You need two things to make an engine run—fuel and fire. Most engine upgrades are going to be targeted at things like improving flow, compression, and fuel delivery. However, in the quest for more power one cannot leave the ignition system behind. Performance modifications to the ignition are key to keeping up with a powerful engine. They are also capable of improving drivability, fuel economy, and efficiency and can even free up or create additional horsepower.
A great place to start upgrading the ignition system on any vehicle is the controller of spark. On internal combustion engines this is going to lead you right to the distributor. If you’re working with an old points style, it’s worth swapping to electronic ignition. Kits from companies like PerTronix make it possible to do so with the original distributor. Of course, you can just pick up an aftermarket distributor if you prefer.
Electronic ignition helps make for better response and even helps boost fuel economy when used in place of points style distributors. They also are more durable and will require less maintenance. HEI conversions are a great upgrade to consider, as they relocate the coil to the distributor, saving space in the engine bay. Originally known as a design that GM got to take exclusive advantage of, they have now become available to Fords and Mopars. On modern engines such as LS platforms and third gen hemis, the distributor may appear and function a bit differently. They can still be swapped out for aftermarket versions if you’re looking for a better option than stock.
The source of the spark in the ignition system is the coil. The coil’s job is to draw power from the battery and boost it for ignition. Whether working with coil packs or traditional canister style coils, the advantage of an upgraded coil makes for a hotter spark. Intensifying the heat makes it easier to burn the fuel and air mixture. This translates to improved performance. With older engines you’ll likely be dealing with an HEI or canister-type coil and late models will have coil packs. Regardless of the type, companies in the ignition market, like MSD or Accel, will have product to cover your needs.
A lot of vehicles are built with ignition boxes added to the system. If you know what they are, you already know the value of installing one and why owners make such a big deal about them. When just running through the coil and distributor, only a single spark is used to ignite the air and fuel mixture. Ignition boxes use advanced technology to multiply the amount of sparks from one to three. This will increase power, response, and drivability. This only happens up to 3000 RPM in most cases. Anything over that only uses one spark for ignition, but it is still intensified to ensure improved performance. With that in mind, you can set a rev limiter with the use of an ignition box. These units are designed to give users better control and improved performance of their vehicle. For a couple hundred bucks and some minor wiring, it’s absolutely worth it.
Upgrading spark plugs and wires won’t exactly give you more horsepower. Though, the use of inappropriate equipment here will definitely hold the engine back in the terms of performance capabilities. When running a more powerful ignition, thicker wires are a must, as they have to carry the heavier current to the spark plugs. Chances are that ignition upgrades aren’t the only thing you’re doing to the engine. You’ve probably spent some time upgrading the carb, intake and exhaust, maybe even the cylinder heads too. All of this means more air and fuel will be in the chamber and a hotter burn will be needed to ensure proper ignition.