Mechanical vs. Electronic Ignition Systems
As most classic car owners know, a mechanical ignition system relies on points, springs, an external coil, and a distributor. While older mechanical systems can provide enough spark to handle casual driving duties, they tend to require regular maintenance every 5k - 10k miles and have parts that can fail in between. While points, coils, and distributors can be less expensive, they don’t provide the most reliable method of providing spark to your motor, and as a result, this scenario can contribute to more erratic fuel economy.
Electrical systems are a modified version of the mechanical ignition system in that you still have a distributor, but the system uses an electrical signal to control the ignition process. Some electronic ignition systems use an ECU (electronic control unit) that works with camshaft position sensors to know when to send the exact signal to the spark plugs to obtain optimum fuel economy and performance. An electric system is more reliable and requires less maintenance. The downside of electrical systems is that they are more expensive to purchase, but once installed, they are worry-free.
What Are The Best Ignition Upgrades?
Several companies make quality ignition products, and we have included some of our favorites below.
PerTronix Ignitor Ignition Systems
This PerTronix system is a distributor conversion that can be installed in less than 15 minutes. The system uses trigger magnets, which turn with the rotor to operate the switching module. No external control box is needed since everything fits snugly under the distributor cap. Since the Pertronix Ignitor is sealed, it is impervious to debris, moisture, or heat. The ease of installation makes Pertronix Ignition systems an ideal alternative for any classic car restoration project. This unit is a 12 V negative ground kit, although the company also offers 6 V or 12 V positive ground kits.
A review of most Mopar forums ranks the Pertronix ignition systems with very high marks, and the unit consistently makes the best ignition lists. Amazon ranks the system as a “choice” award winner, with a solid 4.3 rating. The ignitor systems carry a 30-month warranty on defects and can usually ship orders within 2 -3 days.
Pertronix makes three primary options for its Ignitor series, including the Ignitor 1, designed for classic stock rebuilds; Ignitor 2, which offers some performance capabilities; and Ignitor 3, solely built for racing, high-performance applications.
Pertronix is one of the premier ignition system purveyors based out of San Limas, CA. The company was initially known as Per-Lux and was founded in 1962 as a supplier of fog lights for heavy-duty trucks. In the 70s, the company’s engineers developed an electronic ignition, eventually developed for use in automobiles in the mid-80s. In 1991, the ignition portion of the company was purchased and became the PerTronix that we know today. In 2020, the company merged with the Aeromotive Group family.
- Easy to Install
- Simple distributor conversion
- Adequate spark for most applications
- Stable timing, but not adjustable
FBO HRR688 Mopar Computerized Ignition
The FBO HRR688 kit produces 44KV of power, with an externally adjustable rev limiter that is tunable in 200 rpm increments between 5200 - 7,000. If you wish, the system does provide the ability to eliminate the ballast resistor or leave it (the kit provides a small connector cable if you want to keep it. Either way, it is a simple wiring modification to make, which makes us happy. (We like simple). The 6061 machined aluminum CnC (Computer numerical control) case. The unit does not require any additional ground wire.
The HRR688 system is easily installable and works with any Ford, Chrysler, or AMC applications that use the four-wire hookup and magnetic distributor. The unit is fully “digital” ignition, and does not drop cylinders, or retard the timing.
When installing the kit, you will likely need to upgrade your ignition coil (stock coils are suitable for about 30 - 35KV, and this system pushes more than that). FBO offers a package deal with a new ignition coil kit. The control case is designed to fit Mopar vehicles with predrilled mounting holes to make installation a breeze.
Mopar forums indicate that the HRR688 system provides plenty of spark and works very well to replace old ignition systems. Users expressed no complaints about the system, although if you need more than 7,000 rpms, this system cannot accommodate you (no induction ignition system will). If you need more, then it is best to consider one of their CD-1 or CD-Pro capacitor-style ignition systems.
FBO Ignition manufactures all the system components in the US and operates out of Cottage Grove, OR. The company is committed to the quality of its parts and refuses to outsource or sell a part it believes may have quality issues. FBO Ignitions offers free shipping within the US and an excellent five-year warranty on this product.
- Easy install
- Designed for any four-point ignition/magnetic distributor
- High quality
- Excellent reviews
- USA made
- Excellent warranty
- Does not work with all systems
- Rev limiter will not operate over 7k rpms.
Performance Distributors (Dodge Small Block) DUI Distributor
The D.U.I (Davis Unified Ignition) is an excellent choice for delivering consistent spark for your small block Dodge. It is a simple drop-in, coil-in-cap unit that hooks up with a 12 v hot wire one-wire setup (a tachometer hook up is also available). The D.U.I. system is simple and straightforward and will go a long way to cleaning up the jumbles of wires that restorers often have to contend with in many classic Mopar ignition systems.
Performance Distributors offers the D.U.I in either a Street/Strip version, which has a limit of 7,000 rpms, or a bit more complex Racing version (10,000 rpm limit). The system allows the coil to provide a hotter spark since no ballast resistor is needed. The more intense spark means more fuel gets burned, triggering more power and response from your engine.
One of the reasons that Performance Distributors made our list is that every D.U.I distributor is made to the exact specifications of your engine. Their attention to detail and desire to meet the precise performance needs of their customers is excellent. While getting your specially, dialed in distributor might take a while (some Mopar distributors can take up to six weeks), the wait is worth it. The craftsmanship is excellent, and considering that plugging in this distributor will help you feel all the power your engine was meant to provide. (It just brings a smile to most scrappy Mopar muscle head’s face).
Performance Distributors has good reviews on Google, and many commend the company for its excellent customer service. Davis offers a two-year warranty on the street/strip version, while the racing application is warrantied for 90 days. The company offers free shipping for orders over $149. They are based out of Memphis, Tenn. They are a family-owned business that seems to care for its clientele.
- Family-owned company
- Fashioned to Exact Specs
- Can Take Time To Fulfill Orders
MSD Ignition Pro-Billet
This ready-to-run Pro-Billet distributor by MSD fits a wide variety of vehicles that have the 318 -360 LA V8s in them (1964 - 1981). This unit has a powerful 7.5 amp single spark that is consistent through higher rpms. Both the vacuum and mechanical advance can be used to improve fuel economy or be locked out. This unit does not require an MSD ignition control, which other units that MSD makes may require. There is a built-in rev-limiter (7k rpm).
Reviews are strong, with many online reports indicating an immediate increase in performance with no hesitation and a cleaner burn. The installation is simple (only three wires to connect), and the magnetic pickup is maintenance-free, which creates stable trigger signals throughout the entire rpm range.
The MSD is street-legal in all 50 states. While MSD billet distributors like this one can increase power, they are more aptly designed to provide better startup, idle, and some better low torque because of a complete fuel burn during low rpms. This unit is a perfect setup for the casual car restorer who doesn’t plan to race his project car through the streets but just wants a good, solid performer for weekend cruises.
For the past forty years, MSD has been a leading purveyor of ignition systems. While they have a strong race pedigree, they are also interested in helping owners equip their classics with robust multi-spark ignition systems. These reliable systems tend to be consistent because they are durable, last a long time, and deliver a consistent performance with every startup.
MSD Performance is a part of the Holley family of companies headquartered in El Paso, TX. The company offers a one-year warranty on all MSD brand products (the company will repair the unit). MSD does offer free shipping on some items.
- Strong Reputation
- Mechanical and Vacuum advance lockouts
- Street legal
- Warranty could be better.
Proform Electronic Distributor Conversion Kits
You wouldn’t think a GM supplier of aftermarket parts would know anything about Mopar. Still, at the risk of angering some Chrysler, Dodge, and Plymouth purists, Proform knows a few things. This Proform Electronic Distributor Conversion Kit fits the RB engines Mopar was famous for producing in the 60s and 70s.
It is the perfect unit to convert your old points ignition to a quick-starting electric system that will deliver a constant trigger signal when needed. Proform makes its components from new parts. It doesn’t rebuild units and resell them. The distributor is a magnetic pickup with a mechanical and vacuum advance. We especially loved the old, retro-styled Mopar logo that is prominently displayed. (Nice Touch).
This unit has a female socket distributor cap and is black so that it won’t detract from the rest of your engine rebuild. Proform is a Mopar-licensed electric ignition designed to look good and run right. The 12V unit has a negative ground, and wiring is included. We always recommend an ignition coil and spark plug wire replacement when converting the distributor.
Proform Parts (aka Speciality Auto Parts USA, Inc.) is a leading supplier of performance aftermarket parts. The company assembles parts in the US and is based in Warren, MI. They offer a 12-month/unlimited product warranty and will ship for free if you order more than $99.
- Great retro look for classic Big Block Mopars
- 12 v unit
- 12 month - unlimited warranty
- Good reviews for customer service
- Not designed for racing applications