Ignition systems are critical engine components, and one of the pioneer units that helped usher in modern ignition systems is the HEI distributor.
This inductive ignition technology is typical in most gas-powered classic cars, so you might have to learn about it if doing a restoration project.
Here’s all you need to know about this ignition technology.
Table of Contents
- Brief History of Car Ignition Systems
- What Is an HEI Distributor
- HEI Distributor Control Modules
- How the HEI Distributor Works
- How To Troubleshoot HEI Distributor Issues
- How To Maintain an HEI Distributor
- Wrap Up
Brief History of Car Ignition Systems
Cars have had a long history, and we usually define their generations using technological advancements in their internal systems, including the ignition. Here’s how this system evolved.
Early Ignition Systems
The first generation had rudimentary ignition systems characterized by backfiring and unreliability. They relied on open flame lighters like oil lamps to ignite the air-fuel mix.
Low-Tension Magneto Systems
As the name suggests, these early 20th-century ignition systems relied on magnetos to produce low-voltage sparks to ignite the air-fuel mixture.
Magnetos are mechanical devices that generate electrical power by spinning a magnet inside a coil.
High-Tension Magneto Systems
These systems operate the same way as the low-tension magnetos but generate more powerful sparks that are more reliable and enhance engine efficiency.
Points and Coils
This ignition system replaced high-tension magnetos in the 1930s because it provided more precise timing.
It relies on a distributor, coil, and a set of points for spark timing control. However, it needs more maintenance because points wear out quickly.
Contact point sets for a points and coils distributor system
Electronic Ignition Systems
Electronic ignition replaced mechanical points in the 1960s and relied on transistors, sensors, and other similar solid-state electronic components for precise ignition timing control.
This advancement reduced ignition system maintenance, enhanced engine performance, and improved fuel efficiency.
Distributor-less Ignition Systems
Instead of having one distributor, distributor-less ignition systems use individual coil packs for every spark plug. The ECU controls these coil packs to optimize and deliver precise ignition.
Direct Ignition Systems and Coil-on-Plug Systems
These ignition system technologies came about around the same time but have one primary difference.
Direct Ignition Systems (DIS) share one ignition coil between two cylinders, while Coil-on-Plug (COP) systems have one coil for each spark plug.
A Coil-on-Plug ignition system
Both technologies improve fuel economy, ignition precision, and ignition efficiency from the previous generation.
What Is an HEI Distributor
HEI (High Energy Ignition) distributors are ignition systems that fall in the electronic ignition generation. Therefore, they are more efficient than the traditional point-type ignition.
The technology is more typical in old classic cars because it was introduced in 1975 and ran through to the mid-80s.
This distributor has these four primary components.
Ignition modules regulate the coil, providing precision timing when firing the spark plugs. They contain transistorized switches that generate high-voltage currents.
This high-voltage current generation gives the system its primary advantage of consistent high-voltage sparking. Such sparks lengthen the lifespan of spark plug while minimizing misfires.
This high-output ignition coil is responsible for generating powerful sparks consistently. It is usually in the distributor cap to connect to the spinning rotor. However, some HEI systems have an external ignition coil.
Rotor and Cap
The rotor is a spinning arm in the cap that directs the spark to the spark plug that should fire. This direction part is possible due to the placement of terminals and specific positions inside the cap.
A disassembled distributor (note the red rotor)
When the rotor passes near the respective terminal, it transmits the high-voltage signal to the spark plug wire.
This component adjusts the timing to match the engine load and prevailing conditions to reduce fuel consumption while enhancing performance.
It utilizes engine vacuum pressure to set the spark timing. So, the mechanism can retard or advance the timing based on the load or cruising conditions.
HEI Distributor Control Modules
HEI systems have four control module types.
- Four pin
- Five pin
- Seven pin
- Eight pin
Four-pin modules were the first in the market and used the conventional mechanical advance technique, which involves vacuum and centrifugal advance mechanisms. And they were typical in carbureted engines.
Five-pin modules introduced an early version of electronic timing control in 1978, and they had a knock sensor connection provision.
The last two came about in the early computer-controlled engines to work with fixed-timing distributors, where the ECU regulates the ignition timing.
How the HEI Distributor Works
The ignition process begins when you turn on the vehicle using the ignition key, which closes the primary circuit to the ignition relay. This relay closes the secondary circuit that sends power to the ignition module.
If the vehicle has engine load sensors, the module will read data from them to determine the timing for sending the sparks.
It initiates the sparking process by sending a high-voltage current signal to the ignition coil in the distributor cap to generate a high-voltage charge.
The coil accumulates this charge to produce powerful sparks when it reaches the spark plugs.
But the charge must get to the plugs first; it exits the coil via the rotor. When this spinning device aligns with the spark plug terminal in the cap, it sends the high-voltage charge to the spark plug via the connected wire.
An old gasoline engine with a distributor ignition system and vacuum advance control
This powerful discharge creates an intense spark on the plug’s electrode to ignite the air-fuel mixture in the cylinder.
The terminal alignment in the distributor cap matches the engine’s cylinder firing order. So, as the rotor spins, it sends the charge to the correct cylinder plug, creating a smoothly running engine.
How To Troubleshoot HEI Distributor Issues
These devices can have some issues, and here’s how to troubleshoot them.
No or Intermittent Sparking
The issue might be in the rotor, ignition module, or coil. So, check if the rotor spins when you crank the engine. A worn-out distributor gear can interfere with the rotor’s rotation.
As for the ignition coil or module issues, measure their voltage to determine the distributor’s power.
Begin by inspecting the spark plug wires for damages or poor connectivity. Also, check the ignition’s output coil circuit voltage. Lastly, check for carbon buildup in the rotor and cap.
A mechanic cleaning carbon deposits from a disassembled distributor
Excessive Carbon Deposits
“Dirty” or low-quality fuel is the typical culprit if you experience recurring excessive carbon deposits.
There are two possible culprits. First is the spark plug wiring. Remember, the firing order follows the terminal arrangement in the distributor cap.
If these wires don’t connect to the spark plugs in the correct order, your engine will misfire or backfire.
Ignition wires from the distributor cap to spark plugs
The second issue is vacuum leaks in the intake system. Leakages affect the vacuum advance component, resulting in timing errors.
Vacuum Advance Issues
Inspect the vacuum advance system for leaks. If present, replace the damaged vacuum lines.
Corroded or loose wires can cause intermittent electrical connections in the distributor.
Test the ignition timing using a timing light and make the necessary adjustments.
How To Maintain an HEI Distributor
Here are some maintenance tips to help you keep your vehicle’s distributor in tip-top shape.
- Inspect the rotor, spark plug wires, cap, spark plugs, and vacuum advance system for signs of damage or corrosion.
- Check the spark plug gaps.
A spark plug gap
- Replace spark plugs as per the recommended timelines.
- Clean or replace the rotor and distributor cap if they have carbon buildup.
- Replace worn or cracked spark plug wires and firmly connect them to the spark plugs and distributor cap.
- If the distributor has a vacuum advance, check the system’s line for leaks and firm connections.
- Check the timing regularly to ensure it matches the manufacturer’s specifications.
Considering the generation HEI distributors fall in, they are not the most efficient ignition systems. Nonetheless, they are typical in classic cars because their engines rely on this technology.
Therefore, you’ll mostly encounter this ignition system when upgrading, retrofitting, or restoring classic cars.
That’s it for now. Read this transistorized ignition article to learn why these systems are better than the mechanical type.