Carter Carburetor was established in 1909, and lived through 1985. Along the way, the company purchased Ball & Ball, a preferred supplier of Chrysler Corporation in the early days; both Balls worked with Carl Breer to dramatically improve their product and, by extension, Chrysler’s.
Carter was popular through the years, particularly from 1950-1980, and took a position of honor on Chrysler vehicles over the years — not just on the pedestrian models, where two-barrel BBDs were common, but on the best cars Chrysler could make, Imperials and 300 letter-cars. Every Chrysler 300 letter-car reportedly used Carter carburetors.
The company started with William Carter, born in 1884; like many young men with mechanical ability, he started out in bicycles, opening a repair shop at the age of 17. In 1902, after moving to St. Louis, he started experimenting with automobiles, discovering (like many others) that the carburetor was of supreme importance in keeping things going.
He began to work with wooden molds, and eventually produced a cast brass carburetor of relatively high precision; it could meter and deliver fuel more accurately than many competing units. According to Hemmings, Carter may have created the downdraft design and the choke valve.
Thus, the Carter Carburetor Company was born in 1909 — six years before the company’s main factory was built, in 1915. It was a four story building on a ten acre site. It only remained in William Carter’s care for 13 years; then, American Car and Foundry, a firm older than Carter himself, purchased the company. They would keep it as a standalone company for 60 years.
Chrysler entered the picture via Carl Breer, as previously noted; the Chrysler legend, on learning that the Ball family was planning to leave the carburetor business, set them up with Carter, which continued to produce the Ball & Ball basic designs (updated as needed) as the BB series [detail], starting in the late 1940s.
The BB series were used on every one of the company’s product lines, and would be divided later into BBS (Ball & Ball Single Barrel) and BBD (Ball & Ball Dual Barrel). Chrysler itself continued to refer to them in training materials as “Ball & Ball” as late as 1971.
Carter was also asked to “militarize” single-barrel carburetors for the tiny Willys Jeep four-cylinder engines, waterproofing it for water crossings and making it possible to keep the engine going even when the vehicle was at a sharp angle. The result was the Carter Y-S carburetor (model 637S), which was later retrofit to other off-road vehicles. Jeep also used the Carter WA-1, starting in 1945 on the CJ series; and later on trucks.
Starting in 1952, Jeep switched to the new YF single-barrel carburetors; in 1954, the 226 six-cylinder used the Carter WDG single-barrel. This was supplemented in 1958 by the Carter WC two-barrel. The company would rely on Carters through the 1960s and into the 1970s, keeping the YF for a surprisingly long time.
Two and four barrel carburetors can have both primary and secondary barrels; the “secondaries” only open when needed for power.
Carter branched into fuel filters as well as related equipment, and sold “universal” carburetors to replace factory equipment on many cars.
Carter created the first American four-barrel carburetor for Buick’s 1952 straight-eight. They followed up three years later with the WCFB (White Cast Four Barrel, describing the metal and size). In 1954, Chrysler claimed that these were “developed expressly for this [FirePower] engine.” It had an integral automatic choke.
Cars using the WCFB would include the 1955 Chevrolet and Pontiac, 1955-57 DeSoto, 1957 Hudson, Nash, and Rambler, and 1956 Plymouth.
Two of these were used on the 1955 Chrysler C300, mounted atop the 331-cubic-inch Hemi engine. Dual WCFBs were also used on the similar 354 Hemi in the 300B, and then on the famed 392 cubic inch version used in the 1957 300C and 1958 300D (as well as other Chrysler Corporation cars).
When the “old Hemi” was replaced by the 413 Wedge engines at the top of the Chrysler line, the WCFB carburetor was replaced by the four-barrel Carter AFB. That name was to cause some question — “aluminum four barrel/bore” or “aluminum float bowl”? The general consensus is “Aluminum Four Barrel” despite a 1970s GM publication that claims “Aluminum Float Bowl,” partly due to the naming of the WCFB.
In any case, the AFB was launched in 1957; it had a lower height than the WCFB, all major castings were aluminum, and the throttle body was cast with the main body.
The AFB was used by AMC, Chrysler, General Motors, Ford, Studebaker, and Chris Craft boats; and is still made by Weber. Originals were identified by a triangular, aluminum ID tag on one of the fuel bowl screws. Plymouth, Dodge, and DeSoto (like GM) used a separate, heated “crossover” automatic choke on the manifold, while other Chrysler, Imperial, and other companies used a choke on the carburetor itself; all had the same air horn diameter (5 1/8 inches).
The AFB was well-designed for adjustments; the carburetor can remain on the car while the jets, floats, and metering rods are replaced, unlike similar Holleys, and both jets and metering rods are numbered, with the rods showing four digits — the first two for the normal diameter, the second two for the power diameter. The piston, step-up rods, and springs could even be replaced without taking off the air horn.
The system used a counterweighted air valve to slow the opening of the secondaries; it was effective but one could not adjust the time it took for the secondaries to open.
From 1968 to 1971, Carter sold a carburetor named after its air-valve-actuated secondaries (the AVS, or “Air Valve Secondaries”) — which did allow owners to tune the time it took to open the secondaries. The AVS was a better design on the street, and would later be brought back by Edelbrock.
Hemi Andersen wrote: “When people buy performance carburetors these days, they buy a lot of the Edelbrock, which is the old Carter. They are shinier and prettier now but most are the AVS (Air Valve Secondary) type as I recall. I don't see a lot of Thermoquads except on ‘original’ survivors. When people replace Thermoquads, it is usually to ‘spread bore’ Holley carbs.”
The final Chrysler use of four-barrel Carter carburetors was the Thermoquad (“TQ”), which used a lightweight plastic body, and was used in the most powerful Mopars. The Carters were still generally seen as less “finicky” than the Holleys, but the plastic portions were known to crumble. The company still used Carter BBS and BBD carburetors on its non-performance engines, along with Holleys, depending on the year.
The historic Carter factory closed in 1984, along with Carter itself. Jeep continued to use the Carter BBD carburetor on its 4.2 liter (258 cubic inch) six cylinders in the CJ and Wrangler series, right until the 1990 model year. Since the factory had closed, these carburetors must either have been built and stored, or produced by another supplier from the original molds. The latter may be more likely, since various other Carter carburetors were later produced by Weber and Edelbrock.
With the rise of electronic fuel injection, accelerating in the early 1980s, carburetors became obsolete; even before then, Holley had been undercutting the company. American Car and Foundry shut down the Carter Carburetor foundry in 1985, a year later ceding the PCB-contaminated property to the City of St. Louis.
The last Carter carburetors were used by Chrysler in 1984. For the 1985 model year, the ThermoQuad was replaced by the Rochester Quadra-Jet; and the BBD was replaced by the Holley 6280. The BBS had already been replaced by Holleys in the early 1970s.
The original Carter AFB designs are still in production, by Edelbrock; they are sold both directly and through Mopar Performance. In 2015, Hemmings announced that St. Louis was demolishing the Carter plant, a long delayed action because of various toxic wastes found in the plant and nearby soil; $30 million of the costs came from ACF and the site’s controller.
Mike Muenz visited the site on August 28, 2015. He wrote that Carter Carburetor Corporation in north St. Louis was bordered by Grand Boulevard on the east, Dodier Street on the north, Spring Avenue on the west, and Cass Avenue on the south. These were taken with a 2004 HP Photosmart 2004.
Some Carter carburetors used by Chrysler, 1974 onwards:
Thanks for Kevin for reminding us that Jeep also used Carters, and to Peter Doll for loaning us his Carter AVS.
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