Barry Kluczyk
August 22, 2011

For more than 50 years, the classic Holley 4150-style four-barrel has remained a constant presence in the automotive world, as it evolved into almost countless versions for OEM and aftermarket applications. But in this age of electronic fuel injection, however, fewer and fewer enthusiasts know their way around the venturis, jets, and power valves of a traditional carburetor.

To put it simply, there's almost no reason to tinker with a carburetor these days, as our daily drivers haven't used them for more than two decades. We just don't have the experience any longer. So, while many enthusiasts relish the idea of building and working on a vintage engine, the perception for many is setting up and tuning a carburetor is a complicated black art-and it's enough to turn off those of us with limited experience.

That shouldn't be the case. While it's true that the variety of adjustable components on a typical four-barrel carburetor allow for an almost infinite number of tuning scenarios, there are a few basic steps to help select, set up, and tune your carb with surprising precision. In fact, even if you've never turned a screw on a Holley four-barrel, you should feel confident about installing one and getting your engine to run and idle very close to an optimal tune.

For this story, the tips are based on applications using the classic Holley 4150/4160-type vacuum-secondary, four-barrel (the non-Dominator-type), but most are applicable to other popular carburetors, be they of the single- or two-barrel variety, as well. With the following dozen tips to guide your way, you'll have your new carburetor breathing right and giving your muscle car the crisp, immediate throttle response that just doesn't come with electronic fuel injection.

1. Don't Super-Size It

When selecting a carburetor for your engine, don't overdo it. Generally speaking, a mild to moderate street engine doesn't need more than a 650- or 750-cfm carburetor. To zero in on the most appropriate carb size, multiply the cubic-inch displacement and maximum rpm and divide the product by 3,456. For example: a 350 engine multiplied by a 5,500-rpm redline and divided by 3,456 equals 557, or at least 557 cfm. In that case, a 650-cfm carb is sufficient. It's OK to go a little larger than necessary, but don't choose a carb that's rated at less than the minimum requirement.

2. Timing Is Everything

If the first couple of starts don't produce a quick firing and idle-even if they're not perfect-don't jump to the conclusion that it's a carb-tuning problem. The hard-starting scenario mentioned at the lead of this story could very well be due to improper ignition timing. So, before cursing the carburetor as you're ripping it off the intake manifold, double-check the ignition timing. Even an inaccuracy of only a few degrees could produce a hard-starting/no-idle condition.

3. Vacuum Secondaries vs. The Double-Pumper

Assuming you've got spot-on tuning, a carb with vacuum secondaries is easier to live with on a street car or one that sees only limited duty on the dragstrip. That's because the secondaries kick in automatically for more consistent performance; and they usually deliver better fuel economy. Vacuum secondaries are also tailored for the typical street-engine combination, such as a dual-plane intake and a "smaller" camshaft, as well as an automatic transmission-all of which typically provide better vacuum signals.

A Double Pumper carb with mechanical secondaries is controlled strictly by your right foot and uses an accelerator pump to shove more fuel down its throats when you quickly go to WOT. It uses more gas this way, but is more accommodating to big cams, single-plane intakes, and other vacuum- limiting factors. These qualities generally make the Double Pumper better suited to high-rpm combinations used mostly at the track.

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