A Knight’s Tale was an unforgettable movie. Released in 2001, it told the story of a boy with courage and a dream, but without the pedigree required to etch his name in the history books.
Of course, Hollywood sells feel-good stories, so the boy grew into a man (played by the late great Heath Ledger) who “changed his stars” and earned the right to be knighted. He attained nobility, despite his humble beginnings. Predictable storyline aside, the movie was a huge inspiration to a generation of young boys.
Although Noble Automotive was named after its founder Lee Noble, rather than as a nod to the nobility of the medieval years, the similarities to this great movie are striking. The Noble M400 absolutely does not have the badge to sit among the world’s finest supercars, yet it has the performance to embarrass them.
The founder’s roots lay in designing cars such as the Ultima and the Ascari FGT. His recipe was simple – design a mid-engined piece of scaffolding that was barely road legal and wedge a seriously potent engine into it. With a focus on track times rather than a Euro NCAP rating, he gave the world some truly extreme cars.
Our approach when featuring cars on Carbs and Coffee is to deliberately avoid reading any motoring press reviews before we experience the car. This allows us to form our own views as we enjoy the finest roads Cape Town has to offer.
It should therefore come as no surprise that we expected the Noble M400 to be a wildcat, barely manageable on the road. We expected GT40 replica levels of comfort (i.e. none) and rather poor road manners. Let’s face it, the recipe for the M400 sounds more like a kit car than anything else.
Instead, we found ourselves in an exceptionally accomplished supercar.
But first, let’s take a step back. To understand just how special this car is, you need to understand how basic its upbringing was.
While the Knights of Maranello, Sant’Agata Bolognese, Woking and Stuttgart enjoy an environment of massive development budgets and world-class infrastructure, the Noble M400 was built in a shed. Well, more or less.
In a typical example of South Africa batting way above its weight, the body and chassis of the car was built by Hi-Tech Automotive in Port Elizabeth, who also produce Superformance cars. The Noble factory took care of adding the engines and transmissions etc.
The M400 was based on the M12, Noble’s second production model built between 2000 and 2008. Its predecessor, the M10, lasted just one production year before the M12 was announced and customers quickly changed their orders. Who can blame them? Where the M10 used an asthmatic 2.5l normally aspirated engine, the M12 promised a bi-turbo Ford Duratec V6.
Laughably, the M400 is the “track” version of the M12, which was hardly a grand tourer itself. With a substantially higher power output than the standard M12 and various trick bits including an anti-roll bar and stiffer springs, the M400 promised a pure driving experience for extreme enthusiasts.
As you climb into the surprisingly comfortable alcantara seat and reach back for the seatbelt, confusion reigns. The M400 comes with an inertia reel seatbelt and 5-point harness as standard. Yes, you can choose. This is the clearest signal of them all that this car was built to be driven from home to the track and back again with a few famous scalps to show for its efforts.
Speaking of racetracks, many sportscar manufacturers resort to naming their machinery after iconic corners or tracks to stir up motorsport emotions in their prospective buyers. Noble took a different route, simply naming the M400 after its power-to-weight ratio (over 400bhp per ton). The unpretentious nature of the Noble shines through here, underpinned by immense performance.
Although Noble strangely indicated that the M400 is capable of 0-60mph in “under 4 seconds,” the reality is that your granny could likely achieve those numbers. Some motoring publications reported 0-60mph times in under 3s in optimal conditions. That’s superbike territory.
Best of all for real-world driving, the overtaking acceleration numbers were the most impressive of the lot, leaving cars costing five times as much as the Noble for dead.
Absolute power may corrupt absolutely, but the search for more power never stops for those of us who are truly blessed with the petrolhead sickness. The owner of this M400 is no exception.
This particular car has been remapped to 1.1 bar (vs. 0.85 bar standard). The exhaust, intercooler, air filters and turbos have been upgraded. This, by the way, is the conservative map. At one point the car had bigger injectors and 1.3 bar, which pushed power to 550bhp (vs. the standard 425bhp). Since racing fuel is rather hard to come by on a Sunday breakfast run, the conservative map makes more sense for road use. With 500bhp, it still packs a significantly bigger punch than the standard car.
So, what is the Noble like to drive?
Building a quick car on paper is fairly easy. Building a car that is quick in practice is extremely difficult. The M400 is shockingly good, because it is entirely usable on normal roads.
The bi-turbo power delivery is silky smooth and exhibits almost zero turbo lag. You have to be careful not to stomp on the throttle, but you also don’t need to be terrified of it. The Noble might show its teeth, but it won’t bite you unless you really have no experience driving fast cars (in which case for goodness sake buy something else!)
Don’t get us wrong – this kind of power with absolutely no fancy electronics to keep you alive is no joke. It isn’t suitable for 99.9% of drivers out there, but that isn’t the target market. As high-performance cars without electronics go, this is certainly the most civilized we’ve experienced.
The button clutch is a necessity for this kind of power, but takes some getting used to. It’s almost guaranteed that you will stall on your first attempt to get going in the Noble. The other thing you must remember is that you need to blip the throttle on downshifts to match the revs. Driving the Noble on normal roads requires many of the same techniques you would use on the track, which means this is really only suitable as a weekend car.
Unlike in most kit cars where roll cages look like something your DIY-enthusiast uncle built last weekend, the Noble’s cage is tastefully hidden away. This isn’t a car that you would be embarrassed to put your wife, mother or boss in. At normal speeds the ride is naturally harder than most cars, but isn’t crashy either. Visibility out of the cabin is vastly better than in other extreme cars we’ve been in. Ground clearance for bumps is perfectly acceptable. Most surprisingly, it isn’t overly noisy in the cabin unless you really take the engine through the rev range.
As we stop to catch our breath and admire the car, it’s hard not to feel in love. The Noble is a gorgeous looking thing, with enough rear wing and air ducts to look exotic without looking cheap. Every angle is stunning and evokes all the emotions that petrolheads live for. If you drive one, you’ll want one. Simple as that.
For a fraction of the cost of a Ferrari from the same period, you can have a car that is significantly faster and more exclusive. The M400 is so rare that you’ll likely never bump into another one even at supercar meets, let alone on the road.
The Noble M400 cost around R820,000 when it was launched in South Africa and fetches prices similar to that amount today. That’s more or less the same money as a BMW M2, which it will completely destroy on and off the track in every measure that you should care about as a proper petrolhead.
Is this car worth of nobility? Absolutely. If you ever get the chance to experience an M400, grab the opportunity with both hands. You’ll be stunned.