To Update Or Not to Update?

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 todrive 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 –

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.

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