Back when I was just a small excitable boy about to start high school in 2003, the 3 automotive “wise-men” of the BBC put on an episode which I will never forget. It was a “buy British” special where the boys showed us that it wasn’t all doom and gloom for the British automotive industry and presented the three best (in their opinions) British cars from British owned companies that you could go out and buy with pride. Neither James’ Rover 75 or Richard’s Morgan Plus-8 interested me too much, I already understood both of those cars quite well from the piles of car magazines under my bed. But Jeremy’s car changed my life forever. It was a south African/Leicester hybrid that could give a Lamborghini a run for its money, but that’s not what changed everything. No, it was when I asked my dad about the Noble M12; he said “I think it’s made by a guy with some kit car background or something”
Turns out this guy was just a dreamer. To me, that was amazing. What I understood back then about the motoring world was that all car companies formed many eons ago and nothing new could just come about. You needed connections, money and a gigantic factory to produce and compete in the motor trade. Lee Noble turned this upside down for me. From that day I promised myself that at some point I would create my own car company, and not just any, but the greatest car company that ever was. Since then my dreams have levelled out slightly but I still have the odd day at the sketchpad setting out car designs and plans of attack to shake up the monotony of the world of modern motors. Lee is the reason I set out to do mechanical engineering as a degree and why I’m so passionate about car design as well as history. Due to him inspiring me so greatly, I wanted him to be the first person on my blog to be credited as a motoring hero (even if it is just to me).
Creating the ultimate
As a nice coincidence, when I delved into the Noble’s history, the kit-car connection that my dad was talking about turned out to be one of my favorite kit-cars at the time. Way back in 1983 using steel tubes, the front of a cortina, the rear/engine of a Renault 30 and various Lancia gubbins, the first Noble, the Ultima, was created. This, with some alterations, due to the Renault suspension components collapsing, went on sale as the MK2.
The car was the start of a Noble theme of mid-engined cut-price racing cars for the road. The car being available as a kit meant several different engines were used, from the boat anchor Essex V6, through the usual Rover V8 to the ludicrous American V8’s. The cars got better and soon the square tube space-frame was replaced with a thoroughly re-engineered circular tube one and the frumpy looks became more round for the Nineties and the MK3 was born which, if you follow the Ultima, is how it still looks today, bar the single headlights. It’s easy to pass the Ultima off as just another dodgy kit-car, bodged together in a shed, but actually the cars were (and are) very impressive bits of kit, being banned from many race series for being too competitive. Plus, two Ultima chassis and bodies were used as mules for engine testing in the development of the Mclaren F1 , not a small feat seeing as it is possibly the most famous supercar of all time.
Other irons in the fire
While the Ultima was a successful seller, Noble was never one to rest easy and 3 years after its introduction, Lee set about creating replicas on the side: the first being a Ferrari P4 which is amazing in detail. This shows Lee to not just be a dab hand with chassis but also with creating bodies; you must understand that the Ferrari P4 is not a car you can just find and put a mould over like the many Stratos and Cobra replicas that are seen. This car would have had to have been created from pictures and guesswork alone.
Replicas are a funny topic for me, I find some cars are over-copied to the point where the original cars seem cheap, irrelevent and dull, the Cobra being a prime example of this. But when a car is interesting and impossible to ever even get close to, then that’s when replicas make sense. A lot of replicas only focus on the looks of the car, no focus is given to the actual driving experience. It’s pointless posing to me making a Ferrari that’s based on a MR2, the most important factor of a car is the drive and, with Noble being a perfectionist, you know it’s going to be spot on, even if you opted for the Renault V6 instead of the Chevy 8. With the Ferrari being from a time before carbon fibre, the space frame chassis is historically accurate. Following on from the racing theme, just one year later Noble introduced his Lotus 23B replica. The car was based around Lee’s personal race car, and could be fitted with a 1600 Lotus twin cam engine which is similar to the 1500 the actual car could have come with. It’s hard to think that such quality kits came at around about the same time when kit car manufacturers were still making cars like the Dutton Sierra. Occasionally you do see them come up in the classifieds and they appear to be long-lasting cherished cars. Once the Lotus was finished, you would perhaps think Noble took a holiday, but never one to rest on his laurels, Lee set about the design and construction of a race car similar to the original Ultima, with the goal of creating a cheap but competitive racing car, and in 1989 he set about designing the Prosport 3000. The car looked great, looking almost like a shrunk down Jaguar XJR15. The cars were based on a heavily modified version of the Ultima chassis and had a Cosworth tuned Granada V6 to keep prices down, with a power output of around 300BHP the Prosport was no slouch. The cars were highly competitive and popular in the Nineties, the car also boasted its own race series which boasted relatively good prices for winning.
Bigger and better things
A common theme with Noble it seems is moving from project to project; where many would be happy with a car as loved as the Ultima and the replicas. In 1990 Noble sold his company, Kitdeal, selling the rights to the replicas in 1990. Shortly after, in 1992, the Ultima’s rights were sold on. His inability to stick to a single project is a similarity I see in myself, whether it’s in the choice of car I’m driving or more commonly the style of car I dream of making. In 1995 Noble set out on his largest project so far, with Dutch millionaire Klaas Zwart, he set about creating a car company from the ground up on the South Coast in Dorset. Ascari is a name you may recognize, a Supercar company named after the great Ferrari racing driver Alberto Ascari. The company now is large, with their own racing resort in Southern Spain. Back in 1995 though, they were just a start-up, the first car to be created before moving headquarters to Banbury was the FGT which evolved into the Ecosse. The car utilized a BMV derived Hartge unit that, in production form, produced in excess of 400 Horsepower and was clothed in a Kevlar fiberglass body cocktail so only weighed 1275kg. The car debuted in 1999 at the Earls Court Motorshow, with a hefty price tag of almost £90k. The car was a commercial failure: with only 17 examples built, with several confirmed to have been destroyed. With this, Noble ended his association with the company but the Ecosse is still sought after to this day.
During his stint at Ascari, his kit-car origins and good price values were never forgotten. In 1995 Lee re-imagined the simple two-seater sports cars in the vein of the Lotus 7 , TVR NO2 and Ginetta G2 but with the standard Noble mid-engined twist. The Midtec Spider was a simple two-seater which could be made on the cheap, using either Ford or Renault mechanicals to slip into the one-piece bug-eyed glass fiber body. Like the original Ultima, the car had a simple square tube chassis to keep the costs competitive, with the seven-esque kits at the time. Plus, with such low power, the car didn’t really need to be the most advanced, just the most fun! This was the first Noble original to not have been designed from the off as a racing car, it was more an exercise in cheap simple fun. While I like the beach buggy wide-arch look of the car, many didn’t and many more thought the convertible top was a bit of a daft afterthought. The one thing everybody could agree with, though, was the superb Noble trademark handling that made the car great fun to chuck around. The kit did reasonably well, with 60 or so believed to have been sold in total, but I believe the main mark of the success is how many kits on sale today follow its formula, like the Sylva J15 and the myriad of models from Mev in the late Noughties.
Noble by name and by nature
Noble automotive was set up in 1999. Like Ascari, this was full on car production and not a kit, but, unlike Ascari, the goal wasn’t to make the most exotic cars to compete with the likes of Ferrari and Lamborghini, the goal was to make track-focused affordable cars to eat them for breakfast.
The first proper Noble, the M10, was released in 1999 and the first two were constructed in Lee Noble’s home garage. The car, like the Midtec, wasn’t much of a looker but like the Midtec it was a great handler. Powered by a naturally aspirated Mondeo ST220 engine, the car was no slouch, hitting 60 in under 6 seconds. The problem for many though, was the car very much felt and looked like a high-end kit car. Noble, not noted for his ability to rest on his laurels, replaced the M10 with the M12 we all know and recognise within a year. As you can see, the front end styling was much improved.
Not only was the styling improved, but the car became more focused; no longer a convertible, but a full enclosed hardtop making the car more aerodynamic and easier to understand in the market place. Yet again Noble was making a racing car for the road. Not only did the styling evolve with the M12 but so did the engine, now packing two turbos almost doubling the power output to 310BHP. All this in a car which weighed just a ton, meant it was a true hooligan able to hit 60 in 4.2 seconds. This is a feat that super cars from much more prestigious manufacturers were only just doing. In the car’s 6 year life span, it evolved to a stage where all that could be done was done, and sadly in 2006 the last proper Noble (minus the M14 AND M15 prototype) left the Leicester factory. And the company was bought by a man who seemingly, by his latest offering (the M600), has no idea what the cars were all about, making a car in the same vein as the Ascari that Noble walked away from to make the company. M400 M15 Concept
The future is not so simple, it seems. New cars from the man himself keep being teased, like the Fenix but bizarrely for a man so capable, nothing seems to be coming to fruition. I hope the story doesn’t end with the M14, but I’m sure Lee has something up his sleeves and if we’ve had to wait this long, I bet it’s going to be brilliant. Rise of the Fenix?