The Lister Lad

Meet Jo Roberts' nephew, Damian Roberts – a chap with a passion for the Lister legacy.

Lister Junior

The Lister CS (Cold Start) diesel engine running in Damien's backyard.

Photo by Josephine Roberts

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Collecting and showing stationary engines is often seen as something of an old man’s hobby, enjoyed by those who like the quiet life. We picture gents of a certain age who are content to sit on a deck chair, smoking a pipe whilst admiring the rhythmic slow tick-over sound of a healthy vintage engine. In a world awash with complex electronic gadgetry, there’s something highly reassuring about the simple machines of our youth.

“I was amazed by how many young people there actually are with an interest in stationary engines,” says 37-year-old Damian Roberts, who works as a greenskeeper at a local golf course. “For many, it’s a hobby that they’ve got into with their grandparents and have continued from there.”

In that regard, stationary engines are not only admired by older folk, they also have a following of younger people who find that the simplicity and affordability of these engines make them perfect machines to tinker with and take around to shows.

Stationary engines come in a wide variety of sizes and prices, which means that there is generally something out there for everyone. Many are small enough to fit in the back of a car or pickup, and can be had for less than the price of a high tech phone.

“The fact that these engines are so simple makes them a brilliant way to learn about mechanics,” says Damian, who owns two Listers. “I have just fitted a new set of piston rings to my Lister A, and it took all of about 10 minutes.”

Long history in farm engines

R.A. Lister & Co. was founded in Dursley, Gloucester, England, in 1867 by Sir Robert Ashton Lister, with the aim of producing agricultural machinery. The family previously produced machinery for the wool and cotton industries, but by the late 19th century, they’d made a name for themselves producing engines for agricultural use. Their first real success – the Alexandra cream separator – was in the agricultural line.

It is said that R.A. Lister himself became something of a business pioneer in western Canada. Using a horse-drawn cart, he transported the first cream separator the region had seen over the plains of Alberta, back in the days before the railways had reached the western provinces.

By the early 1900s, Lister was producing not only dairy equipment, but also sheep-shearing machinery. The company’s early machines were powered via drive belt to external sources, like steam, horse or water power. The next big step came in 1909, when Lister began to produce portable petrol-powered machinery for farm use. Their crowning moment came in the late 1920s when they designed the CS (Cold Start) diesel engine. These slow-running (600 rpm) engines soon gained a reputation for reliability and longevity, and were especially popular for powering electric generators and irrigation pumps for all manner of agricultural and industrial applications throughout the U.K. and Commonwealth countries.

The popular Lister CS diesel

Damian’s Lister CS diesel engine is thought to date to 1956. These engines, which are Lister’s best known range of diesel engines, were produced from 1929 right up until the 1980s – such was their success and popularity. Their legacy continues, as they are still being copied in India, where they are known as “Listeroids.”

Damian’s engine has spent most of its life on a farm in Pembrokeshire in mid-Wales, where it was used to power a milking parlour. At some stage in its life, it suffered frost damage. The repair is visible as a welded patch on the casing. It is a single-cylinder 3-1/2 hp engine and runs at 650 rpm. It isn’t too fussy on fuel; it will happily run on used engine oil as well as diesel. When it is running on diesel, it uses about 2 litres (about 1/2 gallon) every five hours, making it a highly efficient machine.

Damian uses the engine to provide power and lighting for a workshop at the rear of his property. It also powers a saw-bench, which Damian uses to saw firewood to provide heating for the home that he shares with his partner, Rosie. “I prefer using the saw-bench to a chain saw,” he says. “For a start, the Lister CS is cheaper to run than a chain saw, and I feel that being stationary, it is safer and nicer to use than a chain saw.”

The Lister CS is quiet and rhythmic when ticking over (though of course the old saw-bench has that certain squeal typical of all saw-benches), but it really is no noisier to operate than a chain saw. The saw-bench was built by F.W. Reynolds of Southwark Street, London, England. Established in 1868, Reynolds is famous for manufacturing circular and band saws; saw-benches; morticing, boring and tenoning machines; drilling machines; mortar-mixing mills and chaff and weighing machines.

Damian bought the Lister CS three years ago via a classified ad in a stationary engine magazine. He’s had to fit a new set of piston rings, hone the bore and fit a new diesel injector nozzle, all of which cost a grand total of £32 (about $35). “You can buy exact copies of the parts,” he says. “They are very affordable and seem to work fine.” What with the affordable parts and the excellent fuel consumption, the CS proves to be not just a useful tool for powering an outbuilding that has no electric supply, but it also makes for an affordable hobby.

The dependable Lister A

Damian’s second engine is a 3 hp Lister A petrol-powered engine, specification A28, which, like the CS, runs at 650 rpm. The Lister A is one of the best-known engines in Lister’s petrol/kerosene range, and like the CS, the A is a hugely reliable engine with an excellent reputation. These engines were portable, compact, built to last, sold in vast numbers, and proved particularly popular with farmers. Whilst industrial engines were often scrapped when they were no longer required, farmers tended to hang onto things. There are plenty of surviving examples of Lister Model A engines today, which is good news for any budding stationary engine enthusiast.

The first pre-production Lister A was demonstrated at shows in the U.K. in 1923. Those familiar with the Novo engine built by Novo Engine Co., Lansing, Michigan, will no doubt see huge similarities between the Novo and the Lister A. Another similar engine that readers might be familiar with is the London built by London Gas Power Co., Ontario, Canada. One wonders then if someone on Lister’s design team had studied and been influenced by either or both of these earlier engines when planning the Lister A.

Damian’s Lister A has some military history. It was built in August 1940 and, like many Lister As, was fitted to a Zwicky fuel tank, used to power a pump that enabled refuelling of bomber aircraft (Zwicky Ltd., Slough, England, produced pumps, filters, fire appliances, aircraft refuellers and runway sweepers). Most of these Ministry of Defense fuel tanks were fitted with Lister A engines.

Eventually, the engine found itself sitting idle in a department for military surplus supplies. It was sold to a farmer in Suffolk, England. The engine was then used (like Damian’s CS) to power a milking parlour. Later, the engine was sold to a farmer near Birmingham who used it to power a pump. By then, the Lister was rather worse for wear and was sent for scrap.

Luckily someone rescued the engine from the scrap yard, made repairs and sold it to Damian for £350 (about $385). Damian managed to source an old Honda generator to use with the engine, and has since used the set to power the house during a power outage. “To power the house, it uses about half a gallon of petrol in two hours,” he says, “but at a show, where it is only powering lights, it is a lot more economical.”

Customizing a vintage Landy

Damian uses his Land Rover as a towing vehicle to take his engines to shows and events throughout North Wales. I always think that exhibitors who use a collectible vehicle to haul their vintage displays are not only making good use of a historic machine, but they are also helping prevent the car parking areas at these events from becoming clogged, since the collectible workhorse used to tow an exhibit to the show can then itself be exhibited.

Eye-catching as Damian’s Land Rover is, it might cause purists to wince and shake their heads, because whilst this vehicle is all Land Rover, it most definitely isn’t all vintage. It started life as a 1951 80-inch Series 1 Land Rover, but Damian has modified it. The leaf springs have been replaced with coil springs and underneath the hood is a 1990 Land Rover Discovery engine. Behind the quaint façade of a vintage lies the beating heart of a much beefier animal!

It’s important that original Land Rovers are preserved, of course, but it’s also interesting to see an adapted one occasionally, because these quirky hybrids are a testament to the Land Rover’s amazing versatility. This Landy is not only Damian’s everyday vehicle, it is also his hobby and the way that he gets his fix of adrenaline. Damian regularly competes with his Land Rover in trials, and has won the North Wales Land Rover Club trials twice in recent years, as well as the championships. There couldn’t be a better place to enjoy off-roading as a hobby than here in North Wales where there are plenty of hills, stony tracks and muddy lanes to play on, and sometimes, if we’re really lucky, there’s a bit of snow too. FC

Starting the Lister CS

• Turn the flywheel backward to open the exhaust valve and move the decompression lever under the cam follower; this will hold the exhaust valve open.
• Ensure the compression changeover valve is screwed in.
• Release fuel shutoff lever to allow fuel pump to operate.
• Swing handle clockwise five or six times.
• While the engine is spinning, flick the decompression lever from under the cam follower. This allows the exhaust valve to close, creating compression and causing the engine to fire.
• About two or three minutes after the engine has fired, screw open the changeover valve; this will allow running compression.

Starting the Lister A

• Turn on the fuel tap.
• Pump the fuel pump by hand to prime the carburetor.
• Turn the fuel mixture wheel to the start position.
• Rotate the choke wheel to restrict the air intake.
• Swing the handle clockwise.
• As soon as the engine fires, open the choke to allow full air intake.
• Rotate the fuel mixture wheel to the running position.

Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. Email her at