Distributor Basics With MSD Ignition And Performance Distributors


When it comes to engine and car tuning, the initial spark is what starts it all. From the moment the key is turned, the ignition system’s spark is essential to engine performance. We spoke with two of manufacturers specializing in ignition systems and distributors, MSD Ignition Systems and Performance Distributors.

MSD Ignition Systems

We spoke with Silver Gomez at MSD Ignition Systems to discuss ignition system basics and the effectiveness of their products. Whether you have an analog or digital system, MSD capacitive discharge ignition systems help to provide improved throttle response and easier starts.

Digital ignition systems are beneficial in that they provide: accurate timing, reliability, complete access to the timing curve via dip switches, smaller ignition box size, and the ability to change the initial timing electronically. Not all digital ignition systems provide timing or complete access to the timing curve. As an example, the MSD 6AL is digital, but timing and curve are done with the distributor.

Left: MSD 6AL digital ignition control module versus the original 6AL Right: MSD 6AL digital ignition connector points changed between the old and new model.

Chevy Hardcore: Explain the importance of utilizing a performance ignition system. What are the benefits of a performance ignition system? Any drawbacks?

Silver Gomez: “For performance applications, it is very important to ensure that the ignition system is capable of handling the needs and demands of your engine and application. An engine’s overall performance is counting on that spark for complete combustion of the air/fuel mixture where a sub-performing ignition will rob your engine of its true potential.

Remember, a stock ignition was manufactured to be adequate at best and as hot rodders or racers boost the compression, add more fuel, crave more RPM and other modifications, a stock ignition system isn’t up to the task of providing the spark to induce combustion in the cylinder. That is why you need a better ignition system.”

Furthermore, Gomez said as far as drawbacks, there aren’t any really. He said a powerful spark at the plug can improve the performance of stock engines.

CHC: What are the typical applications where people might want to run a performance ignition system?

SG: “These ignition controls can be found on antiques, musclecars, street rods, and even race cars. The familiar red box mounted under the hood pops up in the pits and at shows around the world.

MSD Wiring kits and distributor installed in one of our project cars

If you’re looking for increased performance, you should consider ignition upgrades. Consider a traditional engine in a hot rod. These are inductive ignition systems and without drawing things out, they are not known for producing full voltage output at higher RPM—this could lead to a misfire and loss of performance.

An MSD ignition control, such as the 6AL, uses Capacitive Discharge (CD) technology. This high voltage, as well as high voltage at high RPM is a performance improvement for any engine. Better yet, that spark is always at full voltage whether you’re at an idle or at 6,500 rpm (or 8,000-9,000 rpm).”

The MSD 6AL ignition kit and Blaster SS coil mounted in different applications

CHC: Explain why spark quality is directly correlated to engine power.

SG: “You need a spark that is capable of supporting power. Higher voltage is required to get the voltage to jump across the spark plug as cylinder pressures increase.

If your ignition is not up to the task, there will be a misfire or worse. An ignition supports power whether it is 300 horsepower or 1,800 horsepower.

MSD developed the 2-Step Rev Control to help racers improve their launches, 60-foot times, and consistency.”

The MSD 2-Step module can be mounted in several locations due to its small size

Performance Distributors

We sat down with Steve Davis of Performance Distributors to discuss distributor basics and what their products do exactly. Performance Distributors’ DUI (Davis Unified Ignition) distributor is different from multi-spark systems in that MSD is an external CD ignition as the DUI is a built-in part of the distributor.

With the ability to custom tune the system, this ensures maximum performance and eliminates detonation. Without further ado, let’s jump into the questions we asked Davis about his company and what they offer to consumers and the racing community.

Our coil produces more voltage under a load (hard acceleration) which allows you to open your plug gaps to .050″-.055″. The result is a more complete burn of your fuel mixture.    – Steve Davis

CHC: What did founder Kelly Davis accomplish in order to design the High Energy Ignition (HEI) technology in each Performance Distributors product?

SD: “When the first HEI systems came out from GM in 1974, Kelly (my Dad) began experimenting with them. At first, he believed that the HEI didn’t show much promise as becoming a performance ignition system. However, over some time, he began to test new ideas on the HEI, and eventually perfected it as both a performance and an all-out racing system.”

CHC: With each distributor being hand-built, calibrated and tested, can you shed some light on some of the quality control testing that you perform on your products?

A closer look at the product, before and after installation.

SD: “Each distributor is assigned an individual ID number as it is being assembled. In fact, it is actually engraved on the bottom of the distributor housing. We keep a permanent record on file with the timing curve recorded.

Testing is commenced to ensure performance and reliability

This is helpful if the customer changes cams, pistons, etc., or if he wants to put the distributor in a different motor; he can call us with his ID number, we can pull his file, and discuss whether or not he needs a new timing curve.

Every unit is dialed in on a distributor machine. The units are lubed where appropriate and parts are polished where needed. The end-play between the gear and the housing is checked with a feeler gauge. This ensures the correct amount of magnetic pick-up alignment while preventing the distributor gear from being in a bind.

The final stage is to test fire the unit for spark. This keeps the customer from getting a dud right out of the box.”

CHC: Explain what a consumer needs to know when purchasing a distributor.

SD: “The most important factors are cam duration and lift, compression ratio, octane of the gas, and weight of the vehicle. Other possible factors can be if the customer is running nitrous, blower, or a turbo-charger.”

Inside the heart of a Performance Distributor

CHC: What is the correct application when choosing between mechanical or vacuum advance design distributors? Please explain some of the determining factors.

SD: “A vacuum advance is a must for street applications. A vacuum advance improves gas mileage (2 to 3 mpg is no exaggeration) and it helps to keep your plugs cleaner.

Road racers can also benefit from the extra mpg, drag racers and oval track racers usually don’t have much vacuum.”

Overall Impressions

The right performance ignition system is the key ingredient to unleashing the most out of your car from the moment the key is turned. You can’t go wrong with either of these leading manufacturers; it all simply comes down to preference.

Both companies provide reliability and warrant their products to ensure customer satisfaction and performance gains. MSD and Performance Distributors have simplified the ignition process to make it easier for consumers and tuners to install their products with little duress. We hope that this information will help guide you toward the purchase that best suits  your specific application. Be sure to visit MSD Ignition Systems and Performance Distributors websites to learn more about their current products.

Article Sources

About the author


Nic Aguon is a graduate from San Jose State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in journalism and mass communications and holds a passion for sleek and unique automobiles. Serving as a Staff Writer for multiple publications at Power Automedia, Nic pledges to bring readers clean and concise storytelling that hits the nail right on the head. A jack of all trades, his interests range from imports to American muscle, hot rods, and Kustoms.
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