Richard Noble is looking to build a car that goes in excess of 1000mph. but he's also looking to inspire tomorrow's engineers.
As you might expect from someone who tackles seemingly improbable projects – ranging from World Land Speed Record attempts to building his own planes – Richard Noble has strong opinions and a personality to match. He doesn't particularly like the City of London. He doesn't particularly like companies with anything but a flat management structure and he thinks, like many others, that without immediate effort, engineering in the UK is likely to disappear. He's best known for his successful attempts to capture and hold the World Land Speed Record; Noble drove Thrusts I and II and was project director for Thrust SSC, which holds the current record at 763mph or Mach 1.02. Now, in response to perceived threats to the speed record from North America, Noble has launched the Bloodhound project. And, like his previous undertakings, he is aiming high: Bloodhound is being designed to exceed 1000mph. Where did Noble's fascination with speed come from? "We were living near Inverness," he said, "and one Sunday afternoon, when I was about six, we went for a drive in our Hillman Minx around the North coast of Loch Ness. We stopped at Drumnadrochit and saw John Cobb's jet boat Crusader tied up there. It suggested to me that there was something to life." Cobb was at Loch Ness preparing for an attempt on the World water speed record. A few days later, Cobb died when Crusader disintegrated at high speed after encountering some disturbance on the Loch's surface. "I got infected," Noble admitted, "and once you get into a subject, you start studying it." He happily admits that the early 1950s were a 'wonderful time'. "It was a fantastic period of development as the country came out of the inertia that followed the end of the War. It was a period of technological development that continued through to Concorde in the 1960s." It's easy to see this 'infection' remains with Noble. He is passionate about engineering and equally passionate about how engineering should be done and the need to inspire tomorrow's engineers. Recalling his childhood, he broke off the conversation and returned with a copy of 'The Boy's Book of Jets' from the 1950s. "Books were something I could understand," he said, looking fondly at the illustrations and cut away drawings. His parents sent him to Winchester, after which he got a job with ICI, selling paint and wallpaper. He then moved to ICI's man made fibres division, ending up with responsibility for an operation with annual sales of £20million – not insignificant at the end of the 1960s. Although a success at ICI, Noble's mind was elsewhere. "I wanted to see the world," he said, "so I bought a Land Rover and started to run expeditions." Noble placed an understated ad in The Times: 'London to Capetown – small expedition'. Although 160 Times readers replied, most dropped out when they realised the trip involved crossing the Sahara and Congo in a 13 year old short wheel base Land Rover. "Taking a Land Rover across the Sahara may not seem much, but there's a lot to it. My view is that you only have one life, so you have to make the best of it." Having completed the expedition, Noble went to work in a management centre; but not for long. "I realised what was being taught was junk," he said. But there was a benefit. "I picked up on the writing of Maslow and Reeves. Their teachings related closely to what I had been doing on the expedition. "Long range expeditions are interesting management studies," Noble ventured. "You have to live with the people you're dealing with and you have to work together; you really have to understand them." The lure of speed The lure of the Land Speed Record wasn't going away. "I got bored at the management centre, so I decided to go for the Land Speed Record." He funded this by going to work for the industrial conglomerate GKN. "By day, I was selling plastic moulds," he recalled. "By night, I was building Thrust I – essentially a jet engine on a truck chassis." Following a big accident, Thrust I was scrapped for £175 and the money was used to start work on Thrust II. In his first attempt, Thrust II reached 500mph on the Bonneville salt flats in Utah. "But the flats flooded and it took another two years to get the record," Noble noted. In capturing the record, Noble achieved an impressive 633mph. The process of designing the car and capturing the record was informative for Noble. "I learned a lot, including different ways of working. There's a buzz from creativity, from working with creative engineers. And as you get the hang of it, you get a good feel of how things should be and you start asking questions like 'why don't we do this?'." With the Land Speed Record under his belt, Noble started to look for other challenges. "I started ARV Aviation," he noted. "This was a fantastic project; starting with a blank sheet of paper and no money. Within 13 months, we had an all metal plane flying." Progress was stalled by what Noble called a 'running battle' with the Civil Aviation Authority. "We got the plane into production and, with 120 employees, were producing one plane a week. It was a great success; the plane worked well," he said. "But we were up against the City." And it is plain that Noble has no regard for the City. "The City's attitude has to change," he said, referring to the apparent reluctance of the financial sector to back innovation. "There's a fundamental problem with a system where you can move paper around and take 15%; it's less risky than engineering. The City's culture is completely opposite to ours." "The UK is the most incredible powerhouse of skills and creativity," Noble claimed. But if your company goes bankrupt, you are frowned upon. Banks take minimal risk; why do they take this attitude when you learn far more from failure than you do from success? "We have a 'can do' culture in the UK and we survive, regardless of problems in getting finance. If we have this capability, why aren't we looking after the culture?" More speed Never one to ignore a challenge, Noble turned his attention to the water. It was about the time when Richard Branson was making attempts on the Atlantic crossing record – the so called Blue Riband. "We saw the challenge as crossing the Atlantic without refuelling," Noble recalled. His solution was Atlantic Sprinter – 'an extraordinary boat powered by an RB211 jet engine'. But Atlantic Sprinter never challenged for the record. "We got as far as putting up the assembly hall, then the country went into recession. We'd used some advanced techniques in designing the hull and these could have revolutionised British shipbuilding. But they didn't want to know; they weren't interested in innovation." While Noble was focused on Atlantic Sprinter, US speed record legend Craig Breedlove was planning an attempt on Thrust II's record. And he also found that another UK based project had similar ambitions – the Maverick project, led by the McLaren F1 team. "So we had to set a target and that was to go supersonic," Noble said. Thrust SSC had a budget of just £5m. "Compare that to the McLaren project's £25m," Noble offered. "But they just seemed to give up." Noble admits he had a real problem getting Thrust SSC built. "I though it would just be a matter of going around companies who were advertising themselves as being innovative. But we got a negative response." Why was that? "Two things," Noble believed. "Firstly, there were a lot of cutbacks in research; again, it was the City looking for more dividends. Secondly, there was a lack of confidence; people were not sure what they could do. But they weren't building opportunities for the future." Thrust SSC was a challenging project. "It was an enormously complex car," Noble admitted, "with some 120 data channels." Getting hold of that data and analysing it proved a major challenge. "Thrust II got within 7mph of taking off," he admitted, "and we didn't know because getting data from the car was such a slow operation." Noble believes the secret of Thrust SSC's success came from the team's management structure – there were only 15 full time staff. "It was flat," he noted, "and empowered everyone. People could do what they wanted, but they had to communicate. "A lot of clever people don't succeed in hierarchical companies," he continued, "because they're only interested in technology. We're different; we give them an opportunity to show what they can do. It's all about who you are and what you can do." The next generation Noble's mind focused again on the Land Speed Record when he learned the late Steve Fossett was going for the record. "He was a man with money and determination; a real threat. We had to produce a defender." Noble and Thrust SSC pilot Andy Green visited Lord Drayson – at the time a junior minister within the Ministry of Defence. "We explained that it was an opportunity to create an iconic project that would breed a new generation of engineers, but that we needed help from the MoD, including a EuroFighter jet engine." That project is Bloodhound. "As an iconic project," Noble contended, "Bloodhound couldn't just be 10% faster than Thrust SSC. So we've set the goal at Mach 1.4, or 1000mph. It's a huge undertaking, but it has to be something that makes people's jaws drop. But alongside the target of 1000mph, Noble also has a far bigger target in mind: inspiring the next generation of engineers. "We are lucky to be working with people on the education side of things, including the Royal Academy of Engineering." With his partners, Noble is putting together a programme to run in schools. "It's an enormous undertaking," he admitted. "But 835 schools are already using the programme. We hope another 700 primary schools will be added in the next few months. If we get this right, we can really make a change." Noble claims the project has been well received. "Teachers love it because it puts engineering into context. And it's not just mechanical engineering; there's electronics involved as well. Electronics is often seen as something mystical and nobody understands what's going on inside. Bloodhound is all about changing that." But even with his 'can do' outlook, Noble is happy to accept that not every project will succeed. "We have to keep trying. Bloodhound may fail, but we hope not; we're attempting something that has never been tried before. If we find we can't do it, we'll stop and say 'we can't do it'. We won't have failed, however, because we hope that we will have inspired thousands of kids to be engineers." Richard Noble is one of the judges for the British Engineering Excellence Awards. For more information on the Awards and how to enter, click here.