Charles Johns

Points vs electronics in older cars

Recommended Posts

I am a newbie to this site but a car builder for 50 years. I love old cars antique or hot rodded. Though I retired years ago I still build for me and I write for the Mustang 6-cylinder Association on line. On thing that seems to be over-discussed by people who do not really know is ignitions. Points work great up to about 5000 RPM, and actually can stay with HEI up to 7000 RPM. So why did the auto industry switch to electronically triggered ignitions? When fuel injection went from mechanical to electronics and computers were used to control emissions, it was easy to control spark the same way. Now fuel/air mixture, timing, and emissions could be under one system the engineers could design, and with the interior heat and AC being controlled also, why not throw in the suspension and ride comfort. Computers is why points went the way of the dinosaur. My degree is in electronics, and I spent 20 years chasing electrons in home entertainment equipment while I built cars as a hobby. Understanding better than most both systems, I began to look at them from a simple "which is better" view. Points are old Kettering mechanics from 100 years ago, while electronics is the New Kid On The Block. Electronics can be more accurate at higher RPM and under much higher pressures, but is it BETTER? Points make a LONG spark compared to electronics, which means, as the mixture swirls around the combustion chamber points have a better chance to fire the mixture. That is why MSD was invented...to simulate the longer points spark. By using the best available parts (points, condenser, rotor, cap, wires, and plugs), plus installing a hotter coil with a low ohms ignition resistor (slightly more primary volts makes more output), and using almost no resistance copper wires to feed the platinum plugs, we get a hotter spark than OEM. Remember, if the plugs will fire with 15,000 to 20,000 volts, THAT is all the system needs, and your 50,000 volts Super Whammy Double Throw-down Flame Thrower coil is a waste. In my 1965 Mustang 6-cylinder automatic, I use BWD Select parts because they use the best available materials. I have an ACCEL 8140 42,000 volts coil feeding solid copper wires that are not recommended for electronics. Plugs are gaped at .038" and timing is at 12 degrees. This is NOT to bad mouth electronics...I made a good living with it for two decades, but just because it is old does not mean it is bad. In fact, we can improve it with today's better materials. I hope this sheds light on the constant debate about old points and new electronics...though I do run a Pertronix in my dizzy sometimes...though I keep points and condenser in the glove box when I venture far from home.

IMG_1742.JPG

IMG_1743.JPG

  • Thanks 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Posted (edited)

People forget that HEI and similar electronic ignition systems were developed in response to EPA requirements that new cars meet emissions requirements after 50,000 miles (and later 100,000 miles) without any service.  The coil in the original HEI systems started to break down at 4,000 RPM, never mind 7,000.  The higher voltage was to avoid misfire in lean mixtures being introduced for emissions reasons in the early 1970s. The reality is that "normal" electronic ignition systems provide no benefit over properly maintained points.  Sure, if you get into higher-end crank trigger systems where you can tailor timing and spark properties on individual cylinders, that's different. I'm talking about the common systems that simply replace points.  The spark plugs neither know nor care if the spark is triggered by electronics or by a mechanical switch (points). All they know is that the coil primary circuit was broken, collapsing the magnetic field in the coil and triggering a spark. People claim that their expensive electronic distributor upgrade improved performance mainly because they are replacing a worn original distributor with pitted points with a new electronic distributor.  Obviously it will run better under that situation. Of course, their "butt dyno" will always indicate a performance improvement if they have invested significant coin. I'll admit that I have converted some of my older cars to electronic, not for the performance increase but because I am lazy. 😁

Edited by joe_padavano (see edit history)
  • Like 2

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

If you have points ignition and want to soup it up a bit you can add an electronic module. I like the Ford thick film module from the 90s, but have also used the old Chrysler module that dates to the early 70s. Both will work with points, they draw very little current in the trigger circuit so the points do not burn. With this system your points will last indefinitely, you only need to check and adjust the gap as the rubbing block wears down. If properly lubricated, checking the dwell every year or 2 is plenty. MSD makes an ignition that will work with points if you have room for it.

 

I even have a couple of the old Mark 10 modules from the sixties.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Posted (edited)

I was doing EPA certification for my company at that time of the transition to electronic ignition and fuel injection. Manufactures were very worried about fires with catalytic converters should a misfire occur. We found that test cars with HEI ignitions would surpass point ignition system when  ignition systems start to fail.

Example a colleague brought a car to me that had been doctored with. The car had HEI, ran fine and even passed emission test, but when I hooked the car up to a oscilloscope one cylinder was firing at not the usual 8-10 KV , but at 40KV. Cap and rotor and wires were fine, the spark plug however had lost the ground strap and the electrode were gone or should I say looked like they melted away. A point type of ignition coil would never be able to cope and jump a spark like the HEI did. This was the main reason for HEI.

 

A popular myth; I have many friends that have switched to HEI ( that's a general term ) and think that once that it's installed there is no maintenance. HEI requires the same maintenance interval as a point ignition system. You still need to pull the distributor and check the bearings/or bushings, clean the mechanical advance weights and lubricate them, remove the module and clean the mounting plate, apply new ( once a year) dielectric grease for the transfer of heat from the module to the plate and reset timing and idle speed. The time required is the same if you were changing points and condenser.

Since that time manufacturers have now gone to the direct approach eliminating wires and distributors for a even less to go wrong approach.

 

 I like both old systems and there is nothing wrong with the old point system for people like myself that are always on top of things when it come to their cars. In my estimation it's a waste of time installing a HEI in the place of a point ignition if your a car guy or a guy that has his maintenance done at regular intervals by people who know these old cars and what to look and check for.

Edited by Pfeil (see edit history)
  • Like 3

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

All my collector cars have Pertronix units. The oldest is almost 20 years. No more laying on my belly over the engine hoping I don't damage the car or myself. No more dropping that small tool never to be seen again (please God don't let it be in the distributor hole). No special or fussy components. And so far (knock on wood) ZERO problems or issues. Do any of my cars run slightly better or worse performance wise? Who knows or cares?............Bob

  • Thanks 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
1 hour ago, Bhigdog said:

All my collector cars have Pertronix units. The oldest is almost 20 years. No more laying on my belly over the engine hoping I don't damage the car or myself. No more dropping that small tool never to be seen again (please God don't let it be in the distributor hole). No special or fussy components. And so far (knock on wood) ZERO problems or issues. Do any of my cars run slightly better or worse performance wise? Who knows or cares?............Bob

 

 You still have to do this with Pertronix ;

As said in my above post,

You still need to pull the distributor and check the bearings/or bushings, clean the mechanical advance weights and lubricate them, remove the module and clean the mounting plate, apply new ( once a year) dielectric grease for the transfer of heat from the module to the plate and reset timing and idle speed. The time required is the same if you were changing points and condenser.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Posted (edited)
1 hour ago, Pfeil said:

 

 You still have to do this with Pertronix ;

As said in my above post,

You still need to pull the distributor and check the bearings/or bushings, clean the mechanical advance weights and lubricate them, remove the module and clean the mounting plate, apply new ( once a year) dielectric grease for the transfer of heat from the module to the plate and reset timing and idle speed. The time required is the same if you were changing points and condenser.

You say that "needs" to be done once a year.

I,d be interested to see a show of hands of guys that actually perform the mentioned tasks.

One possible down side of pertronix units is that they demand little or no maintenance so other dist elements might get neglected although i,m thinking that a yearly cycle is a bit over kill. Just sayin.

I,m an agnostic vis a vis points vs solid state. They both work just fine but the ease of SS use works for me......bob

Edited by Bhigdog (see edit history)
  • Thanks 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
2 hours ago, Bhigdog said:

You say that "needs" to be done once a year.

I,d be interested to see a show of hands of guys that actually perform the mentioned tasks.

One possible down side of pertronix units is that they demand little or no maintenance so other dist elements might get neglected although i,m thinking that a yearly cycle is a bit over kill. Just sayin.

I,m an agnostic vis a vis points vs solid state. They both work just fine but the ease of SS use works for me......bob

Yes! and a lot more than just the tune up bit if you want a safe non mishap car for the year.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Since I started this discussion I will make it even more interesting. I am building a 1967 Sunbeam Alpine with a 1985 Ford 2.3 with overdrive automatic. One reason for getting serious about ignitions was the 85 distributor. Several times on trips with groups, the electronics guys had ignition troubles due to heat...this is Texas. But points guys spark never stopped...but we did stop to help our modern guys fix their newer system. Obviously they learned to put the module in the interior of the car to keep it from failing. I build my own dizzy and use points because it works, and those who say electronics starts quicker in cold weather must not know how to set points. My 1932 Ford rumble seat coupe with 289 and points, would start before you could get your fingers off the key. The motor was built for daily driving, though it was a feature car in Performance Cars magazine in 1976. For the 1985 2.3 I built a points plate for the newer distributor case just to see how it will work. I love newer electronics TV's, FI modern engines, home security systems, cell phones, etc. but upgrading an old SIMPLE points system with modern parts just seems like a way to move into the 21st century with fewer headaches. BTW, I still have a flip-phone and have not turned it on in days. Digital is cool but analog is simple and gets the job done. OH, don't try to explain to a youngster what a "Dwell Meter" is...he will look at you like your head is full of potato chips. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
4 minutes ago, Charles Johns said:

 OH, don't try to explain to a youngster what a "Dwell Meter" is...he will look at you like your head is full of potato chips. 

 

But that youngster won't need a Dwell meter....:)  And if he did use one, that meter needle would be rock steady.

 

Unfortunately with some vehicles, electronic modules, like Pertronix are becoming the only options when points are hard to find. And to the casual non techie bloke, it looks very original under the bonnet.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
6 hours ago, Bhigdog said:

And so far (knock on wood) ZERO problems or issues

 

Now you've done it, Bob, better start carrying points plate fully loaded in the glove box! 😃

 

In the Corvair world Pertronix failures are a known issue. Rare, but known, so always recommended to carry the old points plate ready to install on the side of the road.  And Carb King says to put the points back in before blaming the carburetor for idle issues.😉  

 

 

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Posted (edited)

Two of the 7  antique cars I own have GM HEI, actually the Pontiac is a modified collector car. I still do the once a year maintenance as I described in my above thread, but I must tell you these units are reliable units. The first one is a 1969 H-O Pontiac LeMans that I bought new.  In 1992 I built the car for Grand Touring and it received along with a Pontiac 455 that I built-a HEI distributor. Never a problem with this ignition or module in 27 years.

 The second is a 1976 Olds Omega that I also bought new. Being a car with catalyst it came from the factory with GM HEI. This car with 115,000 miles and Forty Three Years later still uses it's original module.

 If you pull the distributor, check it clean it, remove the old dielectric grease and install new grease to provide a good heat sink for the module, check the vacuum advance, clean the mechanical advance weights and lubricate,  these things will last a very long time.

 

If you don't replace the dielectric grease once a year it hardens and won't transfer heat from the module to the plate and this is what causes them to open circuit and fail. If you don't check and lube the mechanical advance weights they start sticking throwing off your advance curve, changing your idle speed and high speed performance etc. If you don't check the vacuum advance and it stops working your mileage and low to mid range performance suffer. These things need to be checked with POINTS or HEI.

 

If you own a GM car with Points and want to go the HEI route Use a GM HEI Distributor and forget the aftermarket stuff.

Edited by Pfeil (see edit history)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Pfeil has a good post. Because owners are told HEI and electronics do NOT need maintenance, they do NOT do maintenance. Mechanical things need maintenance, vacuum needs to be checked to make sure it SUCKS, and moving parts usually need lubrication. Vacuum hoses crack and come lose, and wires get brittle. One reason I don't mind checking points is I like looking under the hood now and then...problem or not. One thing a friend did years ago for his Nash was cross-reference his points to a different car. He found a much later one that worked...but he had a distinct advantage...he worked in an Auto parts store. It took days but he found one that would substitute then bought several. Anyone have a reference with pictures of points?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
1 hour ago, Charles Johns said:

Pfeil has a good post. Because owners are told HEI and electronics do NOT need maintenance, they do NOT do maintenance. Mechanical things need maintenance, vacuum needs to be checked to make sure it SUCKS, and moving parts usually need lubrication. Vacuum hoses crack and come lose, and wires get brittle. One reason I don't mind checking points is I like looking under the hood now and then...problem or not. One thing a friend did years ago for his Nash was cross-reference his points to a different car. He found a much later one that worked...but he had a distinct advantage...he worked in an Auto parts store. It took days but he found one that would substitute then bought several. Anyone have a reference with pictures of points?

Good point about cross referencing points. I use that technique with oil filters as in ever notice especially on newer cars the teeny tiny oil filters??? you can and I do find larger capacity filters that fit those engine but have up to 1/2 more filtering and oil  capacity.

 

Charles, Speaking of cross referencing, you know that 200 cu. in. six in that mustang? why not try the Ford revised six that came out in 1969 in the Mustang and was seen in Granada- Monarch and many other Ford products. It's 250 Cu.In. and has like the Gen3 Chevrolet 194-215-230-250-292 and the 65 and later 200" Ford six SEVEN main bearings!    

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Pfeil, my 200 six has 7 main bearings, is bored .060", has a 2-barrel adapter,(will soon have a 1973 200 head modified for direct 2-bbl mounting), Autolite 2100 carb, hotter ignition, free-flowing exhaust and fabricated cool-air intake. This is Texas, there are no cold-air intakes. With 2.83 rear gears and 26.3" tall rear tires it gets 25 MPG at 75 MPH on the highway with 2 corn-fed old people inside. That 7 main bearing engine came out in 65 when the 170 was swapped for the 200 as the base engine. The body is restored but modified to my taste. The suspension has many poly bushings, a rear sway-bar, gas shocks, front discs, stiffer GT springs and is lowered 1 inch. A real fun car to drive with factory air, nice stereo, extra insulation, new seat foam and covers. The 250 is just a 200 stroked and it is taller, causing hood clearance issues. If I really was wanting to Hot Rod it, a 240 (de-stroked 300) would be my choice. I am the six-cylinder go-to guy on the M6A page on-line (Mustang 6-Cylinder Association) called "Old Geezer" in the news letter. For 50 years I built cars frame-up and had a millionaire car guy build me a 4-bay shop in my backyard so I could build just for him, which I did for several years. Married to the same woman for over 53 years, and she loves riding shotgun reading her books while I drive all over the US in a car I built. I went to Elkins Institute to get my little degree in electronics, I am an ASE Certified mechanic, a federally licensed gunsmith, retired from a city where I was shop superintendent working on all emergency equipment, police department guns, and was the city photographer. Once they learned I took pictures of cars/motorcycles (I had 2-35mm SLR cameras with extra lenses), they made me city photographer...no pay increase but I got to keep my job. The LH-6 on the hood stands for Long Haul 6-Cylinder and the other shot is at a distillery in Tennessee for an M6A gathering. I build drivers and God has blessed me tremendously! 

IMG_1947.JPG

IMG_2033.JPG

  • Thanks 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I look at your question of mechanical vs electronic simply from a diagnostic view. As I believe both are reliable. With any type of mechanical item you can see wear and you can see burned and with experience you can learn what caused burned and make the required repair and eliminate a possible future repair possibly under warranty. With electronic they are usually sealed making it hard to see what inside failed. Making it hard to learn the difference between poor manufacturing and other problems with the vehicle that caused the failure. I will always recommend to the novice or newbie to the old car hobby or car repair in general that they keep the mechanical parts and learn how to spot worn vs burned and what can cause each part to burn. That was how I was taught at 14, by my dad and grandad, while learning to rebuild starters and generators in the family business. It wasn't until I had a couple of years under my belt that they gave me an alternator, with its electronics, to rebuild. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
2 hours ago, Charles Johns said:

Pfeil, my 200 six has 7 main bearings, is bored .060", has a 2-barrel adapter,(will soon have a 1973 200 head modified for direct 2-bbl mounting), Autolite 2100 carb, hotter ignition, free-flowing exhaust and fabricated cool-air intake. This is Texas, there are no cold-air intakes. With 2.83 rear gears and 26.3" tall rear tires it gets 25 MPG at 75 MPH on the highway with 2 corn-fed old people inside. That 7 main bearing engine came out in 65 when the 170 was swapped for the 200 as the base engine. The body is restored but modified to my taste. The suspension has many poly bushings, a rear sway-bar, gas shocks, front discs, stiffer GT springs and is lowered 1 inch. A real fun car to drive with factory air, nice stereo, extra insulation, new seat foam and covers. The 250 is just a 200 stroked and it is taller, causing hood clearance issues. If I really was wanting to Hot Rod it, a 240 (de-stroked 300) would be my choice. I am the six-cylinder go-to guy on the M6A page on-line (Mustang 6-Cylinder Association) called "Old Geezer" in the news letter. For 50 years I built cars frame-up and had a millionaire car guy build me a 4-bay shop in my backyard so I could build just for him, which I did for several years. Married to the same woman for over 53 years, and she loves riding shotgun reading her books while I drive all over the US in a car I built. I went to Elkins Institute to get my little degree in electronics, I am an ASE Certified mechanic, a federally licensed gunsmith, retired from a city where I was shop superintendent working on all emergency equipment, police department guns, and was the city photographer. Once they learned I took pictures of cars/motorcycles (I had 2-35mm SLR cameras with extra lenses), they made me city photographer...no pay increase but I got to keep my job. The LH-6 on the hood stands for Long Haul 6-Cylinder and the other shot is at a distillery in Tennessee for an M6A gathering. I build drivers and God has blessed me tremendously! 

IMG_1947.JPG

IMG_2033.JPG

Sounds like you'd be a perfect match to come to my part of the world, Prescott AZ.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Posted (edited)

Interesting thread, and the OP makes some good points about electronics.

 

However:

 

I seem to bring out the worst in anything electronic.😠

 

Joe made the comment about the government looking for 100k miles without failure. I have yet to experience 100k miles in ANY electronic ignitioned vehicle that had no electronic ignition failures.

Two examples:

 

(1) 1979 Ford van 440k miles on original engine - 13 electronic ignition failures. I carried TWO in the glove box!

(2) 1979 Ford Mustang, special order, always garaged, never seen snow, seen rain once 65k original miles, now on third electronic ignition (total failures)

 

On all newer personal vehicles with original electronics (includes immediate family and company) we AVERAGE a mean mileage to failure of about 30k miles with the electronics!

 

I won't try to convince anyone to stay with points, but personally, Hollywood will be covered by glaciers (think of the cliche) before I personally convert points to electronics.

 

Professionally:

 

We get many calls daily of enthusiasts with "carburetor issues". Generally, these are idle or hesitation.

 

If idle. our first question used to be "have you done a compression test?".

Now our first question is "have you installed a p-conversion"? If the answer is yes, we suggest the upgrade to points and condenser as a "test".

 

At least 50 per cent of those with "carburetor idle issues" and the pertronix call back to tell me points and condenser SOLVED the "carburetor issue".

 

So if you wish to use it, go ahead, but if an older vehicle that originally had a generator, do yourself a favor and upgrade to an alternator when you do the p-con.

 

 

Edited by carbking (see edit history)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

 

  Well, crap. This drug along enough that I HAVE to comment. 

  My '95 Park Avenue had about 125000 miles when first failure, the ignition module, happened. At 140,000+  , 2nd has not happened. 

  The '92 Roadmaster has all the original stuff. At 75,000.

   The '50 Special has an original distributor modified with the magnetic "doughnut" pick up and reluctor with the GM module mounted on a heat sink on the cowl. May fail tomorrow. Running well today, after 2 years. 

 

  Wanna talk about fuel systems?

 

  A debate that will never be agreed on, I imagine.   

 

  Red heads and brunettes?

 

  Ben

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Carb King, you reference two Ford vehicles built in the same year. Not a true indication of the electronic world in vehicles. Especially with those modules. And then there were the later thick film modules (mounted on the side of the distributor) that also failed now and then.

 

Look at GM systems from the 80s on. Not a whole lot of issues in our family or friends vehicles. Especially once they went to distributorless on the 3800 series. Sure, one of ours did have issues at about 80k, and needed an ignition module, but the others are waayyy past there. I've only out one distributor cap on my Chevy LT-1, and that was water pump failure, maybe about 120K.  Car now has 250K on it. Oh, yes, my 84 F-150 did have a Thick Film Module failure last year at 150K. The Module fell apart! Took it out in pieces! I guess some plastics just do not hold up well after 30+ years.☺️

 

Only one antique has electronic added, and that was already on there when I bought it. All the others run points.

 

I do agree with the old addage, 90% of carburetor failures are ignition....🤣

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Frank - those were only 2 examples.

 

Parents had a 1982 Buick with 3 failures in 82k miles, and a Chevrolet Citation (don't remember the year) that had 2 before the Missouri salt and cinders rusted it out (long before 100k). There are others. Knock on wood, but 1996 Ranger with 115k so far has only had 2, and a 2014 Explorer at 40k hasn't had any.

 

With the exception of the Buick & Citation of my parents, have no personal experience with makes other than Ford. 

 

Like I stated, if you like them fine; but my track record with electronics is lousy!

 

Jon.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 5/9/2019 at 7:06 PM, Pfeil said:

 

 You still have to do this with Pertronix ;

As said in my above post,

You still need to pull the distributor and check the bearings/or bushings, clean the mechanical advance weights and lubricate them, remove the module and clean the mounting plate, apply new ( once a year) dielectric grease for the transfer of heat from the module to the plate and reset timing and idle speed. The time required is the same if you were changing points and condenser.

I have never seen any of that listed as annual maintence

  • Thanks 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
6 hours ago, ted sweet said:

I have never seen any of that listed as annual maintence

Funny that you just mentioned this because today on my 1976 Oldsmobile ( which is not a daily driver) I performed my annual service which includes checking and performing maintenance on my HEI ignition system. My service manual does have this information in the tune up section of the HEI., however because the makers of my car probably never anticipated people collecting these cars and only putting limited miles a year the makers recommend miles between tune up service. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

Loading...