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Singin’ the four-barrel carburetor blues

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Photo by Terry McGean.

[Editor’s Note: Jim Van Orden, of Richardson, Texas, is back this week with tales of his travails with carburetors and the fuel-injection systems that replaced them.]

“Where will you put that thing? There’s no room on my workbench!”

Dad was angry. This wasn’t the first time I appropriated his “sanctuary,” the only place in our house where he had any privacy or work space.

“It’s leaking gasoline!” he barked. “You’ll set the house on fire.”

My hands ached from holding the heavy, cast-iron intake manifold at waist level. It was for a 1956 Plymouth V8 engine. Bolted on top was my “pride and joy,” a four-barrel carburetor that promised to deliver 20 horsepower. In theory, it would transform my ride into a hotrod.

In practice, it resulted in hours of frustration and taught me a few things about life.

Glasspack mufflers made my ’56 Plymouth loud. But only a four-barrel carburetor would make it fast. Photo by the author.

That morning found me bent over the engine bay of a derelict Plymouth, wrenches in hand, removing the manifold/four-barrel carb. The junkyard’s proprietor, an African-American named “Mo,” who wore glasses with Coke bottle-thick lenses and had an unlit cigar dangling from puffy lips, charged me $15. What a bargain, I thought.

“That’s a piece of junk,” Dad exclaimed…angrily. He cringed when I dropped the manifold on the six-foot-long, three-foot-wide surface. Wood legs creaked and boards protested with cracking sounds.

Mounted on one end of the workbench was an ancient iron vise. Above were shelves lined with paint cans—a color for every room in the house—and coffee jars filled with screws, bolts, washers and nails. Tools that weren’t secured in a large metal box hung from nails pounded into the wall.

Gasoline odors permeated the house
Dad’s face was contorted—like he was being tortured—when he saw his workbench the next day.

“Your mother won’t like that gasoline smell,” he warned, while surveying the mess I created. Spread all over the place were metal “butterfly valves,” float mechanisms, screws, armatures, linkage rods, springs, clips and fasteners, washers, gaskets and dozens of other parts.

“Do you know what you’re doing?” he asked.

“Sure, I took it apart…and I can put it back together,” I told him, bravely…and stupidly.

I had been disassembling and cleaning the carburetor for hours using gasoline. Fumes not only made me sick but robbed my brain of 25 I.Q. points. A large, illustrated book, “Chilton’s Automobile Repair Manual,” was spread open and displayed complicated carburetor illustrations. Gasoline carelessly spilled on pages made them almost impossible to read.

I spilled gasoline on complicated carburetor diagrams, making them unreadable and useless. But who needed instructions to rebuild a carburetor? Photo by the author.

But who needs a manual? My 18-year-old brain knew it all. The carb’s disassembly had been easy. So was the clean-up. A week later, every part was devoid of oil and grease. Metal sparkled like new. Adding to the gasoline odor was silver paint I sprayed on the manifold.

Something wasn’t right, however, after attaching the rebuilt carb to the manifold. I noticed small parts spread among tools cluttering the workbench. Had I forgotten to install something?

Flash forward…22 years
“That’ll cost you 250 bucks,” the Volkswagen parts clerk told me on the phone. “Not including installation.”

“How much is that?” I asked.

“Depends…but I’d estimate $125…or more if your intake manifold is busted,” he said, matter-of-factly.

I hung up, angry. I had just purchased a high-mileage 1973 VW 412 station wagon from my secretary. She drove it to work one morning and it stopped running.

“You want to buy it?” she asked. “It’s a good car but it doesn’t start.”

“How much do you want?” I asked. When she shrugged her shoulders, I suggested $50.

“I’ll take it,” she said, and I reached for my wallet. She handed over the registration.

A foot of snow sat on the forlorn VW’s roof as I examined it after work. Tires were nearly flat and it had the filthy look of a “junkyard special.” Despite that, I couldn’t wait to tell my wife, Grace, and our daughters about the car and my plans to restore it.

Their reactions were polite but muted. Grace had plenty of questions and I didn’t have answers. “Why won’t it start?” “Do you know how to fix it?” “Will you drive it home…or have it towed?” Gulp.

“Want to help me?” I asked ten-year-old daughter Tori the next morning. It was Saturday and our first stop was an auto parts store to buy a battery. After driving to where the VW was parked, I put the key in the ignition, turned it and nothing happened.

“Let’s see what the engine looks like,” I said, breath “fogging” in the cold air. Opening the rear hatch, I found the engine under the floor.

“Oh, no, it’s fuel-injected,” I said. This was one of VW’s first fuel injected models. The early versions were noted for their unreliability. Staring back at me were strange-looking intake and exhaust pipes. A big, black box sat to the side. “What the heck is that, I wondered?”

I had never repaired a fuel-injected engine and I dreaded the prospect. Photo via Summit Racing.

Miracles happen…it started
With Tori holding a flashlight, I removed rusted bolts securing the dead battery and yanked it from the engine compartment. The new battery was easy to install.

“Think it will start, Daddy?” a hopeful, but frozen, Tori asked.

“Varoom…varoom…varoom!” issued smartly from the tailpipe, along with black smoke. Valves clattered loudly, the engine back-fired…then stopped working.

Another twist of the key provided better results. Now the engine sounded right.

“Hop in,” I said, “let’s drive it around the parking lot.”

My confidence grew as the car lurched forward. The ride felt strange because the tires were under-inflated. But I thought we might drive it home.

Pulling out of the lot and entering the highway, I pushed the accelerator pedal and was rewarded with…nothing. The car had no power. It simply wouldn’t exceed five miles-per-hour.

We were “sitting ducks” as motorists approached our rear bumper. Putting on the emergency flashers, I pulled to the shoulder. Do I dare drive it home, I asked myself?

It was touch-and-go along narrow roads bisecting New Jersey’s “Great Swamp,” a natural wonder created by a melting Ice Age glacier thousands of years ago. Saturday morning drivers were respectful and gave us space as we chugged along, an occasional backfire filling the swamp’s stillness.

The 15-mile ride wasn’t the smartest thing I did in my life, but we made it. After filling tires at a gas station, we returned home and I called a VW dealer.

“Your problem is likely a faulty air box and computer sensor,” a clerk said. “It’s all tied in to the fuel injection system and must be replaced. It can’t be rebuilt.”

How could a little computer controlling engine air flow cost five times the car’s value, I wondered? And why couldn’t I simply buy a $5 rebuild kit and fix it myself?

“Do you have computer air boxes for a ’73 VW?” I asked a junkyard clerk who answered my call.

“Yeah, we got a room full of ‘em,” he told me. I thought he was joking. But that afternoon when Tori and I met the man, he took us into a dark room with dirt floor and wood bins lining walls. Black boxes like the one in my VW filled them to eye level.

“How do I know which one will work…or is correct for my car?” I asked, feeling stupid.

“Don’t worry, they all work. We tested them,” he said, confidently. I had my doubts after handing over $15.

Then another miracle happened. Five minutes after installing the black box with a screwdriver, I turned the key and the four-cylinder engine roared to life.

“Let’s take her for a ride, Tori!” I yelled. She promptly invited neighborhood friends to join us and I steered for the highway. Like a fool, I floored it and the boxy car quickly achieved 70 miles per hour, 15 over the limit.

The VW drove like new and looked good, too, after Tori and I detailed it. The repairs were so simple, easy and inexpensive. My reward was selling the car to a neighbor’s son who needed a dependable college ride. He handed me $400.

I did it…but screwed up
Stepping back in time to 1962, I was proud as I took in the shiny, restored four-barrel carburetor and manifold sitting on Dad’s workbench.

But as I was to find out, I screwed up big-time.

Those “extra” parts on the workbench should have been inside the carburetor. I left out vital components…sort of like a heart surgeon forgetting to replace a valve or connect an artery.

I made another, even more serious mistake. Chrysler made two different 1956 Plymouth V8 engines that were almost identical in size, but had different valve designs. Each had a unique intake manifold, too. My manifold was the wrong one.

Dad was relieved when I cleaned the mess off his workbench. And he was grateful when I left for college. Before departing, I packed the manifold and four-barrel carb in a box and hid them in my bedroom closet.

Leave it to Mom to discover—and discard—the box, as well as old car magazines. When I returned for semester break, my bedroom had been cleaned and had new wall paper (which I hated). Moms do such horrible things.

“Why did you throw away my four-barrel carburetor, Mom?” I asked.

“Doesn’t your bedroom look nice with new wall paper?” she came back. “I made space for your college textbooks, too, and now there’s no gasoline smell.”

How could I argue with her logic?

Car fuel injection systems and the computers controlling them got a lot better over time. They were still expensive to replace. But, as I discovered with the ’73 VW, junkyard replacement parts were easy to locate, install and, most important, didn’t cost much.

Like adding horsepower to the ’56 Plymouth with a four-barrel carburetor, after-market computer “chips” now were available that dramatically increased performance. I added a $250 “chip” to my ’92 Ford Taurus SHO’s engine—about $25 in ‘56 terms—and the difference was noticeable. It was clean—no gasoline smells—and easy to install, taking all of five minutes.

Installing a computer chip in my ’92 Taurus SHO increased engine power. But I missed tinkering with carburetors, which were cheap to work on…and fun. Photo by the author.

It’s not the same today
Guess I’m nostalgic. Despite all the technological advances, I miss carburetors and the sensory experiences they provided.

I liked the tactile feeling of turning mixture screws, pulling out “jets” and replacing them, prying free old gaskets and gluing new ones in their place, plugging in wires and hoses, and adjusting little bolts holding everything together. It was challenging to repair cables and metal rods connecting the carb to the accelerator pedal.

My brain and nose haven’t forgotten the memorable smells of solvents, gasoline and light oil applied to rags and brushes used to remove grit, varnish and grime. By comparison, modern electrical car stuff doesn’t have any smell. It has no “style,” either. I mean, a carb looks sexy; computer chips resemble manmade turds.

Carburetors last a long time, too. Four-barrel carbs like the one I rebuilt are still around 60 years later. And I expect they’ll be powering ’56 Plymouths well after I’m gone.

Fuel injectors wear out…and then you throw them away and buy new ones. The computer that controls everything will eventually croak, too. None of it is “fixable” and replacing the injectors and engine computer costs a lot more than a rebuilt carburetor.

Now you know why I’ve got the “four-barrel carburetor blues.”