.
A car like this, the first of its kind and with a great story to tell, is a serious prize for any collector today. Its value has been demonstrated clearly in a number of auctions in recent years, culminating in the RM sale at Monaco in May 2014 when it was sold for €1,176,000 – almost a million pounds at that time.
Any car that fetches a seven-figure sum would surely be perfect in every detail, right? The average car buyer probably thinks so but, of course, it’s not always that simple. And, with historic racing cars, matters can be extremely complex.
This car makes that point well and its most recent history could serve as a textbook on how to get everything dead right. The man who bought it, Helmut Rothenberger, knew exactly what he was getting into and, as an expert engineer and businessman, he knew what needed to be done.
Predictably enough, following its time with Cunningham, BHL101 had a series of keen owners who raced it in a wide variety of club events, some in the States and some on our side of the Atlantic. Decades of such use are bound to involve incidents, which inevitably take their toll. Old race cars may look great, unrestored but well cared for and all polished up for sale, but it would be foolish to imagine that under their pleasingly patinated skins they all remain exactly as they were when new. This Lister is the genuine original car, of course, but Rothenberger knew that close expert inspection would be required.
He went to the right place, CKL Developments, where Chris Keith-Lucas and his team produced the required detailed report, covering every inch of the car.
An example: ‘The bonnet neither appeared to be new nor having been made as long ago as 1958, but somewhere in between. As the first ever Lister-Jaguar Knobbly, it would have had the “long” bonnet with no scuttle panel and the half-round front wings characteristic of those cars. However, we know from period photos that this was changed during the Cunningham period for a later-style “short” bonnet incorporating the modified anti-lift front wing shape. The bonnet on BHL101 is a mixture of the two: short but with the early half-round wing shape. Subsequently we have heard from previous owner Roger Williams, who told us he had this bonnet made 30 years ago to replace the one then fitted, which he considered beyond repair.’
The initial inspection of the chassis revealed ‘signs of some quite rough welding and repairs, not of the original Lister standard… consistent with a hard life in motor racing.’ A report like that is the essential starting point before deciding what to do next. CKL and Helmut Rothenberger then agreed that restoration was essential, with the objective of achieving ‘a safe, reliable and truly competitive car, at the same time dealing fully with all areas of deterioration’. Chris was also asked to return BHL101 to its original specification wherever that had been compromised during its racing life. The idea was to remain true to period finishes and techniques, bringing this 1958 racer back to what it really was in its day and emphatically not to end up with a 21st Century concours contender. BHL101 had found a good home indeed.
Central to the task was the restoration of the chassis. Once it was stripped down, it was possible to identify all the original tubes and to see exactly what had been done over the years. Chris was very pleased to find that a significant amount of the structure was original but it was obvious that a large repair and reconstruction job had been carried out, probably following a crash in the 1960s in the USA.
What do you do when a car has been like that for most of its life? Sometimes it might be right to keep it as it is because it’s part of that car’s special history. For BHL101, the answer was obvious because of the poor workmanship in those old repairs. As it was taken apart, CKL discovered that the crude welds were largely non-penetrating, the steel was of the wrong specification and, incredibly, the wall thickness of the two main chassis tubes was at least twice that used by Lister.
That chassis needed to be repaired properly and that’s where all Lister owners are extraordinarily fortunate. George Lister Engineering Ltd still exists near Cambridge, the original chassis jigs are still there and the company completed a small run of new Knobblies in 2015. The welder on BHL101 would be Arthur Irons, who in 1958 was the young apprentice of Bob Gawthrop, the man who welded that chassis together in the first place. Restorations do not get more authentic.
Retired Lister employees, Edwin ‘Dick’ Barton and Colin ‘Chippy’ Crisp, joined in to inspect the dismantled chassis parts, which were installed on the jig by Graham ‘Curly’ Hutton. It was no surprise to discover some distortion there, which required further expert repairs. The Lister factory is only ten minutes from my house, so I was able to drop in and follow progress through the summer. It ended up as a beautiful job that would have made the late Brian Lister really proud. Weeks of work went into it, so it’s hardly surprising that the bill came to nearly three-quarters of the price of a brand new chassis. It was worth every penny. As this work went along, Chris Keith-Lucas became increasingly puzzled over how it had come to be called chassis EE101. That designation was indeed stamped on a front suspension turret, but over-stamped ‘BHL’.
That part of the chassis was, as we know, replaced in a later major repair, so it was clearly not original. Chris suspects, and he could well be right, that the double-E prefix comes from the engine. The original engine in BHL101 was EE1201, the ‘EE’ indicating that it was a works loan engine from the Jaguar factory. As this confusion is part of this car’s history, the mysterious stamped section was carefully incorporated into the rebuilt chassis.
Wanting to clear this matter up properly, I asked the Lister director in charge of cars, Mark Hallam, for a statement. He wrote: ‘I can confirm that this car should be known as BHL101 and would have left the factory in 1958 stamped accordingly; the EE marking is incorrect and we are of the opinion this has been included at a later date by others.’ It could not be clearer than that: this car has always been BHL101 and that’s the end of it.
If the chassis rebuild was complex, the treatment of the body was even more intricate and delicate. Once the entire body had been removed and polymer-bead blasted, it was clear that the tail section was original – the evidence of repairs following Gendebien’s ramming incident in its first race was plain to see. The old aluminium was thin, weak and split in many places, requiring skilled rebeating, the grafting in of some new metal and the recreation of correctly profiled wired edges. Another problem was that, at various stages in the past, the entire bodywork had been made to accommodate the poorly repaired chassis. With the chassis now straight, the body restorers had to take that into account. The non-original but well-made bonnet was in much better shape than the rear bodywork, but there were some cracks around the nose and hinge mountings. The much greater problem here was that, long ago, these mountings had been very cleverly made to fit the bodged old chassis, putting them well out of line.
After much discussion it had been decided to restore the bodywork to be as it was when raced by Cunningham’s team. Early in that era it had been modified to have a hinged bonnet with scuttle, which was better than the original lift-off bonnet arrangement. Restoring all of this to good health and the correct shape as raced by Walt Hansgen involved the removal and rebuilding of all internal panels. It was a tricky job, done to perfection.
As the original floorpans, sills, bulkhead, foot-boxes, seat bases and centre-section aluminium work had been lost and replaced decades ago with parts that were slightly incorrect, all of these were made from scratch precisely to the original Lister pattern. Cunningham’s distinctive louvres were added to the sills, using purpose-made tooling.
A long book could be written about the superb work that has gone into this restoration. Having covered the chassis and body story in some depth here, I must add that the rest of the job received exactly the same level of attention and well-informed CKL expertise.
BHL101 has two engines: the 3.8-litre that was in it as bought and a rare ex-Cunningham ‘Momo’ 3.75-litre that is kept separately because it is considered too valuable for current competition use. The 3.8, freshly rebuilt to Historic racing specification and producing 350bhp, is retained in the car.
The gearbox looks right to the casual observer but is, as in many Listers today, a later 4.2-litre E-type unit fitted with a reproduction D-type top cover and bell-housing. The search is on for a genuine D-type four-speed close-ratio gearbox, as originally fitted to BHL101, but that’s not the sort of thing you find every day on eBay. Meanwhile, the existing gearbox has been rebuilt.
There was plenty wrong with the final drive, which has been properly reconstructed around a new Crosthwaite & Gardiner magnesium casing, made to the original pattern and fitted with a Salisbury limited-slip differential. In every tiny detail, no effort has been spared to take this car back to what it should be. Chris Keith-Lucas was fascinated to find that the headlamps are of a rare competition type used only in works D-types and some later Lightweight E-types. Lucas Electrical made them specially, incorporating quick-change bulb holders, and Chris’s best guess is that Cunningham’s team must have fitted them from their own spares department.
Such an outstanding restoration has been possible partly because of the expertise of CKL Developments but, above all, it is the owner who makes the decisions. Helmut Rothenberger has the engineering knowledge and the sensitive approach to history required. He knew what he was taking on and he had no illusions about what had to be done.
He must have felt justifiably satisfied when he took to the track at the 2015 Goodwood Revival to compete in the Sussex Trophy race. I hope Helmut Rothenberger won’t mind it being said that he’s never likely to challenge the likes of Sebastian Vettel and company for sheer speed – but that’s not the point. He has rescued one very important car, put it back in action in front of the public and he reached the chequered flag without trouble on its first outing. That is a huge achievement.
At Goodwood again with BHL101 a few weeks later, in the sunshine for our photographic session, it was a nostalgic experience for me to be back on a circuit in a good Lister-Jaguar Knobbly. In the 1990s, thanks to that great enthusiast Syd Silverman, I won races in another 1958 Cunningham Knobbly (BHL112) at places such as Pocono, Mid-Ohio and Road Atlanta. Syd’s Listers were superbly prepared by The Vintage Connection of Oklahama City, so I know very well what a first-class Jaguar-powered ‘Knobbly’ should feel like – well balanced at speed, secure under braking and seriously quick, with fantastic traction out of slow corners thanks to the de Dion back end. BHL101 is right there. Were they alive today, those who were closely involved with this car when it was new – Brian Lister, Archie Scott Brown, Briggs Cunningham, Walt Hansgen, Bob Gawthrop and all the rest – would be delighted by everything about it.
Certainly, those original drivers would have been impressed by how it feels at speed. The authentic repairs to the chassis go to the heart of the matter, giving the basis of a fabulously fresh, correct feel to the complete 57-year-old car. It’s obviously a potential front-runner in Historic sports car racing today, in which the speeds on the straights would amaze the owners of even modern high-performance road cars.
The exhilaration of powering this Lister through the nearly flat-out right-hander at Fordwater, in perfect weather, and pressing on down towards the braking point for the right and left of St Mary’s, is one of those privileges that can never be realised by more than a very small number of people.
Such moments are really special, worth all the years of effort it takes to get to that position in life. With his perfect Lister-Jaguar, the very first of the 1958 series, Helmut Rothenberger has achieved that. It doesn’t get much better than this in our little corner of the world, and I take my hat off to him for approaching the ownership of this important piece of mechanical history with such a deep understanding of what it’s all about.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1958 Lister-Jaguar ‘KNOBBLY’ #BHL101
ENGINE 3781cc straight-six, DOHC, three Weber 45DCOE carburettors, dry sump
MAX POWER 350bhp @ 6500rpm / DIN
MAX TORQUE 320lb ft @ 5000rpm / DIN
TRANSMISSION Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
STEERING Rack and pinion
SUSPENSION Front: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: de Dion axle, coil springs, telescopic dampers
BRAKES Discs (inboard at rear)
WEIGHT 894kg (roll hoop, fuel cell etc make it heavier than original)
PERFORMANCE 180mph (approx) dependent on gearing; 0-60mph c4.3sec
‘A car like this, the first of its kind and with a great story to tell, is a serious prize for any collector today’
Above Tony Dron track-tests the Knobbly at Goodwood. It has been restored as authentically as possible to how it was when raced by Briggs Cunningham. Left and right This Lister’s distinctive louvred sills were made using purpose-built tooling; the rebuilt chassis prior to painting, with Lister employees (left to right) director Mark Hallam, ‘Curly’ Hutton and Arthur Irons.
‘If the chassis rebuild was complex, the body was even more intricate’