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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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