The British car industry is full of dreamers. At every motor show, a middle-aged man will unveil a supercar and declare that from a tatty shed in nowheresville, he's going to take on Ferrari. Press photographers will busy themselves, scantily clad girls will hand out brochures, and by the end of the show he'll claim to have taken "numerous orders" from "discerning individuals."
The plucky entrepreneur will then return to his shed, tinker with the car for a couple of years, sell precisely none, and call in the liquidators. It's all depressingly predictable. When was the last time you heard of a Strathcarron or a Jensen?
But there is an exception. For the past 4 years, Lee Noble has been producing exceptional sports cars from a tiny workshop in Leicestershire, England. He has already sold 180 cars, has genuine deposits for 60 more and now employs more than 200 people. He also recently unveiled a new model, a 3.0-liter version of the M12 GTO supercar.
I remember the first time I saw a Noble. It was during my time as a roadtester for Autocar magazine, and I'd arrived at the office one morning to find a strange-looking mid-engined roadster in the car park. "Just wait 'til you drive it," said my boss, tossing me the keys. The original M10 was, quite simply, a revelation. The ride and handling was a match for the Lotus Elise, and although Noble only sold a handful of M10s, a marker had been thrown down.
Memories of this incident were rekindled as I stood outside Noble HQ. Anyone expecting a Maranello-esque experience will be disappointed. The factory is an anonymous building on an ugly industrial estate in the Midlands. But there's a lack of pretension that's refreshing to behold. If you ring the company out of hours, the gruff voice on the end of the answer phone belongs to Lee Noble.
The bulk of the cars are now manufactured in South Africa, before they're shipped to the UK for final assembly. The 3.0-liter engine, which replaces a 2.5, is sourced from Ford in the U.S. and is derived from the engine in the Escape SUV. When it arrives in the UK, it's rebuilt with the addition of two Garrett T25 turbochargers, a new ECU, throttle bodies and a bespoke exhaust system. As a result of the fettling, the engine now produces 344 bhp at 5800 rpm and 380 lb-ft of torque at just 3500 rpm. It takes one person a week to build an M12 before it's road tested and sent to the dealers.
As keys were produced for the bottle-green test car, I was issued a warning. "The last person who came to test it lost it within sight of the factory and parked it in a wall," said one of the managers. "It's very quick and there's no ABS or traction control." I muttered some reassuring words and wandered out to the car.
The M12 isn't what you'd call elegant, but the extravagant wings and scoops lend it plenty of visual drama. It's also pleasingly compact-at 4089mm (161.0 in.) by 1828mm (72.0 in.), it's both shorter and narrower than a Porsche 911.
The cabin is minimalist but attractive and finished to a high standard. Much of the switchgear is borrowed from the Ford parts bin, but it's convincingly integrated-Aston could learn a lot from Noble about the effective use of common parts. There's air conditioning, a decent stereo and the quilted Alcantara roof lining looks terrific.
The tactile elements are also spot on: The steering wheel is a MOMO, while the gearknob and handbrake are machined from aluminum. It feels like the cabin of a car that costs 47,950 ($79,741); only the absence of a trunk undermines its aspirations as an everyday car.