Thursday, September 21, 2006

Book Review - Archie & The Listers by Robert Edwards

One of the highlights of last year's World Touring Car Championship was Alessandro Zanardi's victory in race 2 at Oschersleben. Alessandro, as most of you will no doubt know, is not just any old ex-Formula 1 driver, ekeing out a living in touring cars. The Italian former Champcar champion lost both his legs in a truly horrific accident at the Lausitzring oval back in 2001. That Zanardi survived at all is a miracle enough, that, despite losing both legs, he returned to world championship level motor racing, is almost beyond belief.

Alex Zanardi, though, was not the first driver to overcome a significant physical handicap to go motor racing. Robert Edwards' book tells the tale of an earlier, and equally remarkable driver, Glasgwegian Archie Scott Brown, and of the sportscar manufacturer so closely associated with his name, Brian Lister. Unlike Zanardi, Scott Brown was not disabled by an accident, racing or otherwise, but was born with significantly deformed legs and right arm, the legacy of his mother having been infected with german measles during pregnancy.

Robert Edwards, unlike many who write books on motorsport, is no mere specialist, but has also written a number of books on history more generally, including most recently, 'White Death', on the Russo-Finnish war of 1939-40. This no doubt helps with the early part of the book. Edwards goes to some trouble to trace the Archie's family history in the early part of the book, and succeeds admirably in giving something of the feel of Glasgow in the 1920s, attitudes towards disability at that time (not as antediluvian as one might think, as there were many who had suffered serious injuries during the Great War), and his parents, Bill and Jay Scott-Brown. Bill had been one of the early pioneers of aerial warfare during the war, but was less successful as a businessman and slid into a long battle with alcoholism, while Jay was an altogether tougher character, and the book certainly attributes to her much of the credit for giving Archie the confidence to overcome the limitations of his disability.

Scott-Brown, like many upper middle-class kids growing up in the 1940s, became fascinated with cars, and specifically with motorsport, from early on. His father had built him a go-kart of sorts in the 1930s and by the mid forties, fuel-rationing notwithstanding, he was driving around in his father's old BMW 327

It was an airfield speedtrial meeting which was to provide the break for Scott Brown though. Competing in his MG-TD, he finished a very close second to one Brian Lister, who had been toying with the idea of getting the family engineering firm to construct a purpose-built sportscar to go motor racing. After that day's trial, he quickly came to the conclusion that he was never going to be the driver to extract the most from such a car, and so it came to pass that Archie Scott Brown became Lister's first, and for a long time, only works driver.

Brian Lister, though little more than a hobbyist, would turn out to be rather good at the art of car design. Lister engineering was a serious business, but they were by no means car designers, and the motor racing project was intended not so much as a profitable business venture in itself but as a way of promoting the quality of the company's engineering work. The two would quickly become one of the most successful partnerships in the history of sportscar racing.

With sportscar racing now a fractured and fragmented mess (ALMS, LMES, Grand Am, FIA GT, and then Le Mans running seemingly separately to all those championships) it is easy to forget that in the Fifties, sportscar racing was big news, attracting large crowds, big names such as Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio, and major teams like Aston Martin and Maserati (OK, there's one thing that hasn't changed!).The story of how a small band of enthusiasts took on motoring's big names and won is remarkable - and would make a worthwhile book in itself. The story of Archie Scott Brown though is more interesting still - he is perhaps one of the most fascinating, if not necessarily the fastest men ever to start an F1 race. He never sought to draw attention to his disabilities,and many fans only became aware of them after his death, at a sportscar race at Spa in 1958. Unlike Zanardi, he was born that way, and never felt that it hindered his ability on the track in any way. Zanardi, by contrast remarked of his recent win in Turkey that "my legs didn't grow back, so its still tough and to win is such an achievement".

Lister at Knockhill
A Lister-Jaguar in action at the recent Knockhill Historic Speedfair. Photo - Author's own.

In part, this reluctance to draw attention to himself might have been pride, or simply modesty, but he had another good reason to keep quiet. On a number of occasions, he was actually barred from competing by stewards who feared that he would be danger to others. At what would have been his first world championship Grand Prix, he was prevented from racing by the stewards after setting fastest time in practice with his aging Connaught F1 car. At the time, this was portrayed in the rather jingoistic post-war British press as a dastardly foreign plot to prevent the Maseratis and Ferraris being beaten. In reality, the demands of event insurers and understandable nervousness following the then recent Le Mans tragedy probably had more to do with it. As it would turn out, Scott-Brown, who was never as at home in single seaters anyway, would compete in numerous F1 races for Connaught, but just one world championship event - the British Grand Prix of 1957. He would qualify mid-grid and retire early on. It would always be with the iconic Listers that he would be associated, winning scores of sportscar races in the mid-fifties.

It is not hard to see why some in the motoring press hailed this book as the motorsports book of the decade when it was first published in 1995. This is much more interesting a tale than the average driver bio - and combined with Robert Edwards enjoyable writing style and flawless research, I can't recommend it highly enough.


Anonymous Geneza Pharmaceuticals said...

An interesting story about an outstanding person!

6:25 AM  

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