When speaking to Brian Lister, some years ago, I asked him about the secret of his success. Just how did those Lister cars become world-beaters and icons of the era? Modestly, he replied, “My belief, in those days, was simplicity being the art of good construction, although today’s computer-aided design would challenge that belief.” He went on to admit that most of his designs for Lister cars came from the pre-war Mercedes racing cars—simplistic, tubular chassis, independent front suspension, de Dion rear suspension and at the hub, reliability. Core to that success was a diminutive, physically handicapped, but thoroughly talented driver, William Archibald “Archie” Scott Brown, admired by all—even the maestro, Fangio, was an admirer. The pair, Brian Lister and Archie Scott Brown, was inseparable and a dynamic force to be reckoned with, they were to motor racing like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire to dancing. In the 1957 season, of the 14 races entered, there were 11 wins, two 2nd places and a single retirement, with multiple lap records broken either during practice or the race itself. As Brian said, “It wasn’t perfect, but it’s not a bad record for a racing car.” Indeed, this great, but humble, team tore down many records and were admired by many who, obviously, wished to emulate their success. However, much of that success was due to the humility, self-effacement and character in which the team was run, devoid of massive funding, glitzy advertising and general razzmatazz—purely a small group of enthusiastic men striving to win.
All good things must come to an end, and so it did. The month was May 1958. The race was the 10th running of the BRDC International Trophy at Silverstone on the third day of the month. American racer Masten Gregory, in an Ecurie Ecosse Lister Jaguar (BHL104), took the 25-lap sports car race by storm, leaving a mystified Archie Scott Brown in a distant 2nd place, some 30 seconds down. A puzzled Scott Brown couldn’t understand the chink in his armor, where had it all gone wrong? The following weekend found the Scott Brown/Lister Jaguar combination winning again at Mallory Park, but Gregory wasn’t at that event. Looking back there are so many drivers who died competing at an event they shouldn’t have been at, Scott Brown was due to run at Monte Carlo aboard Archie Butterworth’s Cooper, but it wasn’t ready. So, when his entry was accepted to run at Spa, Archie was delighted, not only was it an acknowledgement of acceptance by the Belgian racing authority in spite of his physical handicap, but an opportunity to engage again with Masten Gregory. Sir Stirling Moss once said, “To achieve anything in this game you must be prepared to dabble in the boundary of disaster.” With Gregory putting his Lister Jaguar on pole, Scott Brown knew the race and battle was truly on and his competitive nature would certainly allow him to “dabble” as remarked by Moss. Outside the car, and in the lead-up to that race, there were those who had certain premonitions that disaster could strike, including Brian Lister’s wife, Jose, who telephoned Archie telling him to take care, and team member Ken Hazelwood who believed the Spa race, in Archie’s mind, was a continuation of Silverstone just two weeks before. The flag fell and the race became a duel with Gregory and Scott Brown out front passing and re-passing each other. On lap six, Archie was leading, but as he approached Clubhouse Bend the road surface was damp as a result of one of the “usual local Spa showers,” but even drawing on his most dexterous driving style Scott Brown couldn’t hold the car. As it left the road, the car made contact with the Dick Seaman Memorial (Seaman had died at that same spot in 1939) and then a road sign, which bent the right-hand front suspension. By this time the car was completely out of control. Fuel gushed out as the car rolled, instantly igniting the lightweight magnesium body (immediately dispensed with following the accident). Badly burned, but still able to talk, Archie was rescued by a gendarme and taken to hospital. Some 24 hours later Archie Scott Brown died, just a handful of days following his 32nd birthday. There was no suggestion that foul play had anything to do with the crash, nor car defect, nor was it due to Archie Scott Brown’s physical limitations (he’d proved his ability time and again), nor Masten Gregory who was occasionally noted for his sometime erratic driving—none of the above, it was unquestionably just a motor racing accident. Had it happened on a British airfield circuit there would have been plenty of run-off, but this was the tight public road circuit of Spa-Francorchamps, its idiosyncratic weather conditions.
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