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.
The accent on minimalism is also a reflection of Noble's obsession with saving weight. The M12 tips the scales at a mere 1,050kg (2,315 lb), which affords it a power-to-weight ratio of 344 bhp/metric ton. A torque-to-weight ratio of 362 lb-ft/ton is even more impressive-a 911 Turbo musters "just" 266 lb-ft.
This reserve of torque makes the Noble easy to drive at low speeds. It's also remarkably supple for such a focused car, and there's a Lotus-like quality to the way it deals with surface imperfections. It normally takes me half a day to feel at home in a TVR, but the Noble is more instinctive. Indeed, my only major complaint is the position of the pedals, which are offset to the center in the manner of a Ferrari 328. This makes it difficult to heel and toe.
I headed north, in search of the wide-open spaces of the Derbyshire moors. This is the Noble's natural habitat, where much of the development work was conducted. As I pushed the throttle pedal through its long travel, the engine responded with a deep-throated roar and a turbine whoosh. The traction provided by the rear tires-vast 265/35ZR18 Bridgestone Potenzas-is extraordinary, at least in the dry.
I wasn't able to test its performance against the clock, but Autocar magazine achieved a 0-to-60-mph sprint of 3.9 sec. in the 2.5-liter (310-bhp) version, and I'd expect to shave a couple of tenths off that in the new car. The top speed has never been independently verified, but I'd expect it to comfortably exceed 180 mph. In other words, the Noble is one of the fastest cars I've ever driven.
Its sprinting ability alone would be enough to have many enthusiasts rushing for their Amex, but it's only the Noble's opening bid. Lee Noble designed the development chassis for the McLaren F1 supercar, and his experience has been used to brilliant effect. In the dry, you'd have to be monumentally talented or certifiably insane to exceed its limits. But this is not to suggest that it's dull.
Far from it. At first, the steering feels over light, but you quickly learn to revel in the minutiae of its feedback. The M12 turns in with the immediacy of a carefully honed racer, and it's possible to steer it through the turn with a well-judged right foot. Changes of direction are dispensed in a wrist-flick with a degree of control that makes even a 911 feel clumsy and overwrought.
Concerns that a pair of turbos may upset its balance can also be dispelled. The power arrives in a linear whoosh so that the whistle of the Garretts is the only reminder of the forced induction. And when their work is done, the AP Racing calipers grip the ventilated discs and smite digits from the speedo. Little wonder that most Noble owners are track-day enthusiasts.
As a demonstration of its track credentials, a Noble M12 GTO was recently used as the pace car for the SCCA Speed GT Championship at Sebring. 1G Racing is also importing 10 M12s to the U.S. in kit form this year as Noble "does a recce." Entering the American market in any scale would mean re-engineering the cars with airbags and ABS. "It will cost a fortune," said Noble, "but it could happen in a couple of years' time."
In the meantime Noble will busy himself with the launch of a 360-bhp M12 GTO R, a 400-bhp track-day special and an open-top GTC. With any other manufacturer, I might be reaching for phrases such as "over ambitious," but Noble is such a down-to-earth guy that you trust his instincts.
At the day's end, Noble's staff had to wrestle me for the keys. The M12 is an enthusiast's delight and exactly the sort of car that Lotus ought to be producing but isn't. Put simply, the Noble is more fun to drive, more of the time, than a Porsche 911. Britain has a new supercar hero.