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Hagerty Employee

Upgrading the distributor comes with plenty of issues and choices

(First, a quick plug: My new book, The Lotus Chronicles: One man’s sordid tale of passion and madness resurrecting a 40-year-dead Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special, is now available. It’s a deep dive into the passion involved in buying, resurrecting, and owning a car that others might have given up on. You can find more information at the end of this column.)


Speaking of the Lotus, when I finally got its engine rebuilt and installed last spring, I reinstalled its original Lucas distributor, which was still wearing the cap, rotor, plug wires, points, and condenser it had when it was put into storage in 1979. Hey, it functioned, sort of, and at that point there were still so many things on the car that didn’t ... Read the full column on



Good article - it essentially echoes what I found with a distributor upgrade on my Europa, after some history. 


Some time back in the 90s I decided to try the upgrade route with a Hall effects ignition system inside the existing distributor. I ordered a kit from some manufacturer who will remain nameless (largely because I don't remember the name) and changed out the points and condenser unit for a couple of magnets and other parts that fit inside the distributor. Worked like a charm, strong spark, etc, until it just died one day and left me stranded at the side of the road. The issue was traced back to the new kit so the manufacturer was contacted and new parts installed. Again, it worked a charm until it quit again and left me stranded on the road. At that point the piece of junk promptly came out of the distributor and the old points went back in.


Fast forward to four or five years ago. I had the car in at my trusted mechanic and the discussion turned to ignition systems. The old points needed replacement so he suggested going to a Pertronix system. After some reluctance, based on the bad experience in the 90s, I decided to go that route. A new distributor was ordered and put in while the car was in his shop (my mechanical skills are ham-fisted on a good day so I was quite happy to have it installed for me). 


After a few years I am happy with the Pertronix unit. As you said in the article:


"Now, I should say that, in general, electronic triggering by itself should not be thought of as a performance improvement. It’s really not. It’s a reliability and maintenance improvement. But having a distributor that actually advances without drifting around by an amount equal to the advance, THAT’s a performance improvement."


Well put.


Intermediate Driver

Sorry, but am I the only person who finds such a glaring oversight as failing to mark the #1 position on the distributor body (in an expensive part) totally unacceptable? I mean, if they can't even do the simple things correctly, how can you have such faith that it will perform over the longer term?


I had the Petronius fail on my Corvair consistently at 13 kilometres from start. Tried multiple coils thinking the engine heat was breaking down the windings as after an approx 8 minute wait the car would start and drive for another somewhat brief period of time. This condition terrified me when I was caught on a major highway under construction with barriers in the RH lane. Reinstalled the points and condenser and has been as reliable as a Corvair can be ever since. Just my experience





Eek!  The word is eke, normally followed by out.


One other source of jittery timing, at least on the cars I've worked on, has been the amount of clearance between the drive gear on the bottom of the distributor, and the bottom of the housing. You can move the gear up-and-down quite a bit on some distributors, and I use some hardened shims to take the excess clearance out. This matters on cars with helical-cut gears, as excess clearance will allow the gear to move up and down, and the helical gear translates this as a small amount of advance or retard at the rotor.


I've installed a lot of Pertronix kits and a number of their distributors over the last ten years.  Their stuff is top notch.  I've also had excellent luck with the Crane XRi kits.  One thing I will point out for those who haven't done this type of conversion is grounding.  

Having good body and engine grounds is ESSENTIAL for these systems to work properly.  I know this from personal experience.  Oh sure, the stock grounds are probably adequate, but sometimes they are not.  These systems are very sensitive to good grounds.  When I do either a complete distributor or just a replacement kit, I always double check and sometimes add another ground between the firewall and engine and the battery and engine block.  An extra between the body and frame isn't a bad idea either.

It can eliminate some headaches and even a Mea Culpa to the Tech Service guy who suggested the inadequate ground to begin with.  🙂 🙂 🙂


The comment I've been using ever since I got stranded by an HEI on a dark and lonely road on the coldest night of the year decades ago is that breaker points fade away while electronic ignitions work like new...until they don't. So yes, I have a huge stockpile of vintage point sets and condensers.


Ping or knock are detonation, not preignition.  Preignition is when something in the combustion chamber ignites the mixture BEFORE the spark arrives, and it will destroy an engine quickly.  Ping can go on for years doing little damage.


nice! Went thru it w/o vac tune, carb, etc.  May B a statement abt "ign tune 1st" & relation to full tune could help (but this is not 'a how to' I guess, anyway) others beside the Pertronix, how some of us use a trigger wheel, need to replace condenser/points as constant maintenance (if a DD) - poor quality of today's manufacturing of these prts I don;t know. Glad U mentioned the coil-match-up need. 

New Driver

Thanks for this update on the Twin Cam.