Features

Noble M600: A-Z Supercars

The Noble M600 boasts a lightweight carbonfibre structure, 650bhp twin-turbo V8 and a chassis to die for

Noble has been around since 1999, but founder Lee Noble departed in 2008. The first post-Noble Noble is the M600, and it’s brilliant. Current boss, serial supercar owner Peter Dyson described the M600 as having the spirit and purity of a Ferrari F40, a decent-sized boot and enough power to hold its own in today’s supercar landscape. Not only does that sound like the dreamiest of impossible dreams, it also happens to be true. If somewhat modest.

Consider: a stealthy, low-slung, mid-engined supercar powered by a twin-turbo V8 with roll-on acceleration not far short of a Veyron’s, the F40’s analogue purity, but a more benign, exploitable and forgiving demeanour. That’s a wish list with an awful lot of ticks.

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In terms of sheer speed, the M600 has few peers. When we staged a straight-line shootout between M600, McLaren MP4-12C, Ferrari 458, Merc SLS, 911 Turbo S and Ford GT, from 0-150mph the Noble was quicker than any of them (15.2sec for the record). And on a circuit against the 12C and 458, it was trading tenths with its technically far more sophisticated rivals.

That’s hugely impressive, but looking beyond the stopwatch times, what really impressed evo about the M600 was the way it combined genuine race-car pace with a dynamic demeanour more forgiving and exploitable than just about any of its rivals. But not in a Veyron/Nissan GT-R kind of way. You didn’t have to be preternaturally talented to go fast in the M600, but the more you put into it, the more you got out. Rear-drive, no ABS or ESP, after all.

What makes it so special is the sublime steering and the utterly sussed nature of the chassis: its marriage of fantastic grip and traction (within reason), progressive transient manners and great ride. In short, it’s absolutely phenomenal.

Noble M600 road trip

What do you do when you’ve got the keys to Britain’s fastest production car and a few days in which to go and play? If it’s the spring, summer or autumn you point its nose towards Europe, find an Autobahn, mountain pass or racetrack (or preferably a combination of all three) and live the life of Riley. But if it’s the winter, when the nights are long, the roads are slick with rain and the Nürburgring is closed, you have to get creative.

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know the £200,000 Noble M600 is one of evo’s favourite supercars. With a claimed and entirely believable top speed of 225mph (I’ve repeatedly done 205mph in one at Bruntingthorpe, with more to come), it has the legs on everything this side of the £1million hypercar elite and yet remains resolutely, magnificently and defiantly analogue. Relying on minimal weight (1198kg), major-league turbo boost (650bhp and 604lb ft) and the simplicity of a manual transmission and fixed-rate dampers, Noble swerves the marketing man’s wet dream of F1-style tech in favour of purity and transparency. Put simply, if you want to wring the M600’s neck you’d best man up and be on your mettle, for it’s you that’s in control.

In our book, that makes the M600 quite unlike any other mid-engined supercar and much better for it. While its performance is very definitely rooted in the 21st century, its attitude and approach is a lifetime away from the oppressively risk-averse, mollycoddled age in which we live. It has a simple on-off switch for the traction control hidden beneath a fighter plane trigger guard, for heaven’s sake! There’s certainly no better car in which to embark on a road trip that pays our respects to some true kings of speed, by taking Britain’s fastest supercar to Britain’s fastest places. 

Our speed odyssey begins just before dawn, on the clifftops high above the English Channel at Beachy Head, on the south coast near Eastbourne. It’s an unlikely starting point for a journey dedicated to extreme velocity, but this evocative coastal vantage point – or to be more precise, the skies above it – were the scene of one of the great landmarks in aviation history.

In the wake of Chuck Yeager’s epic flight through the sound barrier in his bullet-shaped Bell X-1 rocket plane in 1947, the race to develop ever-faster aircraft reached fever pitch. Less an issue of military urgency and more a matter of national pride, the United States and the United Kingdom spent the 1950s and ’60s embroiled in a battle for supersonic supremacy.

The hunger for knowledge and the desire to set ever-faster air speed records proved to be the perfect motivation for British and American aircraft manufacturers, who built increasingly outlandish aircraft in which they expected their heroic test pilots to repeatedly push the boundaries. Between November 1952 and October 1953 the record was broken no fewer than six times, sometimes just weeks apart. By the mid-’50s the record stood at 822.1mph (set by a North American F-110 Super Sabre), but Britain had an ace up its sleeve in the breathtakingly beautiful shape of the Fairey Delta 2.

These were pioneering days and the FD2 was built as an experimental machine to explore aircraft handling at supersonic speeds. With its striking deltawing design and elegantly elongated nose, the FD2 was born to the task of high-speed flight. Only two were built and Fairey’s chief test pilot – a decorated World War II fighter pilot called Peter Twiss – was charged with exploring its full performance capabilities.

On March 10, 1956, Twiss took off from Boscombe Down and made two high-altitude passes along the South Coast between Ford and Chichester, using Beachy Head as a landmark to turn before making his return run. Some 38,000ft below, observers craned their necks to watch Twiss’s vapour trail scrawl a solitary white chalk stripe across a cloudless blue sky, the distant howl of the FD2’s Rolls-Royce Avon jet engine and the double-thud of a sonic boom providing the soundtrack to a new world air speed record. The FD2 hadn’t just nicked it – it smashed it by a full 300mph, travelling at an astonishing 1132mph to return bragging rights to Britain and make the unassuming Twiss the first man ever to exceed 1000mph in level flight.

Back then, the fastest road cars of the day – such as the Mercedes 300SL – would do around 160mph flat-out, a speed the Noble M600 will hit in fourth gear. That’s quite a thought, and a tempting one at that, but it’s one of the Noble’s great qualities that it’s only ever as ferocious as you want it to be. With the rotary Adaptable Performance Control (APC) switch set to Road, you have around 450 of a possible 650bhp to play with, along with a softer throttle map and the traction control on a tight rein. It’s enough to take the edge off, which is especially useful when you’re tired and it’s raining hard, but the Road setting still gives you more than enough performance to make rapid progress. Even in its mildest mode, it never feels less than 100 per cent supercar.

It looks the part too. Sleek and unadorned, but with plenty of purpose and a stance that’s just about perfect, it doesn’t need the in-yer-face flamboyance of a Ferrari 458 or the angular aggression of a Lamborghini Aventador to command plenty of attention. Of course, a glossy coat of spangly metallic orange and contrasting exposed carbonfibre are hardly shy and retiring, but you know the Noble has enough simmering physicality to make a discreet colour – or even fully exposed carbon panels – work just as effectively. It’s cultish, it’s cool and I love every single inch of it.

I’ll be honest now and tell you that our original intention was to drive from Beachy Head to Pendine Sands on the south coast of Wales, and the seven miles of beach that hosted land speed record attempts in the 1920s. Sadly, thanks to its starring role on TV in an old edition of Top Gear, the local council developed an increasing paranoia that allowing the general public to drive their cars on the beach would somehow result in a catastrophe. The result? The sands were closed to cars for a number of years on safety grounds. The fact that the Ministry of Defence use the far end of the beach to test live ammunition is clearly an irony lost on the Fun Police…

It is now possible to drive your car onto the beach, but only into a designated parking area, and only when there’s a parking attendant present. Which of course there isn’t in late November, so our sandy plans are scuppered. Or at least they were, until a closer look at the list of land speed record venues revealed Southport Beach near Liverpool also shook to the sound of record-breaking behemoths.

The 1920s were the golden age of the World Land Speed Record, at least so far as attempts on home soil were concerned, as English drivers Malcolm Campbell and Henry Segrave slugged it out with Welshman John Parry-Thomas in an intense period of record breaking between 1924 and 1927. Campbell was the first to use Pendine for a record attempt, achieving 146.16mph in 1924 then becoming the first man to breach 150mph the following year. The year after that, Segrave took his chances at Southport, skipping and bucking across the rippled beach in his V12 Sunbeam at a speed of 152.33mph. At one point the Sunbeam hit a particularly large bump and flew almost 50 feet at maximum speed, breaking its supercharger in the process. Despite this near-miss the record was his, but only for a matter of weeks as Parry-Thomas managed a blistering 171mph run back at Pendine. These boys certainly knew how to wind each other up.

Campbell returned to Wales the following year in his now-famous Bluebird, eclipsing Parry-Thomas’s best with a 174.88mph run. The Welshman responded a few weeks later, but was tragically killed during his ill-fated record run. Amazingly, his was the first fatality in land speed record history, but Pendine was never used as an LSR venue again. Nor indeed was Southport, as neither could compete with the wide-open expanse of sand (not to mention the prize money) offered by the glitzy setting of Daytona Beach in Florida.

The Lancashire coast wasn’t quite finished with speed record attempts, though, thanks to local hotelier Jack Field, who purchased a remarkable-looking car called Silver Bullet for an attempt on the British flying mile record in 1934. Silver Bullet was originally built by Sunbeam in 1929 to challenge for the outright record at Daytona. More than 30 feet in length, this incredible streamlined machine was powered by a pair of supercharged, 24-litre, 50-degree V12 aero engines, together developing a gargantuan 4000bhp.

Its target speed was 250mph – more than sufficient to take the LSR in 1930 – but repeated engine problems thwarted Sunbeam’s efforts. Works driver Kaye Don managed a best run of just under 200mph in poor conditions, but the superchargers kept breaking and the project was soon abandoned. Sadly, Jack Field couldn’t get it running properly either and failed to set his flying mile record, although he did hit 168mph, which is surely the fastest anyone has ever driven along Southport’s corrugated sand. Unreliable and unloved, the Silver Bullet passed through a number of subsequent owners before being cut up for scrap.

I’m pretty certain Campbell, Segrave and Field would have a pretty low opinion of the wooden posts that prevent us from getting far enough onto the Southport sands. It seems that Health and Safety has finally won, at least when it comes to having a bit of harmless fun on the beach. Still, there’s no time to waste, so we do a quick rebellious doughnut in the soft sand before fishtailing out of the car park and on to our third and final destination: the shores of Coniston Water in Cumbria, scene of Donald Campbell’s fateful water speed record attempt.

The more you drive the Noble, the more you fall for its immense performance. The APC is an effective device, but in truth once you taste the full-fat 650bhp ‘Race’ mode there’s no going back. Squeeze the long throttle pedal to the floor and there’s a slight pause before the Yamaha-designed 4.4-litre V8 is force-fed with boost from a pair of turbochargers, at which point it delivers truly explosive acceleration. It’s an intoxicating experience, made more memorable by the engine note, which is beautifully bassy and overlaid with the fizz and chuckle of spooling turbos.

Even in foul conditions on challenging Lake District roads, the M600 is amazingly driveable. With so much shove on tap, you could easily content yourself with firing between corners, but the Noble finds freakish amounts of traction. It’s brilliantly feelsome too, both through the steering wheel and brake pedal, so you always know where you are and can work confidently to its limits. The gearshift has a slightly stringy feel to it at low speed, but the long lever slots home with satisfying precision and the shift only gets better the faster you move the stick. Flappy paddles are faster, but they’re nowhere near as engaging.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the M600, especially given the apparent fag paper clearance between the top of the tyres and the wheelarches, is the supreme pliancy of the suspension. Yes, there’s road noise, but not as much as you’d expect from generous 255-section front and 335-section rear tyres, and the overall levels of body control and bump absorbtion are very special indeed. Cars with this much power and so few electronic aids shouldn’t be this easy to drive, but the Noble flatters your driving and always lets you know where you stand. Where a car like the Porsche 997 GT2 RS is never less than malevolent, the M600 retains a mellowness that’s completely unique and quite remarkable.

Of our three speed-related waypoints, Coniston is by far the most haunting. The story of Donald Campbell’s tragic attempt to extend his own water speed record in 1967 and be the first man to exceed 300mph is so inextricably linked to this place that the two have become inseparable. I don’t possess a nautical bone in my body, but Coniston’s long finger of crystal water is every bit as tempting as an empty stretch of Autobahn. As we park the Noble on the shore, I find it impossible not to yearn for a powerful boat and feel the sensation of speed from skimming across the surface.

For Campbell this place must have held happy memories from a series of successful record runs throughout the latter half of the 1950s. In a foray to Australia in 1964 he raised the record to 276.33mph, but by 1966 he was feeling the pressure from an American challenger called Lee Taylor and his jet boat Hustler. Campbell desperately wished to be the first to claim a 300mph record, and so he and his support team took the now-ageing Bluebird K7 jet boat to Coniston in November 1966.

Mechanical problems and diabolical weather plagued their efforts for weeks on end. When the lake surface was like a mirror, the boat would develop a fault, and when the boat was fixed, wind and rain would sweep down from the hills. For Campbell, his nerves continually jangling with pre-attempt anxiety, these weeks and months of waiting must have been mental purgatory.

Christmas and New Year came and went with no change of fortune, but by January 4, 1967, both the weather and Bluebird were behaving themselves. Campbell decided to take his chance and made his first run down the lake, hitting a peak speed of some 315mph without any apparent problems and achieving an average of 297.6mph over the measured kilometre. The record was so close he could almost touch it. Though the lake was glassy smooth prior to his first run, the wake created by Bluebird accelerating to more than 300mph and then using a water brake to slow down again whipped the surface of the water into a mass of choppy waves on the approach to the critical timed section of the lake. Campbell chose to make his return run soon after his first, too soon as it transpired, for as he fired Bluebird towards the measured kilometre at more than 320mph the boat somersaulted high in the air before crashing back into the lake and disintegrating on impact.

The wreckage of K7 was located on the lake bed after an extensive two-week search following the tragedy, but Campbell’s body wasn’t found, so the remains of the boat were left undisturbed as a mark of respect. Some 34 years later in 2001, not only was Campbell’s body finally located and recovered (his grave can be found in Coniston’s churchyard), but K7 was also raised from the lake. Currently in the final stages of a complete restoration, it is hoped the fully functioning Bluebird will make one final run – at speed, but not full speed – down Coniston Water as an inspiring tribute.

Many record breakers have died in their pursuit of speed, while many more lived full and happy lives. All achieved immortality. Perhaps more importantly, their triumphs and tragedies have inspired future generations to keep facing the same challenges. The Noble M600 isn’t a record-breaker, but it does make a glorious stand against the diluted driving experience and sticks two fingers up at the infuriating small-mindedness that prevents us from driving on beaches in the name of safety. The spirit of speed lives on.

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