After 35 years of running Marine Engine Services, Peter Thompson is downsizing and transferring it to new owners – but we haven’t seen the last of the Lister expert yet...
Although Peter Thompson is downsizing, we haven’t seen the last of the Lister expert yet
With stories circulating that Peter Thompson, the founder and proprietor of Marine Engine Services, had recently sold the company, rumours of its demise have been a little exaggerated: and we haven’t seen the last of ‘Mr Lister’ just yet…
Given his knowledge of Lister diesel engines, it might come as a surprise that he never actually worked for Lister. In fact, Peter served an electrical engineering apprenticeship at GEC before deciding that his experience in the various departments and machine shops was actually “an ideal basis for running my own business”. His hobbies involved anything mechanical (especially old cars and particularly Morgans), and he was moving onto a boat: could he combine his interests to make a living on the inland waterways?
A good friend from his Morgan club helped him get set up. This being the early 1970s, there were really only two makes of engine being put in narrowboats – BMC or Lister – and his friend was a Lister service engineer (“probably the best they ever had”), so no prizes for guessing which make of engine he specialised in. There were customers with ex-working boats fitted with JP engines; while on the increasing numbers of purpose-built boats, the ST was taking over from the SR engine.
A lot of the work was installing new engines, but there was also servicing and on-site repair work – and with a move into engine rebuilding, Peter needed some premises – initially a “large site hut” at Bulls Bridge Junction (where the Grand Union Paddington Arm branches off) which he and his partners developed into a workshop.
In an important step forward in the late 1970s, the company got the contract
for winter engine maintenance of major hireboat operator Black’s Prince fleet. Peter recalls that they stripped and rebuilt all the engines over two or three winters: their preventative maintenance “reduced call-outs to virtually zero”.
Curiously it was only in 1980 that the name “Marine Engine Services” was actually registered as a company – up until then it was “simply what we did” – and what Peter happened to have painted on his boat cabin side. In fact, MES Ltd was initially an arm of the operation run as a dealership selling 40-50 engines a year (and come the late 1980s, this meant the new Alpha range), while the rebuilding, servicing and parts operation – by now run from larger premises by Uxbridge Wharf – was kept separate.
It wasn’t all about Listers for canal boats – there were some interesting other ventures too, including:
Importing a batch of Riga engines from Latvia, along with a load of spares, which were hardly used, because the engines never broke down!
Refitting the lifeboats of the QE2 with Lister TR series engines.
Exporting engines for fishing boats on Lake Malawi.
The turn of the century saw MES Ltd (which by now included the whole operation) move to its current premises in a new factory unit in Uxbridge. It also saw the company gradually concentrating more on what Peter calls “keeping the engines running”. As far as new engines were concerned, MEL worked with Lister Petter on marinising engines, revamping electrics, designing mountings, and producing technical information.
But while the TR and Alpha are still being produced, there are a lot of other manufacturers and marinisers of mainly oriental engines to compete with these days – and Lister Petter went through some complex restructurings and downsizings over the years which Peter feels didn’t help matters. In the meantime, however, the spares business grew and developed to include making new parts for obsolete engines when the original spares were no longer available.
And with more than 35 years of working with Listers, Peter continued to develop an enviable reputation as ‘Mr Lister’. But at the same time, he also started to get slightly fed up of spending so much of his working day in the office, answering the phone or wrapping up and mailing out spares – not to mention beginning to think about retiring.
What it needed was “a dynamic person” to take some of it on. So in mid-2015, Peter entered into an agreement with a new company Marine Engine Services (Midlands) Ltd, set up as a subsidiary of Richard and Sue Powell’s company Primrose Engineering, specialists in servicing and restoration of historic machinery – including narrowboat engines and gearboxes.
The whole Lister Petter spares and service operation has, therefore, been passed to MES (Midlands); while other parts of the company have also been transferred elsewhere – an Isuzu / Canaline dealership and Canalube lubricants sales have gone to Uxbridge Boat Centre. So what does that leave? Basically it leaves Peter free to answer technical queries, provide technical assistance and help to push people with problems in the right direction towards getting them fixed.
He also still does some of the original electrical work that he trained for back in his apprenticeship, working on cable looms and panels for the current range of Listers, but basically he’s on the phone to provide technical consultancy on anything to do with Lister Petter engines.
In other words, to still be Mr Lister.
‘His hobbies involved anything mechanical - and he was moving onto a boat. Could he combine his interests?’
Peter Thompson (right) and the team at Crick Show
On show: Lister Alpha at Crick
At the tiller of his boat
Still in production: the Lister TR series