Reader Question: Pre-Electronic Ignition/Fuel Injection Vehicles?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Robert asks: I am writing to ask your opinion on what the best (most reliable, durable, most easily maintained) pre-electronic ignition/fuel injection vehicle(s) would be. Guessing the age range might be mid-1960s to mid-1980s? And, secondly, what what is your opinion on which pickup (as well as automobile) might fall in that “best” category?

My reply: Well, the two things – electronic ignition and electronic fuel injection – did not arise contemporaneously.

Electronic (i.e., transistorized, no points) ignition has been around and common since the mid-1970s; for example, the GM “HEI” (High Energy Ignition) distributor, which came into general use around that time.

Electronic fuel injection did not become common until the mid-1980s and the early systems were mostly Throttle Body (TBI) rather than Port Fuel (PFI) injection, which uses an individual injector for each cylinder rather than a single throttle body to feed all the cylinders (like a carburetor, except sprayed under pressure rather than fuel being drawn into the engine by negative pressure, as in a carbureted system).

Your basic electronic ignition system – and TBI – are very reliable, durable and easy to maintain. GM’s HEI ignition rarely needed anything beyond occasional timing checks/adjustment and a cap/rotor/wires once every 50,000 miles or so. The module might sometimes go out, but they were (are) generally very reliable/durable, too – and even if it goes out, a replacement is not expensive and it’s easy to replace.

This is generally true of all similar systems, which do not need a computer. They are “stand alone” ignitions.

Things got more involved – over the past 20 years – as these simple/reliable/inexpensive and easy-to-service system were supplanted by “coil on plug” and “distributorless” ignition systems that are integrated with computer-controlled engine management systems.

These also generally work reliably . . . until they don’t. And then they can be very forbidding to diagnose and expensive to repair.

PFI is generally reliable but it is more complex than TBI and has more parts, including multiple injectors. Both are also controlled by computers, which also control the ignition and other engine systems/components (e.g., the transmission) as an integrated whole.

The new Direct Injection systems are extremely complex and to be avoided if you’re looking for long-term durability/easy maintenance.

You may want to consider a car from the ’70s with electronic ignition but without a computer. They are very reliable and simple/easy to maintain, if you are willing to learn a little about how to. You can also easily and affordably upgrade a car from that era with a stand-alone TBI system, which has a computer but not one that controls the rest of the car.

I am a big fan of cars made during the mid-late 1990s through the early 2000s, which have EFI and electronic ignition and computers – but not yet the over-the-top complexity of current vehicles.

A 1500 series pick-up from that era or a Toyota Corolla or Civic or Camry or practically anything else you might like is a vehicle that will run reliably for 25-plus years with reasonable care before it needs major components overhauled – and even then,the overhauling can be done affordably.

Your major enemy will be rust. If that can be kept at bay, these things can be kept on the road almost indefinitely!

. . .

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  1. Pick-ups? If you can find an old 6.9 Ford diesel from the mod to late 80’s…. Pure mechanical injection (Injector pump) which would never quit….and of course, being a diesel (a REAL diesel- unlike these modern computerized monstrosities) no ignition system. Don’t even need a functional battery to drive ’em- if you can pop the clutch to start it. Ditto the early 90’s NON-TURBO 7.3 IDI diesels…. The above…and the old 12V Cummins diesels were the last of the real diesels- they’d last forever and get phenominal MPGs (Only the Cummins were in Dodge bodies, so the rest of the truck would fall apart around ’em).

  2. If you’re looking to avoid engine electronics, you might want to consider a purely-mechanical Diesel from the pre-electronic-everything days.

    I remember my Dad had a couple of Mazda-powered USDM Ford Escort Diesels back in the mid-late ’80s. A VW Rabbit from the same era will have a purely mechanical mill, too.


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