In the old days, a tune-up meant a change of spark plugs, contact point, condenser, resetting your timing and adjusting your valves. Depending on the mileage of your car, the air filter and fuel filter would follow suit. Some aftermarket distributors would have two contact points. Mechanics or car owners would take time to fiddle with the proper gap of the contact point to get the best burn. Installing a larger or stronger ignition coil was also the thing to do before. Mallory and Accel were the brands to have. Even the spark plug cables were also upgraded to silicone-type ones or those with good copper cores. An aftermarket upgrade in the early 1990’s was a local product called “Blue Flame.” It was a device that you attach to your distributor and it would bypass the condenser and give a better spark to the plugs. It claimed it would lengthen the life of contact points.
I also went through the fiddling of contact points when I had a VW Beetle. A modification that I did was to replace the stock Bosch condenser with one from Delco – one for V6 or V8 engines. And yes, it did last: two years. In fact, I had my own timing light and I adjusted the valves myself. This was the age before electronic ignition and electronic fuel injection or EFI (although there are some models which were carbureted but had electronic ignition).
For those who are into cars with EFI but still have distributors, life was easier. Even the spark plugs lasted longer. But for those who are thinking of doing a tune-up for the first time but are scared to do it, don’t worry. When I did it the first time on my own, the car didn’t start. Before you start off, make sure you have a ratchet set with a spark plug remover that will fit the size for your engine. A set of combination wrenches, screwdrivers, a feeler gauge (a US brand would be a good one). If you are planning to do this kind of work and more, start investing in good quality tools.
Before you start, take note of the firing order of your engine and the engine is cool to the touch. Now make sure that the timing mark on the main crank pulley is set to zero. This will put the rotor inside the distributor at No. 1 (Note: these are just the basics for a four-cylinder engine with a contact point /condenser type distributor). Remove the spark plug cables from the spark plugs and remove the distributor cap. Use the correct-sized spark plug remover and remove the spark plugs. The tips of your spark plug should be light brown in color and dry. Make sure the new plugs are the same type or rating as the old ones. If you’re not sure, ask for an original set from your dealer. OEM is still the best. Now if your engine has an electronic ignition system, there’s no need to adjust anything inside. Just an inspection of the rotor tip and the terminals inside the distributor cap if they need cleaning or replacement will do. For those with a contact point and condenser type distributor, you would have to replace those two components. You could do this with the distributor still mounted on the engine or you could remove the distributor for better access. I used to remove the distributor for better access. If you wish to do so, you could put a mark to indicate orientation of the rotor to the body of the distributor and to the engine block as reference. This why we make sure that the timing marks are set at zero (top dead center) and the distributor rotor set at No. 1. Make sure that you use original replacement parts.
Remove the condenser and the contact point. Install the new components. Use the feeler gauge to set the gap of the contact point. Different engines different specs. Usually, it’s the same as your intake valve gap. Basically you’re done. Just install the other components in reverse order. After everything is installed, try starting the car. If it doesn’t start, double check your work. If there is spark going to the spark plugs, try nudging the distributor slightly clockwise or counter clockwise. The timing must have been off. The description here is not as detailed as it should be. I apologize for that. I would eat up too much space and illustrations would be a whole bunch of them. Go to Book Sale. They sometimes have DIY books on car maintenance by Readers Digest. And the contents are more for the older cars. Very good reference for basic mechanical work. If you’re lucky, a Chilton or a Haynes manual for your car would pop up once in awhile.
If you have any questions regarding mechanical work or car trouble, please feel free to send us an email (firstname.lastname@example.org). We are more than willing to try and answer your inquiry.