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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Speed of sound: the man behind Britain’s fastest car

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One prime example of British defeatism is a meeting that Noble recalls, before Thrust SSC got going, with the then president of the government’s Board of Trade. He (tactfully, I suspect) fails to recall her name: “I was trying to make it clear what all the people and companies who were our partners could bring to British technology and education if we were to break the sound barrier. She just said: ‘Do we have to?’ I said: ‘Well, no…’, and there wasn’t much to say after that.”

Noble’s book is unusual for the fact that he has written every word of it himself. As a result, his partners and confidants are spoken of with an affection that no ghostwriter could have conveyed, and his press-on approach leaps off every page. So does the fruit of his remarkable memory: he remembers dates, names and detail unerringly. I wonder whether he keeps notes or a diary. “No,” he answers, politely putting aside the barminess of the question. “It’s all in my head. You don’t forget this stuff…”

Most apparent is Noble’s resilience, his eerily quick recovery from the many disappointments that lead to success. “You get used to rejection,” he explains. “You almost know it’s coming, so you’re already thinking: ‘Okay, what’s the best way to keep things going?’”

As well as full details of Noble’s 11 projects (which include five land speed record cars, three boat projects and two aircraft proposals), the book contains an ongoing insistence that schemes like this encourage young people to want to join in, just as he was encouraged in an era of British success.

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“We want to help them discover live projects,” he says. “Stuff on screens can be faked, modified and adjusted. We’ve repeatedly found that kids respond brilliantly to live projects that turn them on, show them what teamwork is like and help build character.”

What’s next on the agenda? Noble’s instant answer, “loads of things”, has to be tempered by the caveat that most of them can’t yet be discussed. But one already under way (and detailed in the book) is a plan to recreate – initially as a large, jet-powered model – a radical speed record boat designed by Reid Railton for Noble’s personal hero, John Cobb, at the end of the 1940s. Two versions exist already, and the team will start testing in Devon when conditions allow. And Noble being Noble, that won’t be the end of it.

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