From the archive: Ultima first drive
Tuesday, 31 March 2020
In 1986, we had our first experience with a Lee Noble machine – and boy was it an experience
Lee Noble made waves in the early 2000s with his eponymous maker of affordable supercars, most notably with the superb Noble M12 GTO at the turn of the millennium.
However, he was already getting noticed back in the 1980s, when he began Noble Motorsport Ltd - better known as Ultima, a company that is still going very strong today, having recently revealed the 1200bhp V8-powered RS.
The first car produced, dubbed the Ultima, was designed in 1983, and three years later Autocar had its first experience of Noble's talent.
Looking like a Group C Le Mans car, the Ultima was based around a tubular spaceframe chassis and used various bits from the Austin Princess (radiator), Ford Cortina (uprights, brakes and steerings), Lancia Beta (rear brakes) and Renault 30 (engine and gearbox), plus some components of Noble's own design.
Perhaps unwisely, we decided to drive the Ultima to Leicester Square in central London (because it was built in Leicester, right?), and it was on the way that the first of several encounters of the copper kind would occur.
Apparently, this "Mulsanne refugee" didn't quite tally with the Renault family hatchback that NUT 602P showed up as on the police database. The next, rather irate constable called it "the stupidest thing he'd ever seen". "Oh well, the things we do for art," we said.
"Now, driving the Ultima around town is an interesting exercise," we said, "because you sit so low that you virtually see under Range Rovers, let alone lorries, and rearward vision is decidedly non-existent. Except for the wing mirrors, so named because all you see in them is wing.
"Moreover, the beast is pretty wide. Your ego works overtime on the outward view, all sculpted Can Am-style wheel arches, but then suffers a massive crash with the rending sound of glassfibre graunching pavement.
"At least you can be comforted that it's relatively easy to drive, docile and tractable, and the noise! Never before has a humble Renault V6 sounded so like a burbling Chevy V8. It's muscle without the tears."
Perhaps more of a challenge than threading through narrow streets was keeping away public attention. The effect on passers-by was apparently "something akin to Samantha Fox removing her dress in an army base".
On our fifth try, we finally got the Ultima parked in front of the Empire cinema with police permission, only for "what seemed like half the world to descend upon it", half of them drunk and all of them desperate to have their photograph taken with it – even if only one reveller didn't need telling exactly what the Ultima actually was.
"Forget your Ferraris, Porsches and Panther Sixes," we enthused, "this beats the lot in pure, unadultered pose value."
Okay, enough of that; time to test the thing where it belonged. So the next day we took to the country, and there the Ultima revealed itself to "handle and drive like the racing car its outward appearance suggests".
"Tractability is excellent, the car simple and easy to conduct. The fascia may be less than ergonomically perfect, but everything is there, and the driving position is sensational, as you lie prone, racing car-style, with near-straight legs and arms.
"The handling of this all-round independently suspended beast is superb. For sure, there's a little bump-steer, but the roadholding limits go far beyond the bounds of my bravery.
"The gearchange takes some getting used to, with an imprecise gate for the Renault five-speeder, but it's slick once you get used to it, while the steering is suitably precise, if slightly too light, likewise the clutch, all of which aid day-to-day driving."
The 2.6-litre six-cylinder engine had been modified only slightly by Noble, with just a peaky pair of cams and three double-choke Dellorto carburettors to boost its power output to 168bhp. However, the car weighed only around 740kg, so it recorded some "incredible" performance figures at our MIRA test track: 0-60mph in 6.5sec in the rain.
We continued: "The 30-50mph and 50-70mph in-gear acceleration times were faster than the Audi Sport Quattro we tested last year and very close to the Lamborghini Countach Quattrovalvole times as well.
"So, in performance terms, it's a Ferrari for the masses, because this slingshot will cost around £7000 (about £20,600 today) to build up from the basic kit; for £3500 (£10,300), the purchaser gets a body and spaceframe kit, with all-round double-wishbone suspension.
"All that is then required is trim, wiring and fitment of the mechanics, which are all low-cost items."
For us, though, the Ultima was all about the pose value that was shown so obviously in the capital.
"You forget the fact that the car is noisy," we said, "typically kit car in its trim, the superb performance and the quibbles over brake and ride, and revel instead in the gaze of passers-by. Which, surely, is why people will pay the price of a hot hatch to own one."
*From the archive, 1996: Jacques Villeneuve makes dramatic F1 debut*
*From the archive, 1992: The 20th-century Renault Twizy*
*From the archive, 1981: Soviet dream machines*
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