Of all the great innovations to come in the history of the automobile, electronic ignition is one of them. Transistorized ignition came along in the early 1960s as a means of reducing and eliminating misfire, primarily in high-performance applications. However, it wasn't until the early 1970s when automakers began installing electronic ignitions as original equipment to help reduce emissions, improve fuel economy, and lower maintenance costs.
Chrysler was actually the first automaker to offer an electronic ignition in new cars in 1972, beating the rest by a year or two. Electronic ignition typically consists of a magnetic pick-up coil inside the distributor, an external control unit, ignition coil, and ignition wires. The pick-up coil and control unit perform the same basic function as points.
Although an electronic ignition might seem complex, it's not that hard to install one in your vintage automobile. You may opt for factory electronic ignition or go with one of the aftermarket systems available today. Either way, you get a hot spark, fierce reliability, improved performance, and better fuel economy by ditching your old point-triggered ignition system. Factory electronic ignitions offer the greatest durability and performance when they're installed properly. Aftermarket electronic ignitions tend to be easier to install and can be hidden once installed.
Factory Electronic Ignitions.
First, lets talk about factory electronic ignition. Most factory electronic ignitions get their power right off the ignition switch via a straight lead or resistor (resistor wire or ballast resistor). Ford, as one example, calls for a 0.8 to 1.6 ohm resistor wire between the ignition switch and coil, which happens to be pink in original equipment Ford applications. Otherwise, you may go with a ballast resistor like you see with Chrysler ignition systems. As long as you use some form of required resistance, you're good. Painless Performance, as one example, offers the Ford Duraspark ignition harness for vintage Fords. GM's HEI system is straightforward and self-contained. Chrysler's original electronic ignition system requires a ballast resistor from the ignition switch.
When you opt for a factory electronic ignition system, you're going to need compatible components, including the ignition coil and heavy-duty wires. Spark plugs will need to be compatible with high-energy ignition systems and have larger gaps in the .050-inch+ range depending on the manufacturer. Ideally, you will go with platinum tip plugs and virtually never have to disturb them again.
Aftermarket Electronic Ignitions.
Per-Lux, founded by Lavar Holman in 1962, got the jump on aftermarket electronic ignition with a patented, compact, easy to install electronic ignition retrofit for a point-triggered distributor known as the Ignitor in the 1970s. At the time, the Ignitor wasn't widely known because it was more a commercial fleet retrofit and not generally available to the private installer. In 1990, Per-Lux became PerTronix and the pursuit of the classic car distributor market was on. When the PerTronix Ignitor became available for classic cars, it became the single greatest retrofit available for old cars with point-triggered ignition systems. Imagine, an electronic ignition install in 30 minutes that's virtually maintenance-free.