Rapid return

Noble is back with a 225mph car that has all the power of a Ferrari F40 or McLaren F1 – if not their cachet. Just be sure to turn down the wick if you drive one on a wet road…
By Andrew Frankel

Not long ago I had a particularly depressing conversation with someone about the future of TVR, a subject upon which he was well qualified to speak but not inclined to go on the record. “There was a time when I thought something might come of it, but now I really think it’s all over,” was his grim assessment of the situation. No TVRs have been built since 2006, and with the rights to the name still apparently in the hands of Nikolai Smolenski – who purchased TVR in ’04 and under whose stewardship the company went to the wall – the prospect of new TVR product seems an increasingly remote possibility.

It made me think of those other small British sports car manufacturers that didn’t make it. I was actually in a Marcos TSO when I got a call asking me to return the car on account of the company having gone bust. I also remember too well the ill-starred rebirth of Jensen, which led to a grand total of 12 cars being built in 2002. But none depressed me more than the apparent demise of Noble. Having made the ugly, slow but capable M10, the beautiful, fast and fabulous M12 and the simply bloody brilliant M400, production suddenly stopped. And while a new, more luxurious supercar dubbed first the M14 and then M15 was extensively trailed, none actually appeared. Then when I learned that Lee Noble – the genius who started the company 10 years ago – had quit the business last year, I presumed Noble was no more.

I presumed wrong. Noble Automotive is alive, well, under the day-to-day control of one-time Formula 3 driver Peter Boutwood and about to astonish the world with by far its most ambitious car yet. Called the M600 it is, like all previous Nobles, a mid-engined, two-seat coupé. But there the similarities cease. The M600 is built up around a stainless-steel chassis and clad in carbon-fibre body panels. The engine is a 4.4-litre V8 designed by Yamaha for use by Volvo in its XC90 SUV, to which two turbochargers have been fitted to boost power to 650bhp. Power finds its way from there to the wheels via a six-speed Graziano gearbox.

More instructive still than noting what the M600 does contain is listing what it does not. The M600 has no ABS, traction or stability control. There are no airbags, other driver aids or anything else save air-conditioning that might add weight and detract from the simple business of driving. “We don’t see it as a car with any immediate competitors,” says Boutwood, “though I guess you could say that it’s conceptually closer to a Ferrari F40 than anything else, just somewhat faster.” The M600 goes on sale this month and, at £200,000, costs almost exactly the same as Ferrari was asking for the F40 20 years ago.

Wandering through the lanes of Leicestershire en route to the 10,000ft V-bomber runway at Bruntingthorpe, several things struck me about the M600. It’s not a particularly pretty car, nor does its name have any of the cachet of other supercar manufacturers selling cars for similar money, including not only Ferrari and Lamborghini but, from 2011, McLaren too. No one is going to buy an M600 to be seen in it – only to drive it. Perhaps that’s why Boutwood aspires only to make 50 cars a year, all of which will, for now at least, be sold in the UK.

Yet despite the extremity of its specification, it’s easy enough to drive. All-round visibility is better than that of most mid-engined cars, the engine happy to trickle along in a high gear at 2000rpm, and all the control weights professionally matched and consistent. But most notable is the suppleness of its ride: for all its as yet unsampled power, the M600 is no street-legal racer but a well-developed road car, more than capable of dealing with the worst that our poorly-surfaced B-roads can throw at it.

Bruntingthorpe heaves into view. The M600 is a familiar sight here and we’re waved through the barrier and proceed straight to the ultra-high-speed circuit to get better acquainted with its performance. Customer M600s will come with driver-selectable engine maps, so you can go shopping with 450bhp, shrug off anything likely to come anywhere near you on the road with 550bhp, or destroy all-comers at a track day with 650bhp. The prototype I’m in lacks this little luxury; it’s all or nothing, so you have to be careful with it.

Very careful indeed. Boutwood says this 1250kg car will spin its wheels in all six gears on a wet surface, and even at a mercifully dry Bruntingthorpe, the initial kick of 604lb ft of torque at 3800rpm is truly startling even when you’ve prepared yourself for it. Once the wheels have stopped spinning it accrues speed in a way few road cars ever have – in my experience only the Bugatti Veyron and McLaren F1. Boutwood’s claim of a six-second dash from rest to 100mph only seems fanciful until you drive it; once you have you wonder how much faster even than that it would go if, like the Veyron, it had four-wheel-drive traction.

But like all properly fast cars, the M600 only becomes really interesting in its second 100mph. I wasn’t able to time it, but I’d be happy to bet that it’s as quick from 100-160mph as many allegedly fast cars are from 0-60mph. At 180mph its head is still down and charging, and only at a genuine 200mph does the rate of acceleration seriously abate. Boutwood says 225mph is possible and, given that I reached 200mph in little more than half the available space, it’s not a figure I’m inclined to doubt.

Happily it has the chassis to handle it. With so much power at your disposal and the absence of all safety nets, it’s a car you want to acclimatise to over time. But as the laps accrued what was most notable was not how hard you have to drive to find the limit (though with so little mass and so much rubber on the road, grip levels are predictably mighty), but how consistent were its responses once slip angles started to mount. It is an instinctive understeerer, which is how all cars such as this should be, but one that also allows progressive applications or cessations of power to modify this stance according to need or taste. Its steering is lucid, its composure outstanding.

Boutwood’s comparison to the F40 is apt. The M600 lacks the Italian’s unrivalled sense of occasion and is not quite so intimate to drive, but that focus on pure driving pleasure borne through the employment of maximum power and minimal mass is the same. It reminded me too of the McLaren F1, which I tested on the same runway some 15 years ago. It’s not as sophisticated, but nor should that be expected for a price that is today less than a third of what the F1 cost then. I’d certainly be surprised if the M600 turned out to be substantially slower.

I therefore wish it success. It may not look like a thoroughbred, nor come with a badge to turn your mates green with envy. But if all you’re interested in is owning the fastest, most exciting British sports car since the F1, it’s hard to see how the M600 could disappoint.

Noble M600
Engine: Yamaha V8, 4439cc, twin turbo developed by Motorkraft
Power/Torque: 650bhp at 6800rpm, 604lb ft at 3800rpm
Gearbox: Manual six-speed Graziano
Tyres: Michelin Pilot Sport, f: 255/30/19, r: 335/30/20
Fuel: 18mpg (estimated)
Acceleration: 0-62mph in 3.0sec (est)
Suspension: Independent double wishbones, coil springs, Multimatic shock absorbers, front and rear anti-roll bars
Brakes: f: Alcon 380mm semi-floating disc, six-piston calliper, r: Alcon 350mm disc, four-piston calliper
Price: £200,000 (estimated)
Top Speed: 225mph (estimated)