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Electronic ignition installation

Electronic ignition is one of the great innovations in the history of the automobile. Transistorized ignition came along in the early 1960s as a means of reducing and eliminating misfire, primarily in high-performance applications. However, it wasn’t until the early 1970s when automakers began installing electronic ignitions as original equipment to help reduce emissions, improve fuel economy and lower maintenance costs. Electronic ignition typically consists of a magnetic pickup coil inside the distributor, an external control unit, ignition coil and ignition wires. The pickup coil and control unit perform the same basic function as points.

Inside view of an electronic ignition

Benefits of an electronic ignition

Although an electronic ignition might seem complex, it’s not that hard to install one in your vintage automobile. You may opt for factory electronic ignition or go with one of the aftermarket systems available today. Either way, you get a hot spark, fierce reliability, improved performance and better fuel economy by ditching your old point-triggered ignition system.

Factory electronic ignitions offer the greatest durability and performance when they’re installed properly. Aftermarket electronic ignitions tend to be easier to install and can be hidden once installed. Most factory electronic ignitions get their power from the ignition switch via a straight lead or resistor (resistor wire or ballast resistor). Some automakers call for a 0.8 to 1.6 ohm resistor wire between the ignition switch and coil, or you may go with a ballast resistor like you see with other ignition systems. As long as you use some form of required resistance, you’re set.

The majority of ignition systems consist of the distributor with a magnetic pickup multiplex plug that ties it to the module. An ignition coil with easy clip-on painless harness makes the conversion a no-brainer. Color-coded wiring and detailed instructions also make this easier. Many factory point-triggered ignition systems have either a resistor power wire or a ballast resistor. If you’re going with an aftermarket ignition, you may have to bypass this resistor wire and get power right off the ignition switch.

When you opt for a factory electronic ignition system, you’re going to need compatible components, including the ignition coil and heavy-duty wires. Spark plugs will need to be compatible with high-energy ignition systems and have larger gaps in the .050-inch+ range depending on the manufacturer. Ideally, you will go with platinum tip plugs and virtually never have to disturb them again.

Five-step electronic ignition installation

Hand removing the vacuum advance from an electronic ignition

Step 1: Vacuum advance is disconnected and removed first.

Hand removing an electronic ignition breaker plate assembly

Step 2: The breaker plate assembly is removed with two screws and disconnection of the negative coil lead. At this time, check the vacuum advance for proper function.

Inspecting an electronic ignition centrifugal advance

Step 3: The centrifugal advance function and proper assembly is inspected.

Hands installing a new electronic ignition breaker plate assembly

Step 4: We’re installing a new breaker plate assembly for optimum function. The red and black lead through a common grommet and need to clear the breaker plate and rotor. This breaker plate provides a plastic gap gauge to set air gap.

Leads being crimped and insulated on an electronic ignition

Step 5: Leads are crimped with heat-shrink insulation. Red goes to the positive side of the coil and black goes to the negative side. Follow the instructions on your lead because some applications have a resistor or resistor wire and the ground strip inside the distributor must be connected.

Always practice good safety behaviors when working on motor vehicles. To help prevent injuries, use appropriate personal protective equipment, which may include safety gloves, goggles, helmets and shoes.
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