Automotive ignition systems have a simple job—toss a properly timed spark into a charged combustion chamber. But while the ignition systems of classic cars are generally simple to repair, a basic, points-style system can still be frustrating. With that in mind, let’s look at one critical part of that system—the condenser, a small component that is nonetheless key to keeping an engine working as it should.
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A mechanic friend of mine once told me that in an emergency, just slightly squash the condenser with a pair of pliers, pipe pliers or similar, and the condenser will operate again. I have never had to try it but he assured me that it will work.
45 years ago, the motor of my ‘72 Ford pinto failed just as I passed a truck near Marquette, Michigan. I pulled off the road, Opened the hood and didn’t find anything obvious, so I took the distributor cap off and found that the plastic peg of the newly-installed set of points had broken off. I fished around in my tool box, found the old set of points, installed them, set the gap and the car fired right up. Total down time was 15 minutes. Keep a spare set handy if you can.
Peter F, Akron, NY.
Memories of 1969. My first car. 1962 Chevy Biscayne, straight six, three-on-the-tree. Leaving work one day it starts fine but dies half way out of my parking spot. I use the starter to get out of the way. Popped the hood. No loose wires. A friend came to help. The Ford coil he brought didn't help. Had it towed to a mechanic. The Ford coil burned the end off of the points!!!!! Then he found it was the condenser. The lesson learned was ' keep the old parts when doing a tuneup' . And thanks for opening the condenser, never tried that myself.
I've been a professional mechanic for 50 years so remember well the points & condenser ignition. Seldom did a condenser fail so from the beginning of my career I was advised by experienced mechanics you're less likely have problems if you keep the old condenser and lived by that rule up to the last points & condenser tune up I did. Of course that is not to say condensers don't fail as is what this story points out. And as the story said, the new ones built in countries where quality isn't the standard means you are now more likely to get a defective part. So, the old adage is very important today, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Just because your US made condenser is old, don't replace it unless you have to. Then try to find a known good used or NOS parts if possible.
Refreshed a 1978 Suzuki GS1000 several years ago after 20 year slumber. Points were pitted so I replaced both points and condenser with aftermarket parts from well known supplier. Two weeks later left for 600 mile trip to Indy MOTOGP. 100 miles from home would not rev over 4000 RPM. Nursed for the rest of the trip and the points were pitted. Replaced with NOS Suzuki condenser and points and 5000 miles later all was good. Lesson learned.
Points and condensers, when I was 16 I was shown how to change them and told that whenever I did a tuneup I should put the old working condenser in the glove box with a screw driver, nail file, a book of matches, and a rag. I knew how set points to get me home with those items but luckley never had to do it roadside.
One thing that will get you on those condensors is the holder they slide into. if the condensor is loose in the holder, you'll lose ground and this can cause intermittent issues. Make sure the condensor is clamped tightly and grounded.
Buy the combination set. If the capacitor is screwed in to the rest of the set, then you don't have to worry about the grounding. Much easier to remove and install during your annual tuneup.
Years ago, my 1964 Chevelle died on the highway.
I left it there with a note and took a bus home to get some tools and returned
the next day. The police had been by and left their own note. This went on for a couple
of days until I checked the recently new distributor cap and found a small crack in it.
Thankfully the old one was in the trunk and the car fired right up.
I did manage to make friends with a groundhog that came by everyday to watch.
I remember charging (apply 12v to the condenser) and leaving on the bench for the noise bystanders that have to pick up and play with whatever you leave on the bench. Had a lot of laughs over that!
You're a mean one, Mr. Alikat. You really are a heel. You're as cuddly as a cactus, you're as charming as an eel, Mr. Alikat. You're a bad banana, Mr. Alikat, with a greasy black peel. You're a vile one, you got termites in your smile. You have all the tender sweetness of a seasick crocodile, Mr. Alikat. You're a foul one, friends you don't have none, I wouldn't touch you with a 39 1/2 foot pole. You're a monster, your heart's an empty hole. You're brain is full of spiders, you have garlic in your soul, Mr. Alikat. Given the choice between the two of you, I'd take the seasick crocodile!
When I was a pup, I went to work with my dad during summer vacation and learned about generators, starters, and distributors. I recall he handed me a condenser. which he was holding by the wire. Of course, everyone else got a big laugh out of my shocking introduction to a capacitor! A lesson I never forgot!
All good "points" for living with old cars...If on a very hot day the car dies of no particular reason and repeated cranking does not help... an easy trick is to just open up the distributor cap, remove the rotor and with your finger separate the points and simultaneous look at the point gap...if you get a distinct spark you know the capacitor/condenser is "weak" or to much build-up on the contact points...most probably the car starts...very often, as Tim says, the mechanic leave the task to replace the capacitors...at least you can limp home after this...
I used to check when the points opened and closed with a light tester, when they were closed the light would come on, a slight adjustment of the distributor and I could do a rough tune up, old school trick, anything to keep running, didn't always have a timing light.
You can rough check an ignition condenser with any ohmmeter (though a mechanical analog version is easier): first discharge it (short it to itself) to protect your meter in case it's good and charged, then try to test its resistance. A good one will show a spike of conductivity as it charges then immediately drop to near zero. Reverse the polarity and it will do it again. Any other behavior is a fail.
Actually, when testing in this manner, the meter will initially spike to zero and as it charges the needle will go to infinity. And as I understand it there are 2 ways it can fail, if the condenser is "open" (infinite ohms) the car should run, at least until the points become too badly pitted. But if the condenser is "shorted" (zero ohms) then the car won't start since the current is shunted to ground through the condenser instead of flowing through the primary of the coil. Of course there is also the possibility of a partial failure (change in capacitance) that will cause all kinds of drivability issues.
Argh - yes of course, it drops to open after it's charged. Brain glitch...And you're also correct about the results of a shorted and completely open condenser. Nowadays many inexpensive multimeters have a capacitor test function and I'm sure there's a spec that can be researched but the ohmmeter test is a quick and easy method to nail a failed one.
My approach with my classic Pontiac is to buy the more expensive points and condenser combination set readily available at OReillys and NAPA stores. And carry an extra set in the glove box. I was once stranded in Vantage, Washington, about 30 miles from the nearest autoparts store in Ellensburg. After I brought a new points and condenser set to the car, I made the switcheroo and drove her back to Seattle. I even made adjustments to the dwell and timing on the way, just from the way the car felt. To this day I drive this same 1966 Pontiac with its immortal (so far) 326 engine because I would rather drive a car I can fix than one I cannot fix.
You might be surprised at how few automotive technicians (they're not called mechanics anymore) know how to set up breaker points. To those of us who grew up with them they're second nature. To the kids who didn't, they're as mysterious as an ECU is to us. OK, maybe just to me....
I'm only 29 years old now, but I guess you could say I grew up with points. It's just trading off easy diagnosis for difficult repair most of the time on new cars, whereas vintage stuff takes more knowledge and understanding to diagnose and is easier to repair.
I can recall many, many condenser related issues in my 50+ yr career as a mechanic. Partial failures were tougher to troubleshoot than full on short out failures. One oddity was when I removed the suspect condenser from the distributor, I found a crack in the outer casing, below and underneath the condenser. When you tightened down the clamp to the dist. plate, it totally shorted out the spark. Until the Chinese made units that caused many problems came along, saving the "working" old condenser was a good choice. Many times the replacement of the condenser was a good choice for a intermittent or weak ignition spark. I always hated part replacement solutions just on a guess! A good article!
Jerry Helman, Senor Dos
I started working as a mechanic back in the early 70's. Replacing the condenser was standard procedure with the points. I only remember one condenser failure though. And I'm sure many remember charging the condenser with a spark plug wire, then tossing it to someone! It seemed harmless at the time, but probably was a less than great idea. Don't try this, particularly with a modern high output ignition system.
What a great story. I am imagining the face in that guy when you fixed his Corvair. And the first ride with his wife after all that time. Thank you for making that dream happen. You are a special guy.
Anyone remember the National Plymouth Trouble Shooting Contest? A failed capacitor (condenser) was typically one of the problems. The way the contest worked, there was an 'overseer' for each car/team that had a box of replacement parts. If you found a bad part you'd ask for a replacement and if it was available he'd give it to you. But they had parts beyond the planted failed parts. If a team replaced a part that was actually good, points were deducted (actually, I think time was added as it was an elapsed time contest). So to be successful a team couldn't just be swapping parts. You had to be sure the condenser (or whatever) was bad before asking for a replacement. Anyway, the year I represented my high school the car we were assigned had a bad condenser which my partner caught (his primary responsibility was ignition and mine was air & fuel). It's been 65 years so I can't remember for sure but I think they had driven a furniture brad through the body (the head of a nail would have been too easy to spot). The Mopar team that prepared these cars for the contest came up with some pretty devious failure constructs.
I went through this with my 1956 Studebaker. After at least a year of trips to the local veteran mechanic did not solve my starting problem I replaced the spark plug and coil wires myself. A good friend and Studebaker specialist who had had the distributor rebuilt came to my home to troubleshoot. We were at the end of our rope when I came across a spare condenser in the glove compartment. He put it in and that was that! I think the old one is still on the roof where he threw it. Because he had replaced the points and condenser before the distributor rebuild he had not revisited them. The cheapest part can make all the difference.
This story takes me back to the to 1965. I was on active duty (USAF) and headed for a new assignment, Biloxi Mississippi to Limestone Maine in a '58 Chevy, stick six station wagon. Somewhere in northern Mass it started to miss and I was forced to chug all the way to Limestone stopping at several garages along the way for help. About $100 later it was still chugging (I was making about $125 a month back then). When I arrived on base I had to have the car inspected by the motor pool and they took a condenser from the trash and fixed the problem. I ate in the dining hall for a long time after that.
Back in 1983, my first pickup was a '69 Ford F100. A diligent shade tree mechanic, I did a full tune-up, replacing the the points and condenser. I put the old points and condenser in my spares kit (belts, duct tape, Stop Leak, etc.) stored behind the seat. They saved my bacon a few years later when the replacement point fell apart during a visit to Cape Hatteras. It would not be the last time I've gone back to a "working when removed" part to make a repair.