Niagara Gazette — Back when I was a young aspiring auto technician, the term “I need a tune up” was uttered quite commonly. It usually signaled that the driver sensed that the engine was running poorly and thus needed the ignition system to be refurbished. In the old days, ignition systems usually consisted of a set of electrical breaker points that were driven by the distributor (which governed the firing of the spark from the ignition coil), a condenser (that acted as an electrical storehouse when the points were open so the electrical charge would not jump or arch back across the points resulting in misfire), a mechanical spark distributor, distributor cap and rotor, sparkplug wires, and sparkplugs.
The way the system worked was really quite simple. A gear drove the distributor either off the camshaft or oil pump. Electricity was fed to the distributor and, as it spun, the points opened and closed making and breaking the electrical circuit between the ignition coil and the distributor. This making and breaking of electrical flow caused voltage buildup within the coil and then the dispersing of a high intensity spark at precisely the correct time delivered via the rotor to the tower on the distributor cap (in precise time) which was connected to a sparkplug wire. This spark would travel down the sparkplug wire to the sparkplug where it would jump an air gap and ignite the compressed, highly volatile air/fuel mixture in the combustion chamber. Thus, the downward stroke powering the engine was created. Simple in theory.
Of course, with any system of mechanical or electrical design, there’s always a weak link that results in failure or poor performance. In this case, the weak link was the electrical points, condenser, distributor cap and rotor. Points would wear out; condensers would internally ground resulting in firing back across the ignition points and ultimately misfire, backfiring, stalling, hesitation, and a myriad of other complications. The insulation on sparkplug wires would break down from extreme heat up and cool down, resulting in voltage leakage and ultimately, cross-firing and what’s called “breakdown under load.” This condition would usually revealed itself under heavy load conditions such as hauling a heavy trailer or load, or just tooling around town and up and down hills with the entire family in the car. Yes, early ignition systems were not without their negative idiosyncrasies.