Lee Noble is only happy when he’s making cars.
About 10 years ago, he was a big name, having built a unique reputation for creating individualistic and affordable supercars that were good enough to give big brands a headache. But around 2008, the business struck some pretty big bumps in the road, just as the supercar market started going south with the recession. Noble admits he had some bad years.
Now he’s smiling again, however, with a very different car project to get his teeth into, and a brand-new business model to put it on the road. It’s a simple, affordable, fun car, the kind of thing Noble believes is right for modern times. It’s the soul of simplicity although it still uses the core principles of his previous cars – lightness, durability, easy performance, resourceful design and classy dynamics.
With a uniquely wry brand of workshop humour, Noble has called his new creation the Exile Bug:R. ‘Exile’ because that’s the name he coined a year or two ago for a new supercar project yet to be launched; ‘Bug:R’ because that’s a word that came to him while facing a thorny part of the car’s construction. The second half of the name (Noble wryly observes) is something no other car maker is likely to want to fight him for.
The Bug:R is a new kind of raised, doorless sports car, much better than a classic beach buggy because it’s mid-engined and uniquely engineered, but with the same simple appeal. The engine is a standard 2.0-litre Ford Duratec with around 130bhp. Noble’s plan is to build about 50 a year and price them around £22,000, the final price depending to a small extent on stuff like the choice of wheels and colour, although there’s no plan to offer a lot of options. No doors, for instance.
You’ll order your car either online or directly from Noble, and you’ll probably meet him personally when you pick it up. He hopes you will, because that’s the kind of company he wants to run. There won’t be a dedicated British assembly plant: cars will be made in South Africa by Jimmy Price’s Superformance business, the same firm – slimmed post-recession – that part-made the 1500-odd Noble M12s that hit the market before 2009, although back then the engines were fitted here.
“I’ve learnt a lot from the M12 years,” says Noble. “I’m convinced we’re better off importing the cars fully built, and Jimmy can make ’em better than anyone.”
So far, there’s only one prototype, but the design is so simple, so strong, and depends so much on Ford-sourced components designed for a vehicle twice as heavy, that it has worked perfectly out of the box. Noble, famously capable in the workshop, has fabricated every Bug:R prototype piece himself, right down to the strikingly well-finished hand-laid glassfibre panels. He has already tested it within an inch of its life. “I’ve thrashed this car long and hard at Bruntingthorpe,” he says, “over gravel and big bumps, and flat out around the handling circuit. I can honestly say it’s the first car I’ve had when nothing – absolutely nothing – has gone wrong. And it goes amazingly well.”
In Noble’s backyard, I have a little play myself, feeling the dependable base torque of the engine, marvelling at the lightly loaded, non-power steering and the ease with which a car with zero overhangs and a centralised mass can turn, despite having spring rates quite a lot softer than most sports cars. In another life, says Noble, he’d have wanted to fabricate every single suspension component, including uprights. But the 850kg Bug:R layout, front and rear, is based on Ford Mondeo strut front suspension parts, massively strong for the duty they’re being put to, and just about perfect after being set up with unique Noble geometry.
Lee gestures at the bog-standard Mondeo strut, which sports a smaller-than-standard spring because of the car’s low weight. “Over the years, I’ve used every big-name shock absorber in the business on my cars,” he says, “but I honestly think these are the best. And they cost £35 a throw…”
Like many of us, Noble discovered cars before he was old enough to have a driver’s licence. His dad bought him a £100 Hillman Imp. But he departed rapidly from the norm by learning so voraciously about car innards and design practices that within a decade he had set up a successful Triumph TR6 restoration business, had designed and built the still-famous Ultima roadrace car, and had won several GT championships driving his own cars.
A succession of ever better replicas and race cars followed, from faux Ferrari 330 P4 to ersatz Lotus 23b, and he also worked on successful, well-engineered, unique, fast car projects for companies like Ascari. But for us at Autocar – and for the wider fast car world – Noble really came to notice in 1999 when he pitched up at our offices with a mid-engined drop-top car of his own design, the Ford V6-powered Noble M10.
It was a magic moment, although we didn’t immediately realise it. The car looked like many a hopeful’s oneoff, a breed particularly prevalent in the UK, and the thoroughness of its engineering was not immediately apparent. But as soon as we drove it, the car astonished us all by outhandling the Lotus Elise we were running at the time, while proving considerably more comfortable and practical. Other critics subsequently said the same. The M10 was soon put into production as the remarkably successful M12 coupé, the car that built the Noble reputation.
The M12’s ‘affordable exotic’ slot was largely killed by the recession, Noble believes, and the situation was made even more difficult by the arrival of cars like the Porsche Cayman S. More successful Noble buyers have gone the way of McLaren and Ferrari. “When I did the M12,” says Noble, “there was a big gap between us and the next big thing. We created a culture. You can’t do that now. It’s a difficult market.”
This realisation, allied to his own frustration with not building cars, is what led to Bug:R, Noble admits: “I was frustrated, so I sat around for about a week thinking of cars whose design purpose was simplicity, but which would provide maximum fun.”
Helped by a loyal and long-lasting backer, Justin Fielder, Noble believes he can do modestly well with the Bug:R. “It’s enjoyable and completely unpretentious,” he says of the car. “People find that appealing and when they get to drive it, they will find it goes amazingly well.”