Upgrading to a Modern, but Stealthy Electronic Ignition in Your Classic Truck

By Todd Ryden – Photography by the Author

One of the great things about building a classic truck today is that you don’t need to settle for using a lot of classic (meaning old) parts. If you’re restoring a truck, or trying to keep one appearing vintage, there are a lot of modern, performance parts that you can use and still retain the vintage look guidelines.

Flame-Thrower-Igniter-II-module-Kit
The brains of the new distributor come from PerTronix’s proven Ignitor II assembly. The electronic trigger assembly is maintenance-free plus its adaptive dwell control produces a powerful spark combined with accurate trigger signals. Plus, there are only two wires to connect.
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One perfect example of an affordable performance upgrade is your truck’s ignition system. Stepping up to a new performance distributor has several advantages, including a modern, electronic trigger device and a more accurate timing advance. One company that can deliver these performance updates is PerTronix.

PerTronix-electronic-ignition-conversion-kits
The Flame-Thrower is supplied with different advance springs and timing limiters. Out of the box, it is set to allow 24 degrees of mechanical advance at the slowest rate due to the heaviest springs.

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For years, PerTronix was known for their line of breaker points replacement kits with their PerTronix Ignitor Kits. These electronic ignition conversion kits simply mounted inside the distributor to replace the worn-out mechanical points providing a more consistent trigger signal as well as improved dwell control to improve the spark output. Today, PerTronix still offers these kits, but also offers a full line of billet distributors, performance ignition coils, ignition boxes, plug wires, and more.

Flame-Thrower-Igniton-Advance-Chart
This chart shows different examples of timing curves available simply by changing the advance springs. The springs are responsible for changing the rate of advance.
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The old small-block Chevy in our 1940 Ford pickup project, was long overdue for an ignition upgrade so we opted to try out PerTronix’s Flame-Thrower ignition kit based on their Plug and Play Billet Distributor. The distributor is built on a CNC-machined housing for a solid foundation and incorporates the reliability of their Ignitor II module complemented with an adjustable mechanical advance and an economical vacuum advance.

Adjusting-mechanical-advance-PerTronix
We opted to install the lightest springs (copper colored) so our mechanical timing would start advancing just over idle. Since we run about 12 degrees of initial timing in our mild 350, we decided to stop the timing advance at 20 degrees, which means our total timing (the full amount of mechanical advance added to the initial timing) will be limited to 32 degrees. We also plan to run the vacuum advance, which will add another 10-12 degrees, but only at cruising speeds.

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The nice thing about the Plug and Play Distributor is that it’s the same size as the OEM points unit so there are no firewall clearance issues. Since our truck has an old-school vibe to it, we chose a black points–style cap with the old socket terminals (PerTronix also offers it with a sharp, injection-molded cap with HEI terminals). Thanks to the Ignitor technology, installation is a breeze with only two wires that connect directly to the new chrome PerTronix coil.

Crank-Ignition-Timing
If you’re replacing the distributor in a running engine, it’s always a good idea to roll it over until top dead center (TDC) on the number one cylinder. This will make it a little easier to get the new distributor positioned in the correct position. Once the timing indicator is at TDC, remove the distributor cap and ensure the rotor is pointing to the number one wire terminal. It could be pointing at number six, meaning you need to spin the engine over another turn.

To finish our ignition upgrade, our kit was supplied with a universal set of MAGX2 8mm plug wires. These wires have a unique dual path core with a spiral wound stainless alloy conductor wrapped around a carbon-glass center core. The wire has a high heat sleeve and is flexible to custom route from the plugs up to the cap.

Preparing-lubricating-Distributor-gear
Before installing the distributor, it is a best practice to coat the distributor gear with a heavy-duty lubricant. We had a tube of Driven’s Assembly Grease on the shelf, which was perfect. Don’t forget to install the gasket!
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Before installing the distributor, we positioned our engine at top dead center to make it easier to get the distributor installed right. Also, we changed out the advance springs to get a quicker mechanical advance and added the 20-degree advance limiters since we already run about 12-degrees BTDC of timing at start-up. The engine fired right up and we got the initial timing set to where our engine is happy at idle and during cranking. Once everything was dialed in, we plugged in the vacuum advance to a ported vacuum source on the carb to help out our cruising economy.

Pertronix-billet-distributor-firewall-clearance
The Flame-Thrower Distributor slid right down into the small-block, though we did have to rotate the oil pump shaft slightly to align it to engage on the distributor shaft (easy to do with a long, flat-blade screwdriver). Take care to make sure the distributor flange is flush against the intake manifold before installing the clamp! Snug the clamp, but don’t tighten it until the timing is set.

The engine still has the vintage look we’re going for in our 1940 yet with a modern, higher output ignition system thanks to PerTronix. Check out how it all came together and find an ignition upgrade kit for your truck at pertronixbrands.com.

Pertronix-billet-distributor-Adjustment
The Flame-Thrower Distributor slid right down into the small-block, though we did have to rotate the oil pump shaft slightly to align it to engage on the distributor shaft (easy to do with a long, flat-blade screwdriver). Take care to make sure the distributor flange is flush against the intake manifold before installing the clamp! Snug the clamp, but don’t tighten it until the timing is set.
Pertronix-billet-distributor-Cap-install
With the distributor installed, we noted the position of the rotor as it is positioned at number one. That gives you the starting location to position the plug wires in a clockwise rotation with the firing order of 1-8-4-3-6-5-7-2.
Pertronix-billet-distributor-Cap-installation
With the distributor installed, we noted the position of the rotor as it is positioned at number one. That gives you the starting location to position the plug wires in a clockwise rotation with the firing order of 1-8-4-3-6-5-7-2.
Pertronix-billet-distributor-Plug-Wire-difference
Speaking of plug wires, our kit came with a new set of 8mm MAGX2 wires in black. We chose a universal set, which means the spark plug side terminal and boot are installed from the factory, but you get to route the wires how you want and then cut and install the supplied terminals. It’s a little more work but worth the effort. The kit is supplied with HEI-style or the older socket-style terminals and boots, depending on which cap you’re using.
Pertronix-wire-splicer
If you ever plan to make your own plug wires again, do yourself a favor and invest in a quality set of crimpers. We’ve had this crimp tool for a few years and it continues to come in handy (especially since the jaws can be changed out for other terminals).
Pertronix-Igniter-leads
Strip the wire sleeve to expose the conductor, which is then bent back and placed between the sleeve and the terminal. Carefully position the crimp tool over the assembly without pinching your fingers and crimp down for the perfect crimp!
Pertronix-Igniter-leads-crimping
Strip the wire sleeve to expose the conductor, which is then bent back and placed between the sleeve and the terminal. Carefully position the crimp tool over the assembly without pinching your fingers and crimp down for the perfect crimp!
Flamethrower-II-Ignitor-Module-install
Our new coil is mounted inside the cab, so it’s a bummer the nice chrome housing will not be seen. The low-resistance Flame-Thrower Coil is designed for use with PerTronix Ignitors and their CD ignitions.
Pertronix-billet-distributor-Final-Install-Plug-wires
Nice new black wires with the old-style socket cap hide the modern performance inside our new Flame-Thrower distributor. The billet housing is fitted with a ball bearing–supported shaft for endurance and timing accuracy. Modern engineering in a classic distributor for classic trucks! (Note that we did end up connecting the vacuum advance to a ported source on our carb.)

Source:
PerTronix Ignition Products
pertronixbrands.com

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