A Noble cause: the British-built M600 supercar
In the 1983 book The Meaning of Liff, its co-author Douglas Adams, of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame, attempted to create a “dictionary of things that there aren’t any words for yet” by picking a place name and assigning an interesting meaning to it in the English language.
My favourites include Lossiemouth (a town in north-east Scotland), the noun from which Adams defined as “one of those middle-aged ladies with just a hint of a luxuriant handlebar moustache”; and Kettering, which should mean: “The marks left on your bottom or thighs after sunbathing on a wickerwork chair.”
Sadly Adams, who died in 2001, never offered an alternative meaning for Leicester, a decent-sized city in England’s East Midlands. Of the hundreds of unusually named villages, towns and cities in Britain, Leicester is among the most deserving of a noun in its honour, I believe – and the options are endless.
Leicester is the sort of place that every Briton knows about, but few have visited – a sort of wet and industrial Ajman, if you will, albeit with far less of the charm that the emirate enjoys.
The city has never had a history of automotive production, and its only real link to car manufacturing is a literal one: the M69 motorway connects it with Coventry, another Midlands city that has, for much of the past century, been synonymous with Britain’s carmakers (and another city that lacks the benefit of a definition in The Meaning of Liff).
Production has dwindled in Coventry, and never has the M69 felt more appropriate than it does now, as we scream north-eastward along its flat and unremarkable length to Leicester, the birthplace of the car we are in. Leicester is now on the automotive map, and with the Noble M600, the city has produced a car that is not far from incredible.
Tiny Noble, whose premises are a semi-prefabricated unit within a grouping of light industrial workshops, might be an oddity, but it’s also very important for British automotive manufacturing. Indeed, the company proves it’s not necessary for a speciality carmaker to rely on heavy funding from a global group to create a fantastic product, as has been the case with the Volkswagen-owned Bugatti and many other marques.
While Coventry might once have employed tens of thousands of automotive workers, Noble calls on the services of just 15 individuals across its entire operation. With such a small workforce, the manufacturer makes only 12 cars a year, though it wants to ramp this up to 20 in the near future.
The Noble M600 represents the company’s entire range. It’s hand-built largely from carbon fibre, and uses a 4.4L, Yamaha-derived Volvo V8 engine with twin Garrett turbochargers equipped with variable boost. This set-up will produce anything between 450 and 650bhp, depending on how you feel and the position of a big red switch on the dash.
Weighing in at about £200,000 (Dh1.2 million), the M600 will take you to 97kph (60mph) in three seconds flat, 161kph (100 mph) in 6.5 seconds and 322kph in just under 30 seconds. Its top speed is estimated at about 360kph, while there’s no ABS to get in the way of performance. In short, it’s an out-and-out supercar whose performance stacks up impressively against the Lamborghini Aventador and blows the Ferrari 458 Italia off the blacktop in terms of acceleration and top speed.
But, as seasoned followers of exotica will know, performance stats aren’t worth a bean if they don’t translate into a feeling of insane joy in the wild, a bugbear I find with Porsche’s terrifyingly fast 911 Turbo S. In this light, the M600 is the world’s best car, if you’re looking for the most fun possible relative to cost.
What stands out most about the M600 is the way that Noble has crafted a unique proposition, as much by necessity as through design. Clearly a company of 15 employees doesn’t have the means or the beans to develop groundbreaking technologies, so it has played to its strengths by creating a supercar every bit as good as its more mainstream rivals – and even better in some respects.
Anyone who has taken a big Italian out on the road will appreciate the M600’s performance and responsiveness – and, at the same time, will likely understand straight away what Noble has set out to achieve through its small-scale approach to car design.
“I think we have an edge because this car is entirely analogue, unlike most other supercars you find with their paddle-shift gears and high-tech trickery,” says Peter Boutwood, Noble’s managing director, who’s sat next to me on the drive. To illustrate this, there’s a bulbous, body-coloured gearstick to shift the bespoke Graziano Oerlikon transaxle six-speed manual gearbox into action – something infinitely more satisfying than tapping on a paddle, in spite of the latter’s greater thrill of quicker changing.
Boutwood enjoys using the analogue analogy and relates it to many aspects of the car, from design – as a fashion designer and motorsport enthusiast, he penned the initial concepts for the exterior design and chassis – to performance.
Out on the M69, the car’s simplicity makes the joy even more profound. Every ludicrously tight gear change has a split-second effect on the engine behind it; as the eight cylinders respond to transmission and throttle, you can feel in your waters how the highly polished result is not the effect of digital signals through management software.
Instead, what you get is like casting your eyes on the Mona Lisa for the first time, listening to Mozart at full volume or caressing the curves of Michelangelo’s Pietà: the M600’s drive is pure art.
That’s not to say that this supercar looks anything other than modern – and, unlike many other niche carmakers, the Noble certainly isn’t a bunch of offcuts from other bodywork and components suppliers.
A Leicester lad, the M600’s design might have elements of something more exotic, but it still sticks to its roots. Its appearance is technical rather than hot-blooded: the lines are nowhere near as dreamy as those of an Aston Martin DBS; the face and rear cannot compete with the Aventador’s machismo; and, compared to a 458 Italia, it’s an altogether different animal. The mid-engined screamer is visually demure in a very British way.
Boutwood is adamant that this is every bit a road car, though some customers do take it on track days. By way of illustration, the Noble has no problem launching forward at 65kph in fourth gear to make 100kph a little more than two seconds later. But why would you do this when a quick shift to second would unleash a scream that sounds like the end of days before propelling you to three figures a second quicker?
Even in sixth, there’s no off-turbo complacency, with 1,000rpm the beginning of the power sweet spot. This is the result of the M600’s almost incomprehensibly light body, which at a claimed 1,250kg helps achieve a power-to-weight ratio of 541bhp per tonne – that’s higher than the McLaren MP4-12C, itself an entrant in the featherweight category.
With so much power on offer aligned with so little weight, Noble has taken an analogue approach to keeping the M600 stable, with as near to perfect weight distribution as possible.
As with all previous Nobles, the M600 uses a mid-engined space-frame steel chassis, which Boutwood says is as strong and rigid as those of his rivals, with double wishbones at each corner and coil-over dampers for its primary suspension. The engine and entire transaxle sit massively forwards in the chassis.
Its steel brakes come with six-pot callipers at the front and four at the rear, and have been designed by the British braking specialist Alcon. In the spirit of analogue, Noble refuses to offer ABS, arguing that such a system would rob the brakes of feel.
Inside, there’s decent room, with the leather seats slung deep in the floor pan to give masses of headroom. While some parts bins were raided for the switchgear, a nice touch comes from a repurposed missile-launch toggle from a Tornado jet fighter that serves as a traction-control switch, though this feature doesn’t quite offset a low-spec stereo that’s far too basic for a vehicle in this price range.
There’s leather throughout, although nowhere near in the abundance offered by a Lambo. Still, for a tiny carmaker, the interior is clean, tight and polished, with all the dials, switches and gauges occupying exactly the right positions, though the carbon fibre around the binnacles might not be to everyone’s taste. Noble also offers to tailor the seating and pedal positions to suit the shape of its owners.
However, cabin comfort is the last thing on anyone’s mind when you’re tearing up the tarmac – and that’s something the M600 is especially good at. Like its more high-tech competitors, it flatters the more cautious driver while giving gentleman racers a great deal to play with.
If it’s response you want as you hammer along a rural B-road, joy at speed on the motorway and more than just a little noise and exuberance to remind you that you’re sat in a million-dirham-plus supercar, the Noble counts all these within its sales pitch.
Leicester should be proud of its automotive son, even if Noble had its roots in Leeds before Lee Noble left the company he founded in 2008 and the business moved to the East Midlands.
While the city is certainly no Sant’Agata Bolognese, it has its quirks and provides a suitable spiritual home for Noble. If it were ever to appear in The Meaning Of Liff, I’m sure the verb “to Leicester” would mean “to develop even more insane speed by going light on technology”, thanks to the city’s very own independent supercar maker.
• The Noble M600 is available in the Middle East by direct arrangement with the company in Leicester.
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Updated: September 25, 2014 04:00 AM