Carburetor Classics: The Notorious Stromberg 97
Fueling the hot rod movement, then and now
From the dawn of hot rodding to the present day, one carburetor has always been synonymous with traditional hot rods—the Stromberg Model 97. Although the Stromberg Company built millions of other carburetors from the 1930s to 1974, the Model 97 stood out as the carburetor that fed the hot rod movement.
Stromberg really got off the ground in 1934 when Ford replaced the single-barrel Detroit Lubricator carburetor on its V-8 engines with a two-barrel Stromberg Model 40. The Model 48 followed in 1935, and then the Model 97 became standard on Ford flathead V-8s from 1936 to early 1938.
Variants of the 97 included the visually similar but smaller Model 81 that was standard on the 1937 Ford V-8-60 base engine. And the Stromberg Type 1 was an aftermarket version of the 97 that was sold by Bendix (which bought Stromberg in 1929). There were also similar models built for other manufacturers such as Studebaker and Packard, so there definitely was no shortage of Strombergs in the 1950s.
Hot rodders were just coming to grips with engine modifications in the late 1940s and early 1950s. They understood that as they increased displacement or added hotter cams, they would need more fuel and air squirted in the top. In those innocent days most racers didn't have a clue as to how to convince more air to flow into the heads, so they just added more carburetors on top. The Stromberg was an ideal tool for this job.
Early performance intake manifolds were designed to mount multiple Strombergs. Most common on hot street flatheads were two-carb manifolds, but serious racers used three or more. As bigger OHV engines from Chrysler and Cadillac appeared on the scene, manifolds mounting up to six carbs became common. These "log" manifolds (so named for their round shape) were flow-bench disasters, but they were better than nothing. They may have produced flat spots in the power curve and little low-end power, but they looked really awesome. Popping the hood to ogle six Strombergs gasping for breath was a stirring sight at many a drive-in on a Friday night.
The Stromberg was an ideal candidate for rodding because it was dead simple. There was nothing tricky about the 97s, so they worked well in multiple carburetor setups when connected with progressive linkages.
In 1938 Ford replaced the Stromberg with the cheaper Chandler-Grove two-barrel carb, which from 1939 on was made by Holley. These carburetors were actually superior to the 97s in single-carb applications, but they did not work as well when teamed-up on multi-carb manifolds, racers therefore stuck with their tried and trusted Strombergs.
Soon the burgeoning aftermarket performance industry developed go-fast goodies for the lowly 97. Modified air horns, air scoops and filters were common. In the 1950s multiple-carb manifolds were made by companies such as Edelbrock, Offenhauser, Weiand, Edmunds, Navarro and dozens of others.
By the early 1960s however most racers were switching to single or dual four-barrel carburetors. Both Rochester and Holley developed two-barrel carbs superior to the now outdated Stromberg for triple two-barrel applications found on the early Pontiac GTO and the L-89 Corvette. By 1970 the sight of a Stromberg on any hot rod was occasion for feeling nostalgic.
But nostalgia can be a powerful force to stop, and in the 1990s a new movement took hold in the hot rod hobby. Disgusted with the high-dollar "billet" rods so popular in the 1970s and 1980s, some rod builders constructed "rat rods" that hearkened back to the dawn of rodding. Although their bodies were in some cases made of modern fiberglass, they were painted to look rusty.
Traditional engine choices like flathead Fords, Buicks and Cadillacs began to appear in place of the usual small-block Chevys and Fords. Some rod builders began to aim one level up from the rat rods to build replicas of 1950s magazine "cover cars" with period paint schemes and nicely detailed antique speed equipment. With these blasts from the past came the re-emergence of the Stromberg 97.
Although tons of Strombergs have survived, most have had hard lives. Corrosion and abuse have taken their toll on the supply, leading to specialty shops that perform miracles to rescue old 97s.
Custom air horns and air cleaners for Strombergs are once again on the market. There is even a company tooling up to re-introduce new Strombergs for nostalgia rodders. Perhaps the best tribute to the 97 is a new aftermarket electronic fuel injection system that looks outwardly like a 97 and can be mounted on old multiple-carb manifolds. The Stromberg 97, in all its guises, refuses to go quietly!
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