Somewhere between the established marques like entry-level Ford and the ultra-luxurious Rolls-Royce, the automotive ecosystem of the British Isles is full of wonderful, diverse species. Be it the minuscule Peel P50 or the outrageous TVR Cerbera, the Britons have produced dozens of truly unique automobiles fueled by different philosophies and serving a multitude of purposes.
These idiosyncratic automotive underdogs often started off in small garages and with a big idea, yet rare were the ones whose cars truly succeeded. Lee Noble’s venture Noble Automotive was one of those fortunate companies and under the spotlight is the daring Noble M12.
As many independent British performance automobiles, the Noble M12 incorporated a mixture of existing OEM parts into a cleverly engineered package and what made it memorable is its degree of success following ample on-air time and unanimous praise, because everyone loves a good giant-slaying story proven by facts.
So, let’s take a closer look into one of the most compelling cars from the last fruitful era of independent British motoring.
The first Noble’s venture was the Ultima Mk1, a lightweight kit car squeezing the absolute maximum out of the PRV V6 engine. This 1983 one-off sports car utilized various bits and pieces from Renault and Ford mated with a tubular steel frame and a body inspired by Group C race cars.
The Ultima Mk2 soon followed and Noble Motorsport began gaining ground. Noble’s first customer was Ted Marlow for whom he built a Ford V6-powered Ultima Mk2 and the two soon started racing locally, dominating the tracks in Britain.
The successor named Ultima Mk3 was dramatically overpowered. Chevrolet V8-powered Ultima cars went on to be dominant on the race-track for five years and take out championship victories during each season. They effectively become a victim of their own success by being banned from racing for being too fast, deeming them unfair to other opponents.
In 1992, Noble sold the rights for the Ultima to Marlow, embarking on his next quests. Under his own name, Lee devoted himself to recreating iconic 1960s racing cars, including the Ferrari 330 P4 and Lotus race cars.
What followed was a nimble roadster named the Midtec Spyder and, more famously, the Ascari F-GT. Noble helped develop a lightweight sports car for Ascari founder Klaas Zwart, a Dutchman industrialist who established the marque in Blandford, England, naming it after the legendary Grand Prix ace.
After his tenure in Ascari, Lee Noble returned to building cars under his own name. The decision was the right one for Lee as he soon created a series of superb cars he’ll be forever remembered for.
The proven formula of a lightweight mid-engined car on a tubular frame was yet to be explored, this time in the form of a sports car similar to the Ascari rather than a race car recreation.
The first project was completed in 1999 and named Noble M10. This roadster was a nimble sporty roadster owing its dynamics to a 170-horsepower mid-mounted 2.5-liter Ford Duratec V6 and low curb weight of just 2,116 lb, enabling light and precise steering and superb road holding. The Noble M10 enjoyed modest success even for a kit car company with less than 10 being made.
The reason for a handful of sales however is because Lee Noble announced the Noble M12, a more potent coupé aimed to rival cars from the uppermost echelons of the automotive industry. The M10 was often compared to the Lotus Elise, but the M12 aimed directly at Porsche and Ferrari.
But how did Noble manage to hop from sparring with another lightweight sports car manufacturer to challenging the performance of the world’s most established automakers? In short, the answer was turbocharging, but there was more to the Noble M12 than a twin-turbo Ford V6.
Finally sporting a street-friendly body, the Noble M12 couldn’t come close to the gorgeous 360 Modena or the iconic silhouette of the 911. But, Lee Noble perfected the mid-engined layout and featherweight construction, so Noble M12 excelled where it mattered the most – the driving dynamics.
Unlike the previous cars he mainly built in Leeds, Lee Noble struck a partnership with Jim Price of High Tech Automotive, a specialized small scale builder based in South Africa. To successfully carry out the M12, Noble needed a production line to match the demand for his latest and by far the most publicized project.
Through its production span, the original Noble M12 GTO went through several revisions, the M12 GTO-3 and the M12 GTO-3R culminating with the Noble M400. This is a story about the heroic Lee’s cars that gave the prancing horses some good run for their money.
When constructing the M12 prototype, Lee used a steel spaceframe chassis with a full tubular steel roll cage protecting the passenger cabin and a flat floor. A fully built prototype of the M12 was shipped to South Africa for further improvements and alterations to make it more production-friendly.
The first draft of the steel frame was re-engineered by Hi-Tech Automotive’s development personnel, achieving optimal weight and rigidity needed to make the M12 sharp and precise once pitted with its fiercest competitors.
In an era when manufacturers resorted to aluminum honeycomb and even carbon fiber monocoque, tubular steel construction of the Noble M12 was rudimentary. Yet, it was already proven and simple, making both the development and the production cost-efficient. Ultimately, it led to the affordability of the M12 compared to cars of similar performance.
Serving as the counterbalance for the heavy steel frame, the body of the Noble M12 was constructed in Coremat-reinforced fiberglass. The lightweight material was the most cost-efficient solution for mass production as it was drastically cheaper than any metal, let alone carbon fiber, while also being the simplest way to produce body panels via casting.
The body itself consisted of three separate units: the clamshell front and rear panel and the passenger cabin with doors. Weight saving was so important to Noble even by the slightest margin, so each body was sprayed in color coded primer. As a final result, all variants of the M12 weighed around 2300 lb which is exactly the feature that enabled it to accelerate, steer and brake the way it did.
What differentiated the Noble M12 from other kit car makers was the finish. Hi-Tech Automotive treated the fiberglass body with utmost attention throughout the whole production process.
To eliminate the waviness of the panels, each part of the bodywork was stabilized through a thermal process and upon assembly, a team of skilled craftspeople made sure to smoothen the seams and eliminate panel gaps. Each assembled Noble M12 underwent rigorous quality control, so the finished product could match its costly adversaries.
The prominent rear wing wasn’t there for show either. The adjustable aerodynamic unit increased the M12’s downforce, enabling unmatched cornering capabilities in the segment and making Noble one of the most desirable enthusiast cars on the market.
The upgraded GTO-3 and the GTO-3R variants of the Noble M12 had covered bi-xenon headlights, differentiating itself from the initial M12 GTO.
With its MK1 Ford Mondeo rear lights, the Noble M12 was never drop-dead gorgeous. Yet, having near-perfect sports car proportions, it didn’t look bad too. After all the looks didn’t even matter much as the M12 was exclusively envisioned to be a perfect track weapon for dedicated drivers, not a technological marvel reduced to a docile boulevardier and driven by oblivious drivers.
Engine and Transmission
The initial variant named the M12 GTO had a transversely mid-mounted 2.5-liter Ford Duratec V6, a 24-valve DOHC unit producing around 170 horsepower when inside a Ford Mondeo. however, Noble added a pair of Garrett T25 turbochargers for a total power output of 310 hp at 6,000 RPM and 320 lb-ft of torque.
The engine was mated to a five-speed Getrag gearbox and all this translated to 0-60 in 3.8-seconds and an undisclosed top speed. The M12 was never about topping the speedometer as much as late brake in the apex and going fast through the exit.
The next variants named GTO-3 and GTO-3R upped the displacement to 3.0-liter Duratec V6, the unit found in the Ford Mondeo ST220. Again, the engine was aided by twin Garrett T25 turbos working at 0.7 bar of boost to produce 352 horsepower at 6,200 RPM and 350 lb-ft of torque ranging from 3,500 to 5,000 RPM. The GTO-3 featured the same five-speed gearbox, while the improved M12 GTO-3R got a six-speed Getrag-Ford sunit with Quaife Automatic Torque Biasing limited slip differential.
Suspension and Steering
Even though the suspension of the Noble M12 was fairly simple in construction, it was engineered and fabricated in-house, making it optimized for performance driving and track use.
The setup was built from a combination of OEM parts and CNC-machined components and utilizes tubular double wishbones with fully adjustable Bilstein shocks and H&R springs. To ensure some degree of comfort, the M12 didn’t feature anti-roll bars.
Thanks to cleverly constructed suspension and precise hydraulically assisted rack-and-pinion steering, the Noble M12 was a phenomenal track car with superb handling. The original M12 GTO was capable of withstanding 1.1 lateral Gs, while the improved M12 GTO-3R follow-up was good for 1.2 lateral Gs.
Brakes, Wheels, and Tires
Ask any race track aficionado and they’ll unanimously agree that braking is more important than horsepower, so the Noble M12 was lucky to have both. Hypercar-grade stopping power was granted via AP Racing 375mm cross drilled rotors with calipers specially made for the M12.
Noble used various wheel designs throughout the production span, but the most prominent one is Noble’s custom two-piece, 10-spoke, 18-inch design. The wheels had 18×8.5 inches in the front and 18×10 rear, 4×108 bolt pattern.
The rubber of choice was Bridgestone Potenza S-03 measuring 225/40ZR18 the front and 265/35 ZR 18s at the back.
Thanks to high performance brakes and grippy track-ready rubber, the M12 could stop from 60 MPH to a complete halt in less than 125 feet
A proper street-legal race car, the Noble M12 came equipped with some basic comfort like air conditioning and a radio, yet with fully prepped track-friendly amenities. The bucket seats had four-point harnesses by default, the windows could be cranked down just halfway and the three-spoke wheel had no airbag.
Even though it was upholstered in leather, the interior was still racing-oriented: the carpeting was carefully dosed, the skyliner upholstery utilized a diamond quilted pattern and the dashboard and the center console were so driver-oriented that the radio was positioned on the opposite side of the dash, in front of the co-driver.
As the rest of the body, the dashboard of the M12 was also cast from fiberglass, and so were the seats and the door panels. The cabin is divided from the engine area via aluminum panels and it was the only application of this lightweight metal on the M12.
The final iteration of the M12 was the Noble M400, a car named after its horsepower-to-ton ratio. It was the uttermost evolution with numerous changes to the body, the powertrain, and the suspension, making it a track-oriented supercar killer.
It was powered by the 3.0-liter Duratec V6 upgraded with high-lift dual overhead cams, forged pistons, improved cooling, a larger oil sump and two Garrett T28 turbochargers, bringing the total power to 425 ponies at 6,500 rpm and 390 lb?ft of torque at 5,000 rpm.
Like the M12 GTO-3R, the transmission unit was Getrag 6-speed manual with Quaife automatic torque-biasing limited slip differential, albeit with revised gear ratios for more focused on-track personality.
The M400 didn’t have ABS, traction control or air conditioning and compared to the M12, it had stiffer springs. It also featured anti-roll bars, was mostly upholstered in Alcantara and equipped with Pirelli P Zero for optimal track performance.
Starting from 2003 and Noble’s release of the GTO-3 and the GTO-3R, an Ohio-based company called 1G Automotive started importing the Noble M12 to the United States as a homebuilt kit car.
The car never went through emission and crash testing because the company cleverly bypassed the regulation by selling the car as a bolt-on kit in two crates, one for the pre-assembled body and all vital components and the other for the engine. As a result of this deal, around one-third of all Noble M12 cars were imported to the United States.
After acquiring the rights to the Noble M400 chassis in 2007, Q1 Automotive founders Dean Rosen and Ian Grunes rebranded the company into Rossion Automotive and presented its own spinoff of the M400 called Rossion Q1.
The car had a redesigned carbon kevlar composite body generating more downforce and weighing less, enabling a more luxuriously appointed cabin while retaining the similar total weight around a metric ton, 2,300 lb to be precise. Forged 18-inch wheels also helped reduce unsprung mass, meaning the Q1 kept the overall performance of its Noble-badged predecessors.
Finally, the engine of the Rossion Q1 was the same twin-turbo Duratec V6 pushed to 450 horsepower and beyond thanks to a custom engine control unit and rebuilt internals. The maximum power Rossion extracted from the setup was 508 horses at 4700 RPM and 390 lb-ft of torque.
Thanks to Q1 and its successor Rossion Automotive, the Noble M12 gained ground in the United States, forming a close tied community of enthusiasts and a network of aftermarket specialists improving various bits and pieces of these track day heroes.
In all its variants, the Noble M12 is a superb fun sports car transcending all usual kit car stereotypes, providing a compelling driving experience at an affordable price. Many examples were modified one way or another, so finding a stock M12 GTO-3R will be a challenge in years to come.
Still, the Noble M12 shouldn’t ever be regarded as a collector car. Its main purpose was to be driven hard and enjoyed to the fullest, exactly the opposite from its contemporary competition which already gained collector car status in its most potent variants.This opens a realm of possibilities to current and future Noble M12 owners free to explore the limits of their cars thanks to ample aftermarket support.
Though it wasn’t the most powerful, the prettiest or the most capable sports car built by Noble, the M12 was by far the most important one. As the first model built on a larger scale and featured on mainstream media, the M12 introduced Noble to the general public, enabling the company to grow more.
Ultimately, the M12 and the M400 opened the doors for the more mature M15 and M600, so the story of a brave working class giant slayer had its happy ending and a series of outstanding sequels.