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Road Trip... in a Caterham?

Updated: Apr 28

Whoops. I accidentally bought my attainable dream car... and then immediately tried to drive it 800 miles home. How did it go, and how suitable is a Caterham for a long-distance drive?

Welcome to my new 1993 Caterham Super Seven HPC. I'll have another blog post soon that will go more into the details of this specific car, why I bought it, etc... but for now I wanted to write up a quick post about what it was like to buy this thing 800 miles away, and then basically just go full send and try driving it 800 miles home along back roads... with the significant other in the passenger seat!

Spoiler alert: we didn't make it.

Bigger spoiler alert: we still loved it, and can't wait to try again!

Obviously, planning a road trip in a vehicle such as this isn't like planning a road trip in most other vehicles. Things become a consideration that usually aren't. You avoid driving at night, not because you think you might start feeling sleepy, but because you really don't want to drive this thing in the dark. You have to think very carefully about whether you really need to bring xxx or yyy items because cargo space is incredibly limited (though as you'll see, not as limited as you might think!) Weather also dictates things, though that should be obvious with one look at it. We also weren't sure how comfortable it would be, or whether we'd start hating life after just an hour of driving.

Our journey began in Durham, NC after a quick flight, a test drive, and an exchange of money and title. The planned route covered 800 miles of back roads as we snaked our way to Chicago. We decided from the start to avoid highways because back roads are really what a vehicle like this is meant for, and we didn't want our first experience with my new toy to be 12 hours of highway misery. And when I say back roads, I really do mean proper twisty back roads. Instead our route was estimated by Google to be an 18 hour-long journey, which we decided to split across the extended Labor Day weekend.

Before we set off, however, we had to pack all of the stuff we'd brought with us into the car. We'd packed the bare essentials for a 3 day trip into two day bags. I say "bare essentials," but we honestly packed more than necessary in the form of extra clothes, food, and even our full-size over-the-ear headphones for the brief 2 hour flight down because we are divas. We really weren't sure how much space the Caterham had other than one photo of the purported trunk which was described by the seller as "big enough for at least several pairs of shoes." Turns out we needn't have been worried. While it's still a tiny amount of space, the trunk is much larger than anything I was expecting on a vehicle of this size! We fit both our day bags, a bag full of paperwork for the vehicle, and another bag containing tools, including a full socket set, a jack, and some other spare parts. This doesn't include my camera bag/tripod and girlfriend's purse, both of which were able to fit under the legs of whomever was sitting in the passenger seat without being a nuisance (except making it even more difficult to get in/out of the car.)

So, it fits enough stuff for a short road trip... but what about actually driving it? Surely it sucks for any lengthy distance, right? Well... not really!*

The first thing that struck me was how compliant the ride is. It looks like the kind of vehicle that would be incredibly harsh and bouncy on rough roads, and while it's certainly no Bentley, it is far from uncomfortable. A lot of credit goes to the Bilstein shocks here. It absorbs bumps rather well, and the relatively meaty tires (compared to many modern vehicles) on those 15" wheels do a lot to soften harsh impacts. The seats also have quite a bit of cushion which only adds to the comfort. Both of us found the ride quality more than suitable for a lengthy journey. Granted, there are various tiers of suspension for these vehicles, from road use, to hardcore track use, so your mileage will vary depending on your specific setup, but this one is set up beautifully for a street car.

Then there is the optional windscreen and the side doors. I've ridden in a Caterham without these things, and it's a dramatically different experience. Lots of fun and drama, but not something for long road trips unless you're prepared with goggles at the bare minimum, and ideally a full helmet unless you are willing to accept the risk of your face being pelted by whatever bugs/rocks/debris happen to be flying through the air at the time. By contrast, the experience with the windscreen and doors is much closer to a normal convertible. We simply wore sunglasses and baseball caps and we were quite comfortable, with just a nice breeze on the backs of our necks, and no issues with rocks or bugs or anything of the sort.

The fuel tank is tiny in this vehicle. I'm not sure what the size is offhand, but 5 gallons took us from 1/4 to full, so it's like a 7-ish gallon tank. It seemed like we were getting 25-ish MPG on average. While the small tank might be a con in a normal car, in this car it's sized big enough to get you about as far as you'd want to go between stops anyway. However, it does mean you need to keep an eye on your fuel if you're driving somewhere with long stretches between gas stations. We suspect the Weber carbs on this car might be tuned to run slightly rich, so there may be room for improvement in this area... once I figure out how carburetors work, and how to adjust them.

Speaking of burning fuel, the engine in this car puts out a purported 218 HP, and given it weighs around 1300 LB, you certainly won't be left wanting for power on entrance ramps, or when trying to pass a slower vehicle. I'm not entirely convinced it's still putting out 218, but that's what it started at. The 5-speed manual has a nice short throw, with gearing that feels perfectly-suited to modern-day driving. This car apparently has straight-cut gears, but I didn't notice any obnoxious gear whine. Clutch engagement was very abrupt, but I'm chalking that one up to the new clutch that had just been installed prior to my purchase, and hadn't yet been broken-in. I will say that reverse is a bit finicky. You have to push down, and then it's at the top left, but it's a bit vague, and requires a very deliberate action, and I sometimes find myself in 1st, instead of reverse, which is embarrassing when you're trying to make a quick 3-point u-turn...

And of course you can't discuss road-tripping a car like this without talking about the attention it gets. This is probably obvious, but it is THE center of attention everywhere. You will be asked about it. You will be photographed. You will be having lengthy conversations with complete strangers. You will have folks standing there recording you as you awkwardly get into the car and put on your 4-point harness because they want to be recording when you start it up. This might not be for everyone, but I think it's a ton of fun. I'm normally a very introverted person and not good at starting conversations with random folks, but I've had more fun and lengthy conversations with complete strangers in one day of driving this thing than in the last 12 months. Everyone from the lady running the gas station, who came out to take photos and talk about the car, to the two private jet pilots staying at our hotel who spent a good 30 minutes talking to us about the car in the parking lot before inviting us to dinner. Honestly, with all the bullshit happening in the world, and my introverted hatred for people in general, this car is probably good for my mental health. It really restores some of my faith in humanity given the fun conversations I've had with people who probably would disagree with me on just about every other topic in existence.

So are there ANY downsides to a long drive in this car? Of course there are!

  • Interior space is VERY limited - in that there really isn't any beyond that which your body occupies. Want to stretch your legs by shifting into a different position? That isn't happening. For the driver, the pedal box is INCREDIBLY small. My Size 10 shoes were catching each other as I worked the 3 pedals (I'll need to buy driving shoes), and there is no dead pedal - though there is plenty of space under the clutch pedal to rest your left foot. My right ankle developed a nasty blister on the back from the top edge of my sneaker rubbing it - something else that can probably be solved with the right shoes.

  • Ingress/egress is quite the to-do; even for a small guy like me it isn't elegant. The four-point harness needs to be moved out of the way, then you have to step into the car, and slowly lower yourself into the seat while scooting your legs forward. If you have the side doors on, they just get more annoying as you have to hold them open at the same time. Making use of the quick-release steering wheel definitely helps the driver fit themselves into the seat. Once seated, you need to fish out all four of the harness belts and connect them all together. It takes time, and you'll look silly. People watching will laugh. You laugh with them and it isn't so much a down-side as just a silly quirk. Having said that, if you're a physically large person, good luck. Either way, getting into the car is very much an event. Embrace it. It's part of the charm, and not necessarily a downside.

  • We found the seats comfortable overall, but they are reclined a bit too far for our tastes, and the seatback angle isn't adjustable (as far as I can tell). We like to sit rather upright in our vehicles, and I found the reclined position just a tiny bit annoying as I felt my head had to be tilted forward slightly more than I'm used to. I suppose this could be fixed with a different pair of seats... or I just need to get used to it.

  • The exhaust was by far the biggest issue. As the driver, you sit 18" from the muffler and exhaust tips. This vehicle has a rather aggressive sports exhaust that sounds amazing... for short trips. However at higher speeds, and in higher gears when you're trying to just cruise at lower RPMs the drone penetrated even our "race grade" headphones with boom mics, and left my ears ringing after just an hour. It was, by far, the most irritating part of driving the vehicle, but is also something that is easily solved, so that's more an issue with this specific exhaust setup. I plan to remedy this at some point with something that still sounds good, but won't render you deaf after two hours.

  • The mirrors, as they are on this car, aren't fantastic. The previous owner 3D-printed a two-piece mirror that he glued to the windshield, and that one is actually useful, though it's aimed too high for me, and isn't adjustable, so I need to sit up in the seat to look behind me. I'll be swapping it out for one that works for me. The side mirrors are mounted to the removable doors, which means they buzz around a lot when driving, making it difficult to see things with them - and they're small. At the end of the day, you'll be wanting to swivel your head anyway, as no matter how good your mirrors are, in a vehicle this small you simply don't do anything without checking with your actual eyeballs to ensure you aren't about to drive under a truck's tire.

So as far as what went wrong: basically about halfway through our first 5 hour stint, we noticed the temperature gauge creeping higher and higher. By the time we got to our hotel after 5 hours and 200 miles, it was into the 240s, though it would sometimes drop back down, and was generally oscillating a lot (it would creep up to 245, then drop drastically down to 210, for example.) We tried some basic troubleshooting (burping the cooling system to get air out) but it still seemed to run hot. I felt uncomfortable setting out for 600 more miles without knowing exactly what was wrong, so we called in the cavalry and paid Performance Towing to come and get our car. Shout-out to the owner, who basically dropped everything and drove through the night from Wisconsin to West Virginia to come and rescue us!

We've since gotten the car home, and I've been working on chasing down the issue. The first culprit was the water pump. Replaced it, but the old one didn't seem broken. Still runs hot, but not AS hot as it did. Then we checked the thermostat, which it turns out was a 92C thermostat that only starts to open around 210F in a pot of boiling water... so I've also replaced it with a 75C thermostat that a local acquaintance happened to have on hand. The engine generally runs cooler now - in fact sometimes it does long stints at just over 180 degrees (an 80-85C thermostat would probably be ideal.)

What we've concluded is that, first off, on the weekend of our grand trip, it was sunny, with temperatures were in the 90s... and we were driving a car with a relatively large engine compared to the cooling system up twisty mountain roads, equipped with a thermostat that was opening way too late, and it was basically just having a hell of a time trying to stay cool. As it stands right now, everything works fine, but the engine still gets uncomfortably hot while idling. We think this is partly because the radiator fan circuit also seems to come on rather late, seeming to wait until the gauge is already at 225. I'm planning to fix that too. That should hopefully help the engine by not waiting until it's already too hot to start removing heat. The radiator is also still the original from the looks of it. Who knows if it's got any clogs or sediment, or if it's a less efficient design. The fan also feels a bit weak. So those are both on the list for future upgrades.

Beyond that, though, I've been having a hell of a time blasting around the neighborhood. I'm probably annoying all of the neighbors with the rather loud exhaust - but hopefully they can cut me some slack as I just need a few days to calm down and get used to the fact that I finally have my own Caterham! And not just any Caterham... a Super Seven HPC! More to come in the form of a post that properly introduces the car; including many more photos, and hopefully some footage.

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