The purpose of the carburetor is to supply and meter the mixture of fuel vapor and air in relation to the load and speed of the engine. Because of engine temperature, speed, and load, perfect carburetion is very hard to obtain.
The carburetor supplies a small amount of a very rich fuel mixture when the engine is cold and running at idle. With the throttle plate closed and air from the air cleaner limited by the closed choke plate, engine suction is amplified at the idle-circuit nozzle. This vacuum draws a thick spray of gasoline through the nozzle from the full float bowl, whose fuel line is closed by the float-supported needle valve. More fuel is provided when the gas pedal is depressed for acceleration. The pedal linkage opens the throttle plate and the choke plate to send air rushing through the barrel. The linkage also depresses the accelerator pump, providing added gasoline through the accelerator-circuit nozzle. As air passes through the narrow center of the barrel, called the “venturi”, it produces suction that draws spray from the cruising-circuit nozzle. The float-bowl level drops and causes the float to tip and the needle valve to open the fuel line.
To cause a liquid to flow, there must be a high pressure area (which in this case is atmospheric pressure) and a low pressure area. Low pressure is less than atmospheric pressure. The average person refers to a low pressure area as a vacuum. Since the atmospheric pressure is already present, a low pressure area can be created by air or liquid flowing through a venturi. The downward motion of the piston also creates a low pressure area, so air and gasoline are drawn through the carburetor and into the engine by suction created as the piston moves down, creating a partial vacuum in the cylinder. Differences between low pressure within the cylinder and atmospheric pressure outside of the carburetor causes air and fuel to flow into the cylinder from the carburetor.
A larger carburetor or throttle body will enable the engine to draw in more air, but one that is too big is almost as bad as one that is too small. On a fuel-injected car, a throttle body that is too big will put too much gas in the combustion chamber that just flows the exhaust unburnt. It is much more of a problem on a carbureted car. There, an oversized carb will make the engine actually perform worst at part throttle. A simple formula for calculating the correct carburetor setup is:
CFM (amount of air the engine needs) = Displacement (in cubic inches) X Maximum RPM / 3,456
The result is usually rounded up to the next largest off the shelf carburetor sized. Therefore, a Chevy 350 built to redline at 6,000 rpm would need 608 cfm of air flow (350×6000/3456). A Holley 4150 carb rated at 650 cfm would be a good choice. For multi-carb setups, don’t forget to add up the CFMs for each carb!
Once you find the right carburetor, keeping it tuned correctly is key. Also, carb spacers and carb re-jetting usually help, but it requires trial and error to find the best combination.
“Barrel” is a popular term for the carburetor throat. There is one venturi in each throat. A two-barrel carburetor has a primary venturi for part-load running and a secondary venturi for full-throttle; a four-barrel carburetor has two primary and two secondary venturis. The venturi tube is important in carburetion. A “venturi” is a tube with a restricted section. When liquid or air passes through the venturi tube, the speed of flow is increased at the restriction, and air pressure is decreased, creating an “increase in vacuum” (a reduction in ambient pressure). This causes fuel to be drawn into the barrel. The venturi action is used to keep the correct air-fuel ratio throughout the range of speeds and loads of the engine.
Fuel in the carburetor must be maintained at a certain level under all operating conditions; this is the function of the float circuit. The needed fuel level is maintained by the float. When its attached lever forces the needle valve closed, the flow of fuel from the pump is stopped. As soon as fuel is discharged from the float bowl, the float drops. The needle valve opens and fuel flows into the bowl again. In this way, the fuel is level to the opening of the main discharge nozzle. The float level must be set with a high degree of accuracy. If the level is too low, not enough fuel will be supplied to the system and the engine will stall on turns; if the level is too high, too much fuel will flow from the nozzle.
A metering rod varies the size of the carburetor jet opening. Fuel from the float bowl is metered through the jet and the metering rod within it. The fuel is forced from the jet to the nozzle extending into the venturi. As the throttle valve is opened, its linkage raises the metering rod from the jet. The rod has several steps, or tapers, on the lower end. As it is raised in the jet, it makes the opening of the jet greater in size. This allows more fuel to flow through the jet to the discharge nozzle. The metering must keep pace with the slightest change in the throttle valve position so that the correct air-fuel mixture is obtained in spite of engine speed.
Chokes perform the fuel mixture adjustments necessary to start a cold engine. When the fuel-air mixture is too cold, the engine won’t start properly, or will stall out periodically. The choke when engaged (closed) the choke causes the fuel air mixture to be increased, or “enriched”. The choke is a special valve placed at the mouth of the carburetor so that it partially blocks off the entering air. When the choke plate closes, the vacuum below it increases, drawing more fuel from the fuel bowl. The rich fuel mixture burns even at lower temperatures, allowing the engine to warm up.
The manual choke is a knob on the dash, usually the push-pull type, which extends from the choke on the carburetor to the instrument panel. The driver closes the choke when starting the engine. The main thing to know about a manual choke is to push it back in when the engine has reached normal operating temperature. The trouble with the manual choke is that the driver often forgets to open it fully. This results in a rich fuel mixture which causes carbon to form in the combustion chambers and on the spark plugs. To correct this problem, the automatic choke was developed.
The automatic choke relies on engine heat. The choke valve is run by a thermostat which is controlled by exhaust heat. When the engine is cold, the valve will be closed for starting. As the engine warms, the exhaust heat will gradually open the choke valve. An automatic choke depends on a thermostatic coil spring unwinding as heat is supplied. As the engine warms up, manifold heat is transmitted to the choke housing. The heat causes the bimetal spring to relax, opening the valve.
An electric heating coil in the automatic choke shortens the length of time that the choke valve is closed. As the spring unwinds, it causes the choke valve in the carburetor air horn to open. This lets more air pass into the carburetor. The coil is mounted in a well in the exhaust crossover passage of the intake manifold. Movement of the bimetal spring is relayed to the choke valve shaft by means of linkage and levers.
The fuel delivery in a carburetor tends to lag behind the motion of the throttle. The basic carburetor operates when the throttle valve is fully open or partially open, but not when it’s closed. No driver wants the engine to stop every time the foot leaves the accelerator; such a car would be tiring and stressful to drive, even in the best of road conditions, let alone in a traffic situation. To keep the engine running smoothly and evenly when no power is needed, the idle circuit was added inside the carburetor. The idle jet admits fuel on the engine side of the throttle valve. Additional air is mixed with this fuel through an air bleed. The result is an entirely separate carburetor circuit which operates only when the throttle valve is closed.