This article is the second in a series, exploring the “old-school” world of four-barrel carburetors. While some may scoff at this as tantamount to studying the Dead Sea Scrolls or ancient antiquities, the carburetor is far from dead and is in fact doing quite well, thank you. So gaining a little knowledge about the secrets about carburetors might just make you the neighborhood go-to guy.
This episode will deal with the many shades of the Holley four-barrel carburetor. For more than half a century this fuel mixer has been on the scene. It has survived – if not thrived – in part due to its ability to not just flow vast amounts of air and fuel, but also because it is so easy to tune. But before we delve into uncovering its internal tuning secrets, you must first learn how to speak the language.
Language of the Holley
Carburetor size is always on everybody’s mind, so let’s start with airflow ratings. Holley offers likely the widest assortment of sizes of any of the carburetor companies on the market. All of Holley’s models are rated in cubic feet per minute (cfm) with the smallest four-barrel rated at 390 cfm and ending with the Dominator line of racing carbs that now extends to 1,475 cfm. These sizes range through multiple configurations and options. Airflow is determined by the diameter of the venturis (the main body of the carburetor) combined with the diameter of the throttle plates. By mixing main bodies and throttle plates, Holley can offer a tremendously wide selection of carburetor sizes.
While all the Holley carbs being discussed are all four-barrel carbs, they don’t all operate all the same way. The secondary set of throttles can be actuated mechanically with simple linkage or through a vacuum-operated opening that is controlled by a large diaphragm hooked to the secondary throttle linkage. There are advantages and disadvantages to both designs. For street engines the selection is based more on personal preference.
With the incredible selection and different features across the company’s lineup, this is where it can become a little confusing. On the street carburetor side, Holley offers a less expensive version of its four-barrel, dubbed a 4160-style, which is slightly different from the classic 4150 version.
4150 vs. 4160
The 4150 carb employs a metering block on both the primary and secondary side. These metering blocks feature removable jets that can be used to fine-tune the fuel curve, whereas the less expensive 4160 four-barrel version replaces the secondary metering block with what is called a metering plate. This plate bolts directly to the main body of the carburetor and uses a pair of fixed main metering restrictors for jetting.
There really isn’t a performance difference between a 4160 and 4150 carburetor. However, when tuning, it’s much easier to tune secondary metering with jets as opposed to having to remove and replace the secondary metering plate on a 4160 style carburetor.
Different metering plates can be ordered through Holley but if primarily wide-open-throttle (WOT) tuning is anticipated, a secondary metering block with jets is much easier (and less expensive) to tune. One advantage for the 4160 style carb, however, is that a pair of these can be bolted inline on a tunnel ram because of their shorter overall length.
Everything Is Adjustable
One big reason Holleys are so popular with tuners is because they offer such a wide range of tuning opportunities. Idle speed and idle mixture tuning is something that all carburetors offer and most Holleys employ adjustable idle mixture screws on the primary side to accomplish this task. Larger carburetors which are used on more aggressively cammed engines with single-plane manifolds can benefit from idle mixture screws on all four corners instead of just on the primary side.
Tuning can also be affected by float level. Most other four-barrel carburetors require disassembly in order to adjust the float. Holley made this change much easier with a simple lock screw and adjustment nut that allows the tuner to modify the float height. Assisting with this, a small, removable plug or a sight window in the side of the float bowl allows easy visual verification of the float level. This is best done with the engine idling.
The modular Holley accelerator pump design also enjoys quite a range of adjustments. This circuit squirts fuel into the primaries (and if the carburetor is a mechanical secondary version, it also injects on the secondary side). This shot of fuel is needed to cover up quick throttle opening at low engine speeds when the air velocity through the carburetor is initially very low. Don’t worry if this sounds complicated, we’ll get into more detail on how to tune this circuit and others in a later installment.
Vacuum secondary carburetors don’t require a secondary accelerator pump circuit because the secondary throttles open only after there is sufficient airflow through the primary side to allow the secondary to open gradually as the engine demands more airflow. This gradual opening means there is sufficient signal for the carburetor to provide the additional fuel needed.
Getting Choked Out
There have been several upgrades to the classic Holley four-barrel configuration over the years. In the past, a classic modification was to remove the choke linkage and mill the choke housing off the carburetor main body to improve airflow. Holley now offers multiple performance carburetor lines – like the HP, Ultra, Dominator and others – that not only eliminate the choke horn out of the box, but offer a nice radius into the venturis.
Other changes include certain models that employ an idle bypass feature. We will get into the details on idle bypass in a future episode of Carb Science but this bypass feature allows properly setting the idle speed throttle blade position on carbureted engines with big camshafts with low vacuum levels at idle.
As this series continues, we will dive deeper into the classic Holley carburetor and reveal how to tune and modify these carburetors in order to produce the exact fuel delivery curve necessary for your engine. For a typical street car, these carburetors work exceptionally well and produce a curve that is very close to ideal for most situations.
However, if you are so inclined, digging deeper into the carburetor to custom tune how and when fuel is delivered, will generally result in both a more efficient running engine as well as more power and torque. It’s all a matter of understanding how the circuits work and then how to make them work best for your engine.