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Firing Order: Carburetor Stories

Posted in Features on January 24, 2019
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Back in the ’70s, ’80s, and the majority of the ’90s, I spent a fair amount of time working on my carburetors. I was in no way a carburetor specialist, but I could keep my junk running when air/fuel issues came calling. Every vehicle I owned had a carburetor until my wife and I purchased a newfangled, carburetor-less car brand new in 1992. Even then, I didn’t have a fuel-injected 4x4 until I purchased my ’97 Wrangler new in late 1996. Apparently, I’m not an “early adopter.”

Even though my carburetors sometimes frustrated me, I adored their relative simplicity. I knew I could fix almost any carb-related problem with common handtools. No fancy electronic gizmos needed. When fuel injection started appearing en masse, I was suspicious of it. On the surface, it looked great. No more pumping the gas pedal to set the choke. No more flooded engine. No more annoying accelerator pump failures. No more messing with the float adjustment to keep the engine running off-camber. But, compared to a carb, fuel injection was complicated.

Intermission: Old-timers, can you believe there are people behind the wheel nowadays that have never driven a carbureted vehicle? Youngsters that have never experienced off-camber engine sputter accompanied by the smell of raw fuel? Or an uncooperative choke pull-off? Or the feeling when the secondaries kick in on a four-barrel? The madness. One could argue that driving has become too easy and even boring.

When I was in high school, my buddy replaced the two-barrel carb on his small-block–powered ’71 Monte Carlo with a four-barrel. I’ll never forget that first test ride. That engine came alive when those secondaries opened. Combined with Styx’s Paradise Theater cassette blasting through the Jensen 6x9s, we were the acne’d men about town. Unfortunately, my buddy liked the pull of those secondaries so much that he had his foot to the floor a lot of the time, which had the predictable effect on fuel mileage. His limited weekly fuel budget was devoured in short order. It was a sad day when he was forced to bolt the two-barrel back on that engine. In the words of Styx, “Nothing ever goes as planned.”

I’ve had some fairly unique carb problems over the years. Once I was on a trip in my ’77 Scout in northern Wisconsin and my new, cheap, just-installed fuel filter decided to jettison its paper guts into my two-barrel carb. I spent the next hour disassembling the carb to clean the paper out. Then there was my ’84 2.5L XJ, which had a serious carb icing problem. It would build up massive amounts of ice during cold-weather driving, which would melt after I shut the engine off, refreeze when the engine cooled, and encase the choke linkage, thus making it inoperable.

Problems make for good stories, but the reality is that most of the carburetors on my vehicles were reliable, and some never had any problems. For example, the carb on my small-block ’76 K5 Blazer was a happy little camper; it just went about its business merrily mixing air and fuel with no complaints.

There’s no denying that fuel injection works great. Nonetheless, I’m kinda sorta shopping for an old 4x4, and I want it to be straight-up simple with a solid front axle. And a carburetor. Just because.

Do you have a carburetor story? Or, is your trail rig or daily driver carbureted? Drop an email to the address below and tell us about it. We’d love to hear how you got yours dialed in (or didn’t, if that’s a better story).

—Ken Brubaker

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