The car world is full of characters: talented, knowledgeable, professional people often at the top of their game. Catch them at a new product launch and their appearance and dialogue will be highly polished, often PR-managed and a credit to the company that employs them.
So when, in 1999, a rather dishevelled-looking chap called Lee Noble arrived at Autocar’s offices, driving what appeared to be a rather cheap and cheerful open-top kit car called the M10, we were sceptical. With some reluctance, the road test team tried the car – and the following week, this magazine proclaimed it to be “one of the most complete and exciting British mid-engined two-seaters we’ve driven”.
That marked the start of the Noble phenomenon. Four years later, I drove an M12 – the M10’s faster and more complete successor – for the first time, and of the hundreds of cars I’ve tested since, none has elicited such powerful memories for me, despite having driven my last one exactly 15 years ago.
However, back then I missed out on the first version of the M12, the GTO, and it’s this model that gave rise to this story, because 2021 marks two decades since car number one was delivered to a customer. It’s also the point at which Noble truly became a force to be reckoned with – not just in low-volume sports car circles but up against true supercar royalty, too.
First, though, let’s go back to why the M12 caused such a stir in 2001. To start with, the market was ripe for such a car. Think about mid-size sports cars with a reasonable degree of everyday usability and a BHP figure in the mid-300s and you would be looking at either the Lotus Esprit, then in its death throes, or the 996-series Porsche 911.
With plaudits for the M10 in the bag, Noble was quick to exploit that market gap and, thanks to his experience in quick-turnaround engineering projects, within two years the M12 emerged from the company’s new premises in Barwell, Leicestershire. Using the same Ford-based mechanicals as the M10 – the relatively new and highly tunable Duratec V6 – and essentially the same steel spaceframe chassis, the M12 added twin turbochargers, nearly doubling the power to 310bhp, and an enclosed, two-door fibreglass body that looked more like a refugee from a race track. And the cost? An indecently competitive £44,950.
Much of the M12’s commercial success stemmed from a deep-rooted pragmatism about how many sales were needed to make the car viable and establishing a realistic bill of material for each unit. For this reason, Noble outsourced manufacturing of the M12’s body and rolling chassis to low-volume experts Hi-Tech Automotive, based in Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth), South Africa.
This left Noble’s Leicestershire workforce to install the powertrain and deal with final assembly. It was a repeatable and efficient method that led to us recognising Noble with our Specialist Manufacturer of the Year Award in 2001, saying: “Perhaps Lee’s greatest achievement has been to take 160 orders and turn his outfit into that rarest of breeds: a successful small British sports car maker.”