The Entirety of What Once Was

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I like carburetors, chiefly because I like mechanical things – which I like because you can see their workings and adjust/fix them, by hand. As opposed to electronic things – more specifically, computer controlled things – whose workings are opaque and which generally cannot be fixed but rather tossed and replaced.

Carburetors – which are mechanical fuel-delivery systems – are also self-contained things. Put another way, there are no peripheral things – other than a fuel pump (usually also mechanical).

Behold, as an example, the carburetor that feeds air and fuel to the 455 cubic inch (that’s about 7.5 liters for you Millennials and Gen Zs, who had the bad luck to be born after the metric system ruined what had been the much more personal and so interesting conveyance of engine displacement via size, which used to matter) V8 that lies under the hood of the Orange Barchetta, my ’76 Pontiac Trans-Am.

What you see is all there is.

Literally.

The carb perched on top of the 455 is the fuel system. Yes, there is also a gas tank and a fuel pump – but these merely store/deliver the fuel to the carburetor. The carburetor is a self-contained system.

It is also a serviceable and rebuildable system.

The one you see above has been mixing air and fuel since 1976 – almost half-a-century ago. Electronic fuel injection does a fine job of working without needing maintenance (or adjustment) for many years. But not for half-a-century. Let alone a full century – which is well within the service life of the basic castings that comprise an assembled carburetor. The “soft parts” – gaskets, rubber pieces and so on – do eventually wear and need to be replaced. But the lovely thing is they are replaceable.

And easily so.

The carb you see above can be removed from the engine in about five minutes with the most basic hand tools. It takes a bit more skill – and some specialized tools – to disassemble/rebuild the carb, but not so much that most people cannot rebuild one. People used to do so, routinely – chiefly because they could.

And even if they couldn’t, it wasn’t that big a deal to have someone else do it – without even necessarily taking the car in to a shop. One could – anyone could – remove the carburetor and take or send it to someone who knew carbs and have them rebuild/adjust it.

In the absolute worst case scenario – a physically damaged carburetor beyond fixing – replacement in toto was easy and inexpensive. It still is.

My Trans-Am is now almost 50 years old. Yet – if I needed to – I could buy a brand-new replacement carburetor today for about $500. That’s for everything. The works (except the fuel pump and gas tank, of course; the latter lasting essentially forever, the former costing maybe $50 to replace, held on by two bolts and replaced in 15 minutes using basic hand tools).

Whatever the merits of computer controlled fuel injection – and there are many, including usually quicker starts and always quicker warm-ups – this is not one of them. The EFI system is embedded as well as wired. It is connected to sensors and those to a computer, which controls the workings you cannot see. And while you may go for many years – even a decade or more – eventually, something will need to be replaced. Probably it will be a thing you do not understand or cannot get at, even if you did understand how it worked.

And there is the expense. $500 might buy you a few of the system’s components. The system, itself, would cost you probably three or four times that to replace everything and so set the odometer, as it were, to zero again. Assuming you can afford that, you are probably not going to be able to get that – the necessary parts, that is – half a century from now. You may not be able to get them in 20 years from now.

Ask anyone who’s been down this road already. Electronic stuff is proprietary stuff – designed to be specific and when the company that holds the rights no longer makes what you need and hasn’t sold the rights to another (aftermarket) party that might make what you need, you will be in need f another way to get air and fuel to your engine.

Like a carburetor, for instance!

. . .

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30 COMMENTS

  1. The only thing more beautiful than a stock ’70s Rochester 4MV is an Edelbrock rebuild of a stock 4MV! I don’t like Holley’s, SU’s, or any of the other crap. I’ll take a tri-pack of Rochester single-barrels before I touch any of those.

  2. Old carburetors are like minted silver and gold coin, have usefulness and value.

    Collectible is the word for it. I save them all when found. You glean anything collectible. I have a few carburetors, you see the worth right away.

    The industrialists at Massey-Ferguson mean business.

    It is a business that can build machines that people will buy, the tractors and combines work, no problem. Reliable machines keep you in business.

    You have factories and that translates to success. When you engineer a factory, a plant, you’ll have everything done there.

    You roll out the product expecting it to sell at some percentage of the market.

    Oliver, Minneapolis-Moline, Ford, Steiger, Big Bud, IH, Kubota, Mahindra or the Russian version of a tractor, the Belarus.

    Russian trucks and tractors will get you there too.

    Don’t mention Claas, they’re good too.

    I see axial flow International Harvester combines work fields after more than 40 years of service. Can’t argue with that.

    Why buy a 750,000 dollar combine when those you have work for years on end?

    John Deere leads the pack. If you bought John Deere stock during the GFC, it was at at a low of about 26 dollars per share, you are enjoying the 406 USD price per share.

    Nothing runs like a Deere.

    Massey-Ferguson is right there with them.

    It is 5:05 AM, time to drink. Coffee will do.

  3. The carburetor is merely a mechanical computer.

    Since it is such, it allows people to understand the process of fuel management and air-flow in a hands-on way.

    A lot of instruction regarding EFI makes the mistake of teaching process as opposed to why.

    The carburetor forces a person to understand the why.

    I still prefer EFI and would probably convert any older car if i go that route again unless it had a carb setup known for being very well engineered. Some were excellent, some were shit, not much in between. Funny thing is that some of the smaller setups such as the two barrels on smaller V8 options were some of the smoothest throttle responses and reliable to the Nth degree.

    When one would upgrade the carb on any car, even if already four barrel, to higher CFM one learned that trac control was not available then. It became about moderating what one did with the pedal depending on the situation and driving maneuver. The factory set it up so that one could floor it and not bog down or break traction in a turn for that reason. Thus, without changing anything else, higher CFM was almost always a performance upgrade.

    I still miss my original 326 two-barrel kept as stock. It made a great sound, great throttle response and fun to drive. Started and ran great in any weather. The performance guys sometimes miss out with the constant urge to push for more and more. This car was just nice.

  4. I used find rebuilding my carburetors relaxing and therapeutic, I could usually get one done in the time it took to play the entire Tarsus and Brain Salas Surgery LPs. That and a six oavk6of PBR.
    These days I clean my guns for mental therapy.

  5. My Datsun 2000 roadster has twin side draft skinner unions (made under license by Hitachi). The *choke* enriches the fuel mixture by adjusting the sleeve (via cable connection in the drives seat) to manually allow more fuel at idle. My Norton 850 commando has been modified with a Mikuni single carb VM34. Been trying to get this running less rich by changing the main jets which takes 5-minutes (work continues). My BSA lightning has dual Amal carbs. Uses a traditional air choke to restrict airflow on start up to richen. Bike fires 1st kick.
    Both my motorcycles will be in the Portland Oregon Roadster Show this March 18-19 which is back from being canceled in 2020-22 by Fauci and that B*tch governor due to Covid.

    • You had to go and mention the Norton.
      Oh the memories.. I took mine from Perth (750) to Darwin. The Norton was toughest thing on wheels!
      That was 1976.
      My buddy had the identical bike. His had this persistent oil leak no one could ever correct. It wasn’t much in normal use but a trip through the desolate outback was another issue altogether.
      We thought we carried enough oil but as luck would have it, long >12 rides made it worse.
      On our last can, we stopped at a very remote oasis, gas station with a service bay, and of course a pub.
      The old guy who ran the place asked why we wanted to buy 4 cans of oil,. We explained, he looked at the bike, casually told us to get a beer and he would see if he could improve it. Roy had factory Norton people try to fix it, no one could.
      After a beer or three and a bowl of the best damn oxtail stew I have ever had then and since, we went out to check.
      He was cleaning up, told us we should make it to Darwin but don’t push it, get it to a shop.

      That bike never leaked another drop of oil in the years he had it.

  6. The MOST beautiful thing about mechanical things (among their many other glories) is that the one who owns/possesses them has full and sole control over their use and workings. YOU can fix or modify YOUR carburetor with the simplest of tools and a little knowledge or experimentation. Sure, they may obfuscate an adjusting screw behind a plug at the behest of some bureaucrat, but that can be easily overcome, and your carb can’t tattle on you- unlike the electronic ‘engine controls’ of the EFI system, in which the workings require hundreds of thousands of lines of programming code, which all must function together to work with the input from a few dozen sensors, which input in-turn controls what other sensors do; and beyond that, even if you’re proficient at coding, and have the requisite knowledge of parameters which must be maintained within the system so all parts interact properly with one another; and even if you have the requisite equipment to access such, there is then yet many more hundreds of thousands of lines of code to ‘protect’ the manufacturer’s propietary rights (i.e. you own it, but you can’t access it…) and to ensure compliance with the slew of mandates our dear tyrants deem necessary…..and that’s assuming all of the physical parts are in good working order or are still readily available if not…..

    All to replace the simple carburetor, which, once you buy…you fully own, and can do with as you like, with little more than a few screwdrivers, pliers and nut drivers. Your carb doesn’t ‘expire’ when it is ‘no longer supported’; it doesn’t need to be programmed to work with your vehicle (other than a simple tuning, via turning some screws); it can’t ‘phone home’ or be remotely deactivated………

    Simple mechanical and electro-mechanical devices equal freedom and efficiency. Yes, thge EFI may offer a few perks when all is functioning well…but at what cost- in terms of freedom, privacy, a economic cost? (You can replace your whole carb for less than the cost of just the computer for the EFI system- and if carbs were still in wide use todayu, imagine how cheap they’d be between the advances in manufacturing and farming everything out to Chinky-land?! -Heck, you can get a whole new carburetor for your chainsaw or weed-eater in many cases for around $12…so cheap that it’s often cheaper to just replace trhe carb with a new one rather than rebuilding the old one!).

    When I first moved to the sticks >20 years ago, my first tractor was a 1949 Ferguson, which was ridiculously simple! It could still do a good day’s work with no problem and never needed anything other than basic maintenance. Only reason I got rid of it was because it was a pig on gas (yes..it was a gas tractor)- It was a pig not because it was so simple and carbureted…but because it was built at a time when gas was so cheap that efficiency wasn’t an issue….hence why they could even sell 4-cylinder gas tractors. And I’m sure that that tractor is STILL doing a good day’s work today (I sold it about 10 years ago) even though it’s 74 years old.

    Where will today’s plasticky, computerized tractors be in 74 years? They’re not even fit to be good scrap……

    • Buddy “inherited” a vintage Ferguson when he bought his house – what a beast. It sat out for years yet would fire right up and ran great. Over the last few years the leaky stuff has been replaced starting with the fuel valve/sediment bowl. Carb finally needed help last year but like you say, the replacements are so cheap he just bought a new one. He has a blade for snow clearing a long access drive plus a new mower deck for summer field work.

      Cheap parts and easy to work on, priceless.

      • Exactly, Sparkey! I could run that little Ferguson all day in 90*+ weather with a 5-foot bush-hog, without batting an eye. It was truly bulletproof. There was just so little to go wrong. And to think: Cars of that era were made the same way!

  7. The only carb alternative I’m a fan of is TBI, Throttle Body Injection. Our 91 has this system works fine. There is a computer running it and the ignition timing, but it’s one box one giant connector under the dash. One oxy sensor, one extra coolant temp sensor and a manifold pressure sensor so pretty basic stuff that is easy to diagnose and repair yourself. The throttle body is very simple and easy to rebuild once the gaskets age out. Two giant injectors again easy to replace if they get funky.

  8. You don’t have to go radical on the cam swap to make a big difference in performance. I’ve done two Harleys, all I wanted was a bump in low end power and keep the idle from getting too lopey. The first step up from stock did the trick. Buddy went two more steps up in his cam, lots of high end power but nasty idle and low end.

    It’s all in the relations in valve timing, get rid of the smog cam that is is designed just for that purpose what a difference. A pre smog cam (60s era grind) in a small block Chevy works just dandy. You’re not drag racing you are street driving a V8 from about 1800 to 3000 rpm those engineers in the pre smog control days knew what cam design made for decent power and pleasant driving.

    • Hi Sparkey,

      Yup! I installed a mild street hydraulic (flat tappet) cam in the 455; there’s a slight lope at idle but plenty of vacuum for power brakes and so on. Very docile driver. Not super quick by modern high-performance standards, but quick enough to be fun – which is all that matters, ultimately!

  9. I came up with the last group of kids to drive carbed vehicles. My first car was a 1984 Z28 with a quadrajet on a 305 “HO”, which it was not due to uncle sugar’s smog junk. The car ran horribly when I first got it. It would regularly flood on a cold start. Removing the smog junk, converting to a manual choke, and ditching the cat had to have given the car 50 HP.

    The sound of the vacuum secondaries opening up after I flipped the air cleaner lid over is what started my lifelong love of modifying my cars and motorcycles!

    • Hi Local,

      Ditto! Would you believe – Get Smart voice – that when my ’76 TA was new, the maximum-effort 455 summoned all of. . . 200 horsepower? That’s what happens when you reduce the CR to 7.6:1 and choke the poor thing with two too-small exhaust pipes feeding into one horribly restrictive cat, add a restrictor plate in the manifold that keeps the secondaries from fully opening and put a cam so mild in the thing it might as well have been flat!

      But, the good news was that fixing all of that was really easy. Getting rid of the factory Y-pipe and cat in favor of true dual exhaust, along with rejetting the carb and dialing in the ignition, was all by itself probably worth a 30 horsepower gain. It really woke these things up. Swap cams and up the CR by two points and you were cooking…

  10. ‘Electronic stuff is proprietary stuff.’ – eric

    Just ask Jackass Jim Farley of Ford, who’s dealing with that headache today after a faceplant earnings report yesterday:

    ‘Farley said Ford’s complexity is part of the problem.

    “We have a lot of complexity relative to the customer and also inside our company. And we can cut the customer-facing complexity like we have, but it takes time to work that down to parts on the line, to the manufacturing line.”

    https://www.cnbc.com/2023/02/03/ford-ceo-jim-farley-frustrated-after-bad-earnings.html

    Complexity, uh huh … like 3,000 chips in 140 control modules? Whatcha gonna do about them chips, Jim? Nothing, I reckon.

    But – look, a squirrel over there! – ‘Farley says Ford’s second generation of EVs will be radically simplified, which should eventually lead to fewer problems and higher margins.’

    Yeah, right! The line forms here for delicious pie in the sky. This way to the egress, folks!

  11. ‘you are probably not going to be able to get the necessary parts half a century from now’ — eric

    Parts supply is important to consider with any vehicle, appliance or system.

    In December, my 1991-model forced-air gas furnace failed to ignite. An HVAC contractor gave the fan and limit switch (a bimetallic thermal device, no longer used in current furnaces) a twist, and it cranked right up. I texted him to ask if he could source a new one. No reply.

    So I bought one and installed it (two screws, four wires). Eight days later, the scheduling lady from the contractor called. ‘The part is not available,’ she lied, ‘and your obsolete furnace needs to be replaced.’

    I laughed in her face. “That’s funny! I replaced the ‘unavailable’ part last week, and the ‘obsolete’ furnace is humming like a champ.”

    Not sure how much of this attempted swindle was greed-driven. But in the cell phone era, actually using a multimeter to diagnose and replace a bad component is too difficult and tedious a task for a contractor whose business model is just to replace the whole box.

    • What is it with HVAC guys?! Seems 98% of them are crooked! The whole HVAC-repair industry is very corrupt. About 80% of their calls just come down to being a customer needing a new contactor or capacitor (<$20 and replaced in 5 minutes by anyone)….but they ain't gonna make any money doing simple things like that…not even for the $150-$200 they might charge……so they always find 'more'….doesn't matter if your system is 3 years old or 30 years old (The 30 year-old one will likely be better and still be going when the 3 year-old dies).

      • Hi Nunz!
        A couple years ago the compressor on my 25 year old (at the time) central air had a small crack that leaked out the freon; tried to get a replacement for just the compressor but no can do – used that evil R22. Knew a guy from my old work place that did welding, so he repaired the crack for me and also knew a guy who managed to get me a 20 pound canister of R22 which right now is worth it’s weight in gold in case I ever need it again.

        • Hey, Mike!
          Excellent! That coimpressor will probably keep going for another 20 years now! I used to have a nice old guy who was an electrician by trade, but who did HVAC work ‘on the sly’ [Not as tightly regulated down here as up there, thank goodness!) for doing the stuff with freon and all, that I couldn’t do- but unfortunately he died a while back, so I’m thinking if my mother’s or my A/C ever needs to be opened up or replaced, I’m just gonna get a set of gauges, and a vacuum pump, and a tank of freon (Pretty easy to get here- at least it was in the recent past…)

          We can still get cans of R134a in Walmart here for the cars…is that still the case up there? ($4.50 for those little cans!)

          • Hi Nunz,
            Yeah, I can still get the cans of R134, available at most auto parts stores for about 5 bucks; thinking about stocking up on a few before they end up being “regulated” out of existence.

  12. The car of the century has carburetors….it is almost 100 years old…..

    The 1928 to 1932 Mercedes-Benz SSK (W06)

    The 1928 to 1932 Mercedes-Benz SSK is completely mechanical, no electronics so it can last 100 years, still working perfectly…….it is a rolling work of art, built like a tank, over engineered.

    These were very successful race cars, you could drive it to the race track and win the race.
    The S/SS/SSK line was one of the nominees in the penultimate round of voting for the Car of the Century award in 1999

    The new cars today are plastic and full of electronics and computers that have a short lifespan, the EV’s are far worse….. when the dangerous, very expensive $22,000 battery dies, afterr 7 years, they are too expensive to fix, so are scrap, polluting the landfill.

    The 7 litre…427 ci supercharged inline 6 cylinder engine would put out somewhere between 200 and 320 horsepower, and 508 lb-ft or torque @ 2000 rpm, a low rpm engine that would last for a century….

    These were real driver’s cars…an open car, no doors, manual steering and transmission, no driver’s aids….. AI driving the car, a pure analog driving experience, no seatbelts or airbags, etc,……the driver says there is more joy driving this car then any car he has driven……
    Take a look at the beautiful carburetors on it….

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PVXH3yuxKo4

      • The Germans used to make nice stuff. (The Eye-talians made nice-looking stuff…for those who could afford to keep it running and live with having something that doesn’t work most of the time….).

  13. Mechanical vs Electronical.

    I remember one day I was sitting in the TV production lab at school, just staring at the waveform monitor. As I zoned out, I thought to myself “Whoever discovered this must have been a genius.” Then a few seconds later, I realized that NTSC (analog) video wasn’t discovered. It was engineered. From then on just about everything electronic was within grasp. Someone figured out how to make the electron beams wiggle this way or that, then wrote it all down so the rest of us to learn how. If one man can do it, most any other man can too.

    Just ask the Chinese… they’re great at copying.

    Even software is pretty easy to figure out, but it has to be broken into small chunks. There are millions of little chunks of programs running on your smartphone, PC, whatever. Each one does one little thing. Many of those chunks get used over and over, some are rarely called but are critical when they are. But any single chunk is pretty easy to figure out.

  14. Kudos to you Eric for having what I think is a Rochester 4bbl carb that looks to be very CLEAN. I’ve seen countless cars at shows with their hoods up proudly displaying the engine with a gummed-up dirty carb, and it’s probably dirty inside too. Carb cleaner doesn’t cost that much. Your carb compliments the 455 engine.

    Even worse is the show car with a carb that idles at 1000 rpm or higher. I’ve seen that also.

    • Thanks, Bill!

      It’s the original (number matching) Quadrajet that came with the car. The engines idles +- 650 RPM, as per spec. I am fastidious about cleanliness, too!

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