This Lister Has Been A Vintage Racing Mentor
Photography by Will Mederski
Most vintage racing enthusiasts I’ve come across didn’t start off wheeling classics around the circuit. Most began with a more humble machine like the Mazda Miata—cars that are forgiving, inexpensive, more reliable, safer and more balanced than say, a rare icon like the 1959 Lister Knobbly framed here.
Watching this old British gem loop Circuit Of The Americas, you probably assume the lucky man behind the wheel is a veteran driver that’s been competing in track events for the majority of his life—but that’s not the case here. Erickson Shirley may have started vintage racing later in life but he’s not showing any signs of slowing down.
Andrew Golseth: Erickson, where did your passion for petrol begin?
Erickson Shirley: Well, my father is John Shirley—he’s a big car collector—he won Pebble Beach Best In Show twice so, needless to say, he’s into it. (laughs) He’s been into it for a long time but I actually haven’t. I started racing dirt bikes in high school when we lived in Belgium and I’ve always kept dirt bikes in my life.
When I got older and moved to Colorado, I started riding out to Moab a lot and was considering racing bikes again, but then I got into a crash and now I’m driving cars. I’ve always very much been into motorcycles and dirt bikes—not really cars—until I had the accident.
I was out on a technical ride with a friend and we were haulin’ ass down these slick rock roads. I was on a 300 KTM two-stroke, totally wound out. For whatever reason, someone left a few gallons of oil on the rocks, maybe they broke a crankcase or something, but I hit it.
Just off to the side of the road was a cliff and I went off it, I thought I was for sure dead. Thankfully, I landed on a shelf. I completely broke four ribs and collapsed a lung and spent three days in the hospital. I was down for a while rehabilitating.
AG: Ouch! So, that’s when you got into cars? How’d that transition happen?
ES: When I was finally feeling a little better after the crash my dad said, “We’re gonna test some cars down in Arizona at Firestone. You wanna get out of the house and drive?” I said, “Sure.” That was really my first time in a racecar. I went down there and had a lot of fun and realized I was probably getting too old for dirt bikes. A month later I bought one of the cars I test drove that day, a Ferrari 500 Mondial. That was the start of it.
For me, it wasn’t just about racing and enjoying the drive, it was the ability to go out and race with my father. It’s really an extraordinary thing to do, racing with your dad. Especially when you’re older, it’s a great thing to have—I’m over 50, my dad is pretty old so what other sport could we do together? That’s what really hooked me.
AG: That must be an incredibly special experience. So, a Ferrari 500 Mondial—that’s a pretty nice first track car! What other cars do you have? Do you still have any bikes?
ES: I have five dirt bikes. I got into the vintage racing right after the 2008 stuff, so luckily cars like the Mondial hadn’t really picked up yet. I was lucky enough to get a nice car at a pretty good price, which turned out to be a good investment. Like everyone else, I didn’t expect it, I just assumed it’d hold its value.
That 500 Mondial, I got out of it after driving it around Firestone and was amazed at how good it was. I drove other great cars that weekend but that was the car I just sort of went, “Wow.” Then I raced my dad’s Maserati 300S and bought a part ownership in that for a while—that was an old Maserati team car, it was great.
I wanted something with more horsepower and a bit more challenging and someone recommended a Lister. So, I sold my interest in the 300S and started looking for one. I had become friends with Michael Silverman, son of Syd Silverman the founder of Vintage Motorsport magazine. Syd was an avid Lister collector—at one point I think he had up to six Listers. (laughs)
So, I called Michael up and told him I was interested in getting a Lister. Michael said they were great and he helped me find one. The first decision I had to make was choosing between a Costin or a Knobbly—those are the two primary body types. I sat in both cars and liked the Costin more. I found this one Costin, which was actually previously owned by Syd and driven by Michael. I flew out to California and bought it—turns out, it had quite an interesting history.
Carroll Shelby had an interest in Listers, which is the tie with this car. A lot of people don’t realize that when Carroll raced he raced other people’s cars. He did a lot of racing for John Edgar out of Los Angeles. Carroll ran several of Edgar’s cars and one of them was a 450S Maserati. Another driver raced that car and spun it out and got some dirt in the engine.
When Carroll heard the engine needed to be rebuilt, he took the engine back to Maserati in Italy to oversee the rebuild and convinced Edgar to install the engine in a Lister. So, Carroll went to Italy, oversaw the rebuild of the engine which was bored out for more power, and then the engine was shipped to Lister. Initially, Shelby was supposed to get a Knobbly body but Lister was just developing their new body, the Costin.
Shelby ordered the Costin body instead and had this enlarged Maserati 450S engine installed. The whole process took longer than expected so they didn’t get the car done in time for the 1958 LA Grand Prix and Nassau race. By the time the car was finished in March of ’59, Carroll’s focus shifted from the project to other things. So, this car he talked Edgar into getting showed up in America, Edgar took possession but never ended up racing it.
AG: That’s some great history! So, from there what happened to the car?
ES: When I went to buy the car, I talked to Michael Silverman. He suggested calling Doug Nye who wrote a great book on Listers called Powered By Jaguar. I called up Doug and he knew the car. He’d seen it and liked it and said if I wanted a Costin I should really think about buying it because Costins were hard to come by. I read his book, which had a photo and some history on my car.
After buying the car I decided to fully research its history. Well, a couple years later I finished! (laughs) It was a real lesson in researching a vintage car. I met a lot of great ex-racers and mechanics—it was a lot of fun.
Long story short, Edgar ended up selling the car to a guy in Ontario, California who only owned it briefly before having to give it to Don Blair, the owner of the legendary Blair Speed Shop in Pasadena, California. Apparently, Don took the Lister as payment for money that was owed. At that point, the Maserati engine had been replaced by a truly amazing 402 Chevy engine built by Chet Herbert and Allen “Lefty” Mudersbach—both those guys are in the drag racing hall of fame. Chet is credited with inventing the roller camshaft for cars.
Dan Whitz ended up buying the car from Blair. Whitz styled it out, repainted it, and made it this gorgeous car and hired Bob Edmison and Bob Bondurant to race it. A lot of people thought that having a big engine was key to winning at Riverside. Similar 402 engines made by Chet and Lefty were used to set a Long Beach drag speed record of 184 mph. This engine was really space age at the time.
But Dan had some issues with the engine—it just wasn’t really good for road racing even though Chet Herbert said this Lister with that engine in it was the fastest un-blown [naturally aspirated] sportscar in America! (laughs) With that setup, it drag raced several times at Pomona with thousands of people watching and it also raced at the road racing events there. It won a bunch of trophies.
After that, a guy named Ron Bennett bought it and raced it quite a bit—he was a Cal Club racer and raced it in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Then he sold it to Peter Boyd, who was a singer and worked at an auto lot in LA. He sort of turned it into a street racer and had a lot of fun with it—he even wrote a song about the Lister! (laughs) Right about that time, all of the sudden this vintage series appeared over in England. Lord Anthony Bamford started the JCB Historic Championship and it became a big deal quickly—so people were going out and buying up old racecars.
From all this demand, some guy in England called up Peter Boyd and bought the Lister, and off it went. It stayed in England until the 1990s when owner Ed Hubbard moved to Florida and that’s when Syd Silverman bought the car. So, the car has pretty much been raced forever! (laughs) Hubbard owned a car racing team and raced the Lister quite a bit in Europe and Florida. His girlfriend even raced it at Sebring in the early ‘90s.
Once Syd got it, then Michael Silverman raced it. Other than when Peter Boyd was just street racing it around LA, it’s basically been raced on tracks its whole life—you see that with a lot of Listers which is a tribute to how competitive and sought after they’ve been over all these years.
So, Carroll Shelby brought Listers into America and sold them out of his shop. Most came without engines and Shelby would put Chevy engines in. As far as I know, the only ones that showed up in America new with engines were Cunningham’s cars (with Jaguar engines) and mine with the Maserati engine that Carroll and Edgar commissioned.
AG: Very cool. I understand you’ve continued its racing trend?
ES: Oh yeah, I’ve raced it ever since I bought it in 2010. One of the great things about Syd was he had this guy John Harden, a famous restorer in Oklahoma. All of Syd’s Listers were restored through John and he restored this Lister back in the ‘90s. When I got the car, it was in wonderful shape. My story isn’t buying a car and fixing it up. My story is buying a car and going racing and learning how to drive it.
I’ve raced it in many SVRA events and the Monterey Historics every year since I’ve had it, so seven years in a row now. It’s a competitive car, a front-runner. Listers have won prestigious vintage races worldwide.
AG: Great to hear it’s being used properly. Compared to the cars you run with—Ferraris, Maseratis, Jags—what’s it like to maintain the Lister?
ES: Aside from wanting a Lister so it’d develop me more as a driver, the other big reason I bought the car was because it’s so easy to maintain. It’s a ticket into the over 3.0-liter late ‘50s sports racers class which contain far more expensive cars that are very expensive to maintain. But the Lister is a bulletproof car. The Chevy engine is really reliable and the chassis is robust.
It’s still a proper English racecar, it’s a beautiful design but it’s very durable. All those other cars, their parts and engine rebuilds are a ton of money! I get the engine rebuilt for probably a third of their costs. Plus, when we travel to race somewhere and something breaks we can find parts pretty easily and we’re back on the track—whereas, in a Ferrari or something, if it breaks you’re pretty much out of luck.
It’s an easy car to maintain and you get to race alongside some of the most iconic cars of all time—and you’re competitive.
AG: It’s arguably just as beautiful as some of those “superior” cars too. What’s your favorite aspect of driving it?
ES: It’s exciting! You know, some cars are really easy to drive, like the 300S Maserati—even Stirling Moss said that’s one of the easiest race cars to drive. The 300S is a well-mannered very predictable car. The Lister is like… I don’t know… it’s like a dragon! (laughs) At first, it seems like you’re holding on for dear life but once you put some time into it and learn how to drive it, it’s controlled chaos.
It rewards a loose driving style. Learning how to drift the car is key. It’s poetry being in this controlled slide and then, when it straightens out, it just goes. It’s really a fast car in a straight line so you’re always working to get the power down. It’s got more horsepower than traction, because of the skinny tires.
It builds really good driving skills. It teaches you how to deal with more horsepower than traction, which is what you’ll get in the rain or oily tracks. To be good at any of that you have to be smooth. The irony is you have this car with a great deal of power and not so much traction but you learn to be hyper sensitive to everything you’re doing and it makes you a more attentive driver.
Most people get in these cars, get out, and go, “How the hell do you drive that thing?” (laughs) But for the people who have them, they love them because they’re incredibly capable cars that keep your adrenaline pumping. Once you develop the skill set, it’s a really fun car to drive and that’s what I really like about it.
They’re really great race cars but they’re not for everyone. They’re not the best steering cars, you have to drive them loose—but if you like that style of driving, or if you develop that, these cars are just dynamite. I’m not saying I’m a super driver or anything like that, all I’m trying to say is the car has taught me a lot.