Behold, the carburetor — the mere mention of which will likely fill your soul with either nostalgia or fear. Thanks to emissions regulations, automakers began to give up their carburetor addiction in the 1980s, and there are now two entire generations of motorists who think that "pump twice and crank" is something they wouldn’t want their mothers to catch them doing.
Contrary to popular belief, carburetors are relatively simple and well-behaved devices, though some of the early attempts to get carbureted cars to comply with emissions regs were disastrous, resulting in hard starting and bad running. Although some late-model "feedback" carburetors can be difficult to tune, the truth is that even the worst carburetors aren’t all that terrible. If you see someone pumping away at the accelerator while furiously cranking a carbureted engine that won’t fire, chances are they simply don’t know what they’re doing. (Remember, pump twice and crank — and be patient.)
While researching a story on the Subaru Justy, often regarded as the last carbureted car sold in America, I began to see conflicting reports about how long carbureted cars actually lasted. I decided to delve in and find out.
Before we begin, a little note on the technology: When I say carburetor, I’m talking about the mechanical device that uses air pressure to draw fuel into the engine — this as opposed to throttle-body injection (TBI) units, which look like carburetors but use a single injector mounted in the throttle body. A TBI unit usually bolts into place like a carburetor (hence its appeal to automakers, as it didn’t require serious modification of the engine), and I’ve heard some people refer to it as a carburetor — but it isn’t.
As I mentioned a moment ago, the Interwebs often credit the 1990 Subaru Justy as the last car sold in American with a carburetor. Certainly 1990 was the year that the carburetor was reaching the end of the line; even humble Hyundai, still known for the cheap-and-crappy Excel, switched to fuel injection in mid-’89 for their 1990 models.
But claiming the ’90 Justy was the last carbureted car may not be justified. In 1990, General Motors was still installing carbureted V8s in Oldsmobile and Buick station wagons. And believe it or not, Honda was one of the last carburetor hold-outs: Despite being a relatively early adopter of multiport fuel injection in the 1980s, the base-model Prelude had carburetors — not just one, but two! — for the 1990 model year, though production was terminated early to make way for the all-new ’91 Prelude (which, of course, featured fuel injection across the line).
Although Chrysler was pretty much done with carbureted cars by 1990 — even the ancient Omni/Horizon twins got TBI for their last year of production — they kept a carbureted engine in the Jeep Grand Wagoneer until 1991. And while Ford switched most of its vehicles (even trucks) to fuel injection in the 1980s, they offered a carbureted version of the Crown Victoria P72 (the predecessor of the Police Interceptor) through the 1991 model year.
By 1994, as far as I can tell, all passenger cars sold in the United States had some form of electronic fuel injection. Most trucks, too, but there was one exception: the Isuzu Pickup. If you bought the base-level 2-wheel-drive model, you got a 96-horsepower 2.3-liter engine with a 2-barrel carburetor. This engine would get fuel injection for the 1995 model year, making the 1994 Isuzu Pickup — so far as I can tell — the last carbureted vehicle sold in North America. Find a used car for sale