To Update Or Not to Update?

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As modern cars pass the event horizon of cost and complexity (and so, hassle) it’s tempting to go retro and buy an older car – one without computers, black boxes, touchscreen inputs and all the rest of it. But, if your plan is to drive the car regularly, some updates might be in order.

Herewith a few suggested ones – and why you might want to consider doing them:

* Updating the ignition system – points pic

Cars built prior to the mid-late ’70s (and some for longer than that) often had ignition points. Technically, contact points. As a shaft within the distributor rotated in time with a gear driven by the camshaft, these points opened – and closed – to fire a jolt of electricity to the spark plugs, which fired the air-fuel mix in the engine’s cylinders. The problem with contact points is all that opening and closing wears the points at which the contact occurs, over time (not much time) the gap increases and as it does, the efficiency of the firing process declines. This is why points had to be adjusted about once every six months – and replaced once a year.

Modern electronic (transistorized) ignitions do away with that. Never adjust – or replace – points again. Because there are no points! The opening and closing of the circuit is done via transistors and capacitors. Once installed and adjusted, the system ought to never require more than minor adjustment (e.g., ignition timing) and occasional replacement of the rotor and distributor cap.ignition 1

There are kits available (see here) to retrofit the internals of your original distributor – for those who prefer to maintain the “stock” external appearance but enjoy the functionality of a modern set-up.The update is usually simple, inexpensive (the conversion kits typically go for less than $100) and will make your older vehicle (or motorcycle) much more everyday-enjoyable.

Or, you could install a modern distributor in your older car. A popular swap among the GM-inclined is to drop a later-model High Energy Ignition (HEI) distributor into an older GM vehicle that was made before GM began to equip its vehicles with the HEI distributor. The same idea holds for other brands. Engines tend to stay in production a long time – but get updated with features such as new-design ignitions along the way. It’s often a “bolt in” to fit the early version of the engine with a more powerful/electronic ignition system offered on a newer version of that same engine. A little research and question-asking will help here.

* Lights – 

Cars built in the pre-computer/black box (and Big Brother) era have many charms, but illumination is not among them. Take one out for a drive on a moonless night out in the country, away from street lights – and you will see what I mean.Bandit pic

Because you will not see very much.

The only upside is the factory-original ’90s-era and earlier sealed beam headlights are cheap – about $20 each – and can be replaced by removing a few usually easy-to-access screws. More powerful replacement lights include halogen and LED/projector beam units – like those used today. It’s now possible to retrofit not just the headlights but also the tail/brake lights with brighter LED-type lighting systems, too. Kits are available (see here, for example; and here for classic muscle cars) for a growing number of vehicles (including motorcycles) that did not originally come with high-performance lighting. In some cases, the updated lights are drop-ins; in others, you may need to make additional updates (such as a higher-output alternator/charging system due to the increased draw of higher-performance lights). But pretty much all these kist work with the car’s existing housings, so you retain the easy access/serviceability.LED lights

And now you’ll be able to see where you’re going when the sun goes down.

* Going overdrive –

You’ve heard about low-hanging fruit? Back in the ’70s, when the car industry was under the gun to dramatically cut back tailpipe exhaust emissions, the catalytic converter was invented. Bolted into the car’s exhaust system, this one device reduced tailpipe emissions by half or more, a major improvement for very little expense.

About a decade later, in the ’80s, another great leap forward was made – this time, in the area of fuel economy – via the industry-wide adoption of overdrive transmissions (both manual and automatic). Instead of three-speed automatics and four-speed manuals, most cars were fitted with four-speed automatics and five-speed manuals, with the top gear in each being an overdrive gear. This greatly reduced cruise RPM – in some cases by 800 RPM or more. It made it possible to order a performance car with an aggressive rear axle ratio that still got not-bad gas mileage on the highway – and  dramatically improved the overall mileage of all new cars.overdrive one

It’s not technically difficult to swap an overdrive transmission into most older cars – and often, you’ll have a choice about which overdrive transmission to install. It may be necessary to make some slight modifications – such as altering the length of the driveshaft or adjusting the crossmember that supports the transmission’s weight. But it’s a very DIY-doable job. Or, farm it out to a pro. The cost is not crazy – figure about $1,500 for the transmission and another $1,000 for a professional to put it in the car. But if your plan is to drive the car every day, you will quickly recoup the investment in saved fuel. Expect a 20 percent or better improvement overall. And the car will just be more pleasant to drive, especially if it’s an old muscle car. As delivered, they were not highway/road-trip cars because of aggressive axle ratios designed to make them launch as hard as possible which (without an overdrive transmission) resulted in very high cruise RPM, even at relatively slow highway speeds. My ’70s Trans-Am, for example, with a 3.90 rear axle ratio and a non-overdrive three-speed automatic, would buzz along at more than 3,000 RPM at 60-something MPH. After replacing the non-overdrive transmission with a four-speed overdrive, the engine turns about 2,200 at 70 MPH – making the car not only much more pleasant to drive on long trips but vastly more economical to drive, too.

Instead of 12 MPG, the car now averages closer to 20, almost as good a modern car but without the computer, black box – or Big Brother riding shotgun!

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  1. Eric, I think you have the points wear description a little wrong. I’ve replaced and set many many points, condensers, rotors, caps, and have set and changed both the static and dynamic timing. So IIRC when then the piece on the points that rubs on the distributor shaft cam wears the dwell angle decreases. When worn enough the points don’t open, hence the six month adjustments. But also a weak condenser causes pitting on the contact points causing wear and the six month sanding of the points. Add in weak vacuums sources and weak springs and gummed up weights for the centrifugal advance and then re timing burned up many weekends:) I basically retired my advance timing light when solid state ignition hit the scene!

  2. Throttle body fuel injection might be a worthy upgrade too. It’s better than a carburetor, but much simpler than multi-port fuel injection.


  3. I updated my points with crane cam optical ignition rather than pertronix pictured since I’ve been assured by someone I trust of its superior reliability and performance. I also threw in a new coil and Crane Hi-6 in order to get the spark needed to reduce emissions and pass smog.

  4. Interesting and very basic ideas for bringing an old car up to date, Eric. A few things we do in our shop, in addition to your suggestions: Body work & paint, if my customer intends to drive his new/old car or truck long-term, I recommend basic sheet metal and paint. This includes replacing the rubber and trim associated with keeping the car tight. Also, if it’s in the budget, suspension and brake upgrades. Since we do mostly trucks and vans now, this is a must if they’re being used to actually haul stuff. I agree 100% on electrical and ignition. Fuel systems are owners’ options with us. A complete change to EFI is almost as expensive as an OD trans. Again, it depends on the vehicle’s use and the owner’s budget.
    As an aside, I’m seeing a lot more work from small business owners and local farms than ever before. Good, simple transportation is always in style.

  5. The original Hydramatic was a 4 speed overdrive automatic. It allowed a 5500 lb Cadillac Sixty Special to get about 20 mpg on a road trip but only achieved 10 equipped with the Dynaflow automatic installed following a catastrophic fire at the Hydramatic facility. GM built millions and they were installed across the automotive spectrum (pre-fire) until alternatives were developed. Lincoln, Nash, Kaiser, Willys, all eagerly snapped up this driveline innovation because GM could easily build far more units than required for internal consumption. Chrysler engineering and Borg-Warner showed how to build less expensive units that passed a far greater cost to the consumer in operating expense.

    • C C, my old ’55 Chevy pickup was originally a 4 speed hydramatic. Years of abuse pulling trailers and probably NO maintenance killed it, replaced by an old HD granny 4 speed. That was THE only pickup from those days I ever saw with that transmission.

  6. Halogen sealed beam headlights work quite well and run around 10 bucks here, much cheaper than the newer bulbs, not to mention the cost of the prisms they sit behind. I still have one car with non-halogen sealed beams and acknowledge that they don’t cast much light.

    Interesting thing about point ignitions–they produce far more torque and horsepower than the HEI units. In a Car Craft 12/98 comparo among point, HEI, and racing HEI ignitions from 3500 to 7000 rpm in 100 rpm segments, the point ignition creamed the HEI in almost every rpm range. It even bested the premium HEI about 40% of the time–and it was stock. The points also produced more torque at 7000 rpm than either HEI unit, thus dispelling the myth of point bounce.

    • Hi Ross,


      Of course, the big variable (as I see it) is consistency. Points – when new/set properly – work great. But they have to be rechecked/adjusted fairly frequently to maintain optimum performance. With modern ignitions, that’s not an issue.

      Of my several old vehicles that originally came with points, the only one that still has ’em is the Kawasaki two-stroke triple. It has three sets. I’ve left this one original only because it’s a garage queen (soon to be living room queen, if I get divorced) that sees at most 200 miles a year on the road…

      • Points are indeed more work to keep tuned, but at least even a pure knucklehead like me could do it. With dwell meter and timing light, I did my own tune-ups and even tuned the Chevy six cylinder pickup my brother took when he moved out. He got 16-18 mpg with the loaded-down old beast, which made me proud.

        For those preppers concerned about fixability, EMP, and the like, points are a good way to go. They work well if maintained (one BMW motorcycle owner claimed to get 100,000 miles out of a set). However, my Triumph Trident had three sets of points like your Kawasaki, and three condensers, and three coils. All by Lucas. Need I say more?

        • I used a Pertronix electronic ignition for a while, until one day it croaked and left my car dead on the side of the road. I just went back to points.

  7. Headlamps. Sealed beams can be replaced with ECE (european) lamps with replaceable bulbs. Feed these with new heavy gauge wiring operated with relays. The signal to relay comes from the original lighting circuit which then allows power to flow directly from the battery. This will be -superior- to most modern factory lighting.

    Drivetrain. If I were to drive a 70s or early 80s car daily and building for daily use I would ideally want to swap it out for it’s late 80s to mid 90s version of the same engine with whatever trans the later car has. Outside of that there is swapping the carb for a throttlebody kit. I wouldn’t want to put up with a carb on a daily driver where I live. If I lived in a kinder climate I might feel differently.

    Also in this environment the underside of the car would need to be scraped and painted and protected. Weather seals would be to checked, seam sealer everywhere checked and repaired as needed.

    • I drove an old (’74) VW Beetle as my daily driver to and from work back in the mid-’90s, when I lived in the suburbs of DC and commuted into town every day. It wasn’t a comfortable (much less warm in winter) car. But it never let me down. It started every day, even on extremely cold days (those Nazis knew how to engineer a cold weather car!) and was easily among the top five best cars I’ve ever owned, as far as a basic (and reliable/low cost) A to B transportation appliance.

      Carbs – if set/adjusted properly (and assuming you’re starting with a good design) can work amazingly well. I’ve mentioned before my Trans-Am (with Rochester Quadrajet) starts about as quickly as a modern car with EFI, with the only obvious difference being the fast idle until the choke turns off (thermostatic, in this case). It doesn’t stall or surge. The big caveat with carbs today is one must replace all soft internals (plastic/rubber, etc.) with ethanol compatible replacements.

      • eric, my old GM pickups would start so fast you could barely hear the starter engage. Most of my friends were like that since we kept the Q jets tuned well. They all started faster than FI. Some of the FI’s I notice spin several rounds before firing. One thing I try to impress to people with some engines like the 3.1L GM with multi-port injection is to listen for the fuel pump to pressure up and stop after turning the key to on, then the engine starts very quickly.

        • Most EFI systems need to see #1 cylinder before it’ll fire. There is a wide tooth on the tone wheel to indicate TDC #1

      • I drove Mavericks daily for a good long time. I know what it takes to tend them. I don’t really miss doing that. I kept them operating damn near perfectly but hey now it’s 100 degrees colder than it was when you last tuned it so time to freeze some fingers to get it running right.

        Chicago’s environment is considerably more extreme compared with DC. I’ve personally experienced temperatures of almost -27F to 104F here. The former my parents were driving cars with carbs and on the later I was. Although I’ve driven such in temps nearly as cold as that -27F. Ever see motor oil become a semi solid? Short of not driving at all I’m not going back to carbs for daily driving in this environment.

        • BrentP, “I’ve personally experienced temperatures of almost -27F to 104F here”. I feel your pain. West Tx., hotter’n hell……a great deal of the time but when it gets cold, it doesn’t go halfway. You’ve endured..and I don’t say this lightly, -27F and that’s damned cold and hard to deal with.

          I have only experienced(not the coldest winter by far)-17 where I now live and 118F two days in a row with countless more not far below for months.

          Talk about trying to find the right motor oil…’s intimidating. I always used different weights for winter and summer till switching totally to Amsoil. If you haven’t tried it, you’re denying yourself of a really flexible lubricant in more than just motor oil. I’m one of the few who use a block heater on everything during the winter(you get broken of just cranking your car up or having to boost it off when you deal with big diesels every day…..and we used to build fires under the oil pans to get them fired up. .

          I could never come to terms with the same oil I knew was in the tractor or diesel pickup or even the car when the temp had changed 80 degrees virtually overnight. Tires that were pumped up go nearly flat overnight. We play this game of tire pressures year round. One day my class E load range tires go from having 80 lbs to 55 lbs a couple days later. Cars go from having what appears to be very “tight” tires to under-pressured saggy things in a week. The barn air compressor is used frequently.

  8. I had a ’65 ply. sport fury. When I stopped at a light the low idle of the motor caused the headlights to brighten and dim. Once a cop who was stopped at a light facing me pulled a u-turn and turned on his blues. I asked him why he stopped me and he said I was flashing my lights at him while I was at the red light. I explained to him the idiosyncrasies of the ’65 ply. and assured him that when I got above 25 m.p.h. the r.p.m. of the engine kept the lights bright and steady. After having to do a sobriety test and having him search my car for drugs, he wrote me a fix it ticket for faulty headlights. And before anyone comments, I switched the mopar alt. and resistor for a modern G.M. one wire alt. and the lights still did it.

  9. Wish there was a good solution for us up north for driving old cars daily for rust. Drive a pre 1985 car through a winter or two and you got a problem and it only gets worse as time goes . Even if you keep up with keeping it clean.

    I loved my first car, a 1976 Chevy, but it was a rust bucket and it would rust fast too.

    • I use spray on lithium grease to keep the rust water free- I have had minimal rust growth to those areas in the 5 years I have been daily driving through winter- but I also clean all salt off every 2 days if there is salt on the roads and the roads are wet. nothing really stops it though

    • There is, it is called underbody coating. it is like rhino liner for the bed of your truck. you coat the under body of your ride with a salt resistant liner. it is expensive but less than the cost of a new car and your underbody last for ever. as for the other items still exposed to salt, wash the damn vehicle.

      David Ward
      Memphis, Tennessee

      • In the road salt of Illinois you do not want to spray an old car with undercoating without first completely removing and treating any rust and making sure it is perfectly clean and dry. Otherwise it will create rust. If the car has been undercoated the undercoating needs to be checked for weak spots that are letting go, scraped off, the rust under it removed, metal repainted and then toped with new undercoating. This is will have to be done every year for an old daily driver.

        I would not undercoat an old car that hasn’t been. I’d treat the rust and repaint with rust stopping paint. (POR15 etc)

      • Washing the car is not an option when it’s 15 below zero Fahrenheit. Only a heated garage will work for thawing a car out after washing it.


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