STEPHEN BAYLEY THE AESTHETE
The word ‘carburettor’ is now almost extinct in everyday life. Thus it joins ‘amarulence’ (bitterness) and ‘sinapistic’ (containing mustard) in a treasury of neglect. It occurred to me that I scarcely knew what a carburettor is. Or I should say ‘was’. They belong to the past, just like real chauffeurs whose original job, from the French for ‘heat’, was to warm-up primitive engines.
predates the automobile and, according to the Oxford English Dictionary was first used in #1866
, exactly 20 years before Benz’s #Motorwagen
patent. A carburettor was an apparatus for passing hydrogen, coal gas or air over a liquid hydrocarbon so as to produce what the lexicologists delightfully described as ‘illuminating power’.
There is a wonderful poetic vocabulary associated with illuminating power, now fading into memory. Downdraught, butterfly valves, float-chamber, choke, throttle jets, flooding and backfire. I specially remember flooding. Although I was completely ignorant of Bernoulli’s Principle - the one that says ‘in flowing air, speed and pressure work inversely’, and which governs carburettor design - I spent hours under the bonnet of my old #MG
trying to balance its erratic twin SUs.
This is why I am feeling nostalgic. Carburettors evoke an age when you could look at an engine and read its function. My MG’s A-series was like a child’s diagram of the laws of physics. You could see that air came in one side, got mixed with fuel on its way into the cylinder head where, by way of a controlled explosion, it produced that illuminating power whose residue escaped as smelly hot gas out of the other side. It was elemental, even primal, and very satisfying, aesthetically speaking.
Carburettors spoke a visual language all of their own. The pleasant, rounded domes of the classic #SU
seemed to suggest English correctness, even a slight primness since they disguised some of its functions. Altogether more feral was the Amal sidedraught carburettor used on JAP-engined Cooper Formula 3 cars and Triumph Bonneville bikes. It seemed erotically assertive: a mechanical proposition with sexual suggestion. Visually it said raw power. You could almost hear it hiss.
Or look at a vast four-barrel Holley carburettor, as gross as a piece of military equipment, the sort you might find on a US muscle car with a Muncie four-on-the-floor and lake pipes painted matt white. How could such gigantic apparatus be anything other than American? A Holley says four-hundred-cubic-inch gurgling, molecule-bashing V8.
But most evocative of all is a Ferrari V12 with its martial row of six pairs of glittering downdraught Webers. Their arrogant air trumpets strut themselves and suck-in the atmosphere like the most rampant gigolo. Such a display (and it is a display) of seductive, proud, ridiculous excess could only be from Emilia- Romagna, just as an SU could only be from Birmingham.
In #1991 #Ferrari
organised an exhibition in Florence’s Belvedere, with its greatest cars in vast Plexiglass boxes, floodlit against a renaissance backdrop. The exhibition catalogue had gravure illustrations of the greatest Ferrari engines. Whenever I am quizzed about my fascination with cars and asked how I reconcile it with a strict training in academic art history, I reach for a gravure illustration of the #1967 #Dino
206SP’s 65° V6 and its three pairs of #Weber
40DCN/4 carburettors to make my point. I really do not know anything more beautiful.
No-one makes a car with a carburettor today. Ford supplied the last Crown Victoria Police Cruiser (a personal favourite) fitted with a carburettor to the NYPD in 1991. The very last car with a carburettor was, and no surprises here, a 2006 Lada. Meanwhile, Weber ended production in Italy in 1992 and Holley went bust in 2008.
Today we have fuel injection. Its advantages have long been known: in the Second World War, #Rolls-Royce
Merlin engines withcarburettors suffered fuelstarvation in extreme manoeuvres, while the injected #BMW
engines of the Luftwaffe maintained fuel flow even pulling out of steep dives. Of course, fuel injection is technically superior; mandatory catalytic converters require its precision and on-board diagnostics demand systems with microchip-powered reporting ability. You don’t get that sort of thing from imprecise, messy and temperamental carburettors. That’s why they are so wonderful.
AMAL’S SIDE-DRAUGHT CARBURETTOR SEEMED EROTICALLY ASSERTIVE: A MECHANICAL PROPOSITION WITH SEXUAL SUGGESTION
Author, critic, consultant, broadcaster, debater and curator Stephen co-created the Boilerhouse Project at London's V&A, was chief executive of The Design Museum, and fell out with Peter Mandelson when he told him the Millennium Dome ‘could turn out to be crap'.