TONY WHELAN shakes his head when he contemplates a career that could very easily have fizzled out many years ago, like it did for so many others. Back in the early eighties, with a freshly completed general mechanic apprenticeship under his proverbial belt, he applied for a new job. It was with Muller & Jacka, the once huge and moderately famous carburettor business in sunny Melbourne.
Things were different then. “Old Mr Muller was in his seventies then,” recalls Tony. “He was a great old guy and taught me a lot. He came from a time when a lot of parts just weren’t available, so you had to make them. He showed me how.”
Over the years, however, cars changed, fuel injection took over completely, and it looked like it was over for carburettor mechanics. Tony recalls a lot of people left the business. Somehow he ended up swimming in the opposite direction, running his own carburettor shop and at times buying out the stock of other businesses as they closed.
“You become a bit of a hoarder,” he confesses, “It’s a disease.” Nevertheless it’s one that can pay off, as the ‘hoard’ is often dipped into to fix something that can’t be sorted with off-the-shelf bits.
The most recent progression was buying out Wilson Carburettor Service in Airport West, about four years ago. That was a big step, where he effectively went from working most of the time on his own, to sharing the load with a team – and a very experienced one.
Of course, in the last decade or so the business has changed beyond recognition. With the whole interest in classic cars and restoring growing at an astonishing rate, his skills are more in demand than ever. Not only has the volume grown, but the variety has, too. What era do they now cover? “Anything from 1920s-on,” he says, “And, strangely, we’re now also getting a lot of classic tractor stuff coming in. We never say no, and will always have a go at it. We can figure it out.” Scan the walls, and you’re confronted with a baffling array of parts, most designed decades ago. Some of them are newly-manufactured, while many are new-old stock.
And while they look simple enough, there are often detail traps for young players, says Tony. “For example, a manufacturer might have made a design change from one year to another and not really told anyone,” he says. That’s a trap for would-be repairers now, and sometimes even aftermarket parts manufacturers. As a result his crew members, which can claim a long way north of a century of combined experience, often find themselves offering advice to people who are in an unexpected pickle over an allegedly ‘simple’ rebuild.
In between the lathe and the dyno sits his favourite diagnostic and checking tool, an old Holden red motor they do use for doublechecking a carb build. A lot of jobs are sent in and out as parcels and this supplies a chance to give a build a real-world run. “It’s the tool from heaven,” says Tony. “Even with my experience, you’ll occasionally discover something you didn’t spot on the bench.”
When it comes to looking after a fuel system, Tony has some pretty simple advice. First use good fuel. He suggests BP is currently the pick, and has been for a while. Next, have nice fresh fuel and air filters. Last, drive it.
“Once a fortnight, warm it up and take it for a run at least around the block. You’d be surprised at how many problems that will avoid. Really, if you let them sit in the shed, you’re killing them with kindness.” He’s also a fan of making sure you get some fresh fuel into the car on a regular basis, as modern fuels go stale very quickly.
So what does the owner of a carburettor shop drive day today? His regular steer is a Holden Redline ute, built in the last few weeks of production. He figures he spends enough time thinking about and fixing other people’s vehicles, so it’s good to rely on something that’s collectible and young enough to be fuss-free. Fair enough.
Tony Whelan Phone 03 9330 3216
13/16-18 Marshall Rd Airport West Vic