It all began with a mutual friend’s assumption that Alistair Lee and I would bond.
And why not? We both have endless appetites for automotive adventure and, in the all-important matter of motoring taste, share a love of Classic Britannia in cars, a willingness to forgive the mechanical informalities (let’s be kind) of the breed and, in choosing to use rather than roost the things, a readiness to rebuild them as often as is cruelly necessary.
Neither of us is much inhibited by the constraints of originality and accordingly modify our mounts to suit our needs… to the extent of complete donk-out stripdowns in pursuit of perfection. We differ in detail, though.
While I choose to engage the skills of others with the messy bits, Alistair prefers the hands-on approach, fearlessly undertaking full engine rebuilds and all the subsequent fine-tuning. This mechanical intimacy, however, is the lesser of our differences.
Considerably more profound is the one that underlines each of this extraordinary man’s accomplishments.
Thirty-four-year-old Alistair Lee has been blind since birth.
Automotive achievements are by no means the limit of Alistair’s talents. Keyboard and stringed instrument skills reflect his academic degree in music and the man has represented Australia in both swimming and athletics. His work in the voice-over industry reflects genuine commercial skill but above all these things towers Alistair Lee’s principal accomplishment: the triumph of what he can do over any limitation of what he can’t. And nothing illustrates this uncommon life better than its interplay with cars.
So, where others recognise cars visually, Alistair uses touch to identify and adjudge each and every of his 1000-plus collection of matchbox models. These are his pictures. And where the reading of instruments might inform others of mechanical achievement, our man’s extraordinary hearing is every bit as graphic. So much so that, with production houses and radio stations consulting with him for years to get the exact note of specific vehicles, he has now built up a comprehensive sound library of car engines.
The passion was, for a soul as inquisitive as this one, inevitable. Without the distraction of sight, his quest for stimulation led to alternate discoveries and, beginning with household appliances, from a very early age he came to understand (and love) the sound of machinery. It became apparent at that time that he had perfect pitch and he began playing the piano at four, the first link in his equation of engines to musical instruments.
This facility now dominates his appreciation of – and expertise with – cars as surely as sight guides the rest of us. And a lack of the latter in no way limits his enthusiasm. Oh no. The man is, by any definition, a car nut. And if his choices are individual, they simply reflect his unique parameters in making them: he owns and loves an MG RV8, for instance, bought in 2007.
It fitted his criteria, blending the abstract of MG history with the aural treat of the Rover V8 engine for which he had four exhaust systems built, flow tested and tuned until it produced the note he was looking for.
And found. And allowed me to savour when he brought the car out to the village to swap rides between his car and mine. And, damn it, that’s the first time ever that my side-piped E-Type has come second in a sound-off. Okay, the Jaguar’s still prettier but Alistair’s parameter is hard to argue. After all, you spend a lot more time hearing your car than looking at it.
Which doesn’t mean that his stable is completely devoid of aesthetic merit. In 2008, after comprehensive searching on the ’net, he bought a 1991 Walkinshaw XJS, one of only 240 built. Sadly, this fabulous V12-powered creation remains in the UK due to import restrictions but, as I am learning, little gets between our guy and a giggle and if he has to go over there to drive it…
Because drive ’em he does. Not on public roads (hem, hem) but on private property and, with someone else steering, on anything resembling a racetrack whenever the opportunity arrives.
Failing that, he’s entirely happy to let selected friends pilot one of his cars while he savours it from the passenger side, as he did recently when he came out to show ’n’ share the Lotus Excel that, in 2009, he shipped to Australia to undertake the twin challenges of getting it to, (a) comply with our legalities and, (b) provide a level of predictability quite unimagined by its manufacturer.
And it is on those visits, graced beyond mere roadwork by good food, company and conversation, that Alistair’s alternate existence is revealed as indeed different. But not deficient.
Within moments of entering our home for the first time he complimented us on the generous height of its ceilings and, in moving beneath them, needed no warning of floor-changes from carpet to tile to timber because, I can only presume, a sonar sense of sorts predicted every wall-opening, and experience alerted him to the associated possibility of flooring change. This acute development of his other senses makes Alistair’s relationship to cars so unique.
Now able to diagnose mechanical condition purely by touch, sound and scent, his capability in the field began at an early age. As a child he was taught by a science teacher friend of the family how an engine functioned and, in the garage at merely five or six years of age, was instructed by this still fondly-remembered soul how to pull an engine apart and, even more critically, put it back together.
At the age of 11, he was taken to a friend’s workshop and taught how to rebuild and work on a small diesel tractor. And the learning has not stopped since. Seeking input from friends and professionals whenever possible, over the years Alistair has assembled an enormous cognisance of make and model variants. And using speech software on his computer allows him, through visiting car sites and reading magazines (there’s another one?), to sate an ongoing thirst for the latest news and information.
But this quest goes well beyond the abstract. A large and handy fellow, Alistair is a more comfortable than most – okay, me – with the oily end of proceedings and quite happy to exercise his learning. Which means that stripping and reassembling whole drivetrains holds no terror for the man – and just to give you some idea of the accomplishment involved, imagine attempting that on your own car in pitch darkness.
There are limitations, of course, and Alistair is not so stubborn as to ignore them. He has, for instance, always needed sighted assistance when working on electrics or any other components or processes that involve colour or coding.
But that collaboration is more than repaid by the singular skills that he offers in return. His extraordinary diagnostic talents can swiftly help others to identify problems and, accordingly, minimise the expense of exploration. Equally beneficial is the early detection of fault that these empowered senses can offer, affording reductions both to later expense and, potentially, danger.
A less predictable contribution to road safety is the man’s combination of knowledge and patience applied to the often trying but nonetheless essential area of early driver training.
But who better than Alistair to educate youngsters in the principles of motoring and the functions of basic controls? Who better to teach and test the art of balance in hill-starts?
It’s typical of the man that this interplay with others, though born of necessity, should be regarded by him as one of life’s greatest gifts. “Through my love of cars and boats I’ve met so many lovely people who’ve been enthusiastic to support a blind person’s experience of such things,” he recounts, and clearly feels the need to reward that kindness.
And he does so in ways that are more than merely symbolic. For instance, both his encyclopaedic knowledge and diagnostic skills have been valued by friends for years when searching for older and vintage cars. And the selection of any new vehicle can only be aided by augmenting the traditional areas of sight-dominated assessment with Alistair’s additional perceptions. God help the salesman that might choose to differ on detail...
Just how profound these perceptions may be was illustrated when, from the passenger seat, the man responded to my request for input on the car in which I was driving him.
The resultant observations, ranging from ride, ergonomics and state of tune through to build quality and NVH integrity, all perceived and relayed in exquisite detail, were unlike anything I’ve ever heard during conventional testing.
But what else could be expected from a man excluded from the two key factors of nearly all conventional automotive judgement: seeing cars and tabulating their performance?
Surprise would be expected, of course. But nothing prepared me for the realisation that his judgement, which I’d presumed would be based on parameters totally foreign to most, was instead of factors intimately familiar to all of us, drivers or passengers, every time we sit in a car: comfort, quality, feel, sound, ease of reach and adjustment – elements infinitely more relevant than the swoop of a bootlid or times to the tenth.
So the greatest surprise of all was this blind man’s gift of vision.
We talked for some time on that drive and have talked often since, a regular subject being the experience of new cars that this magazine allows. “It would be a great joy for me to go on a road test with some of the journalists from Motor,” he has frequently said.
And, unblinkered, I can now see sense in that.