Timing skills

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Going through my drawers, I came across my old Sears Timing light. I got it on a trip to the US in the late 1990s. It was well used when I drove around in gas-powered car. Then it got put aside when I started driving a diesel-powered car.

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This was a useful tool in tuning your car if it had a distributor. Usually, if you had to change your spark plugs you would also need to change your contact point and condenser. There would some who would set the crankshaft timing marks to zero degrees or at TDC (top dead center). By doing so, that would also put the distributor rotor point to indicate it at spark plug No. 1. Then you could make alignment marks on the distributor body and engine, so that after you are done removing the distributor, it would be easier to return it. I would remove the distributor so it would be easier to replace the contact point and set the point gap. I would use a feeler gauge to set the correct amount of gap recommended by the manufacturer. If the gap was not to specs, the car either did not start or the points would burn quickly giving the car bad performance. After setting the points, it was time to install the distributor and hopefully everything is still aligned. If the engine didn’t start, then chances are the distributor shaft moved and was misaligned. I remember doing this a couple of times on a Saturday afternoon rushing to make sure I have a ride for the night. Greenhills “standy by.” And true enough, I did something wrong and the car wouldn’t start.

Now, when setting the correct timing, you need to disconnect the hose to the vacuum advance unit on the distributor. Attach the magnetic pick up to the high-tension cable of spark plug No. 1, attach the positive clip to the positive terminal of the battery and the other to the body for grounding. Start the engine and then point the timing light at the crankshaft pulley, and you could see the timing marks if they are aligned. It’s basically a strobe light wherein the light is on when the spark plug fires; that would be No. 1 with the magnetic pick up attached. By moving the body of the distributor, you could alter the position of the timing mark. We would paint the marks white so it would be easier to see them. For others, they would adjust the timing a bit advanced or retarded. Why? There would be some engines, even if was from the same manufacturer, that would perform differently. It’s more like fine- tuning. This was for stock engines; if you modified your engine to go faster, then you need to find the right timing for your car by trial and error. With the advent of EFI (electronic fuel injection) and distributor-less ignition systems, setting the timing of your car manually is not needed. The ECU (engine control unit) does that for you. Some are saying that changing contact points on an old engine is becoming a dying skill. Same as tuning a carburator, even I would stumble if asked to change the points on an old car. That would be very embarrassing.

I still keep my timing light in my drawer. I have no intention of disposing it in the near future. I keep it because I still have friends with old cars that still need an old style tune-up and in the hopes that in the near future, I get a chance to have a project car and use some of the skill I learned. Hopefully…

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