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Ignition Control

From Carb to EFI, with Ignition Control, on just a fistful of


Objective of this Article

This article will walk you through the process of installing a MegaSquirt EFI system on a classic
carb’d vehicle attempting to go the least expensive route possible using junkyard parts and DIY
ingenuity. We’ll be using an MegaSquirt-II v3.57 ECU. This is Part 2 of the process, in Part 1 we
completed the initial Fuel Injection Conversion, converting the car over to an EFI ‘fuel only’ setup
leaving control of the ignition in the hands of the old school distributor initially. This is easy to do for
the first-time EFIer and takes much of the intimidation out of the process. Now with that foundation
laid the ignition control will be pretty simple to add as well so here in Part II we’re going to take
control of the ignition with the MegaSquirt-II as well.
We chose a 1977 Chevy Nova with a 350 small block as our subject, but the principles laid out here
can be used just the same on a big block Chevy, or a Ford or Dodge small or big block engine, inline
engine, a foreign motor… a motor is a motor is a motor. You may not be able to use the same
exact distributor we snagged as we took one from a computer controlled smallblock Chevy that was
actually originally used with the same TBI system that we grafted onto this car. But if your motor
was ever used with a computer controlled ignition you can likely snag those bits and follow our lead
to do something similar. Or there are always other options, such as modifying your stock distributor
to lock down the mechanical ignition advance (vacuum and centrifugal) and then using it with
computer control. Or fitting a crank trigger wheel to your engine and either using your distributor to
spread the spark around, or converting to a coil pack ignition system. We’ll cover what we did on
our car in detail, but then we’ll also cover your other options.
Note that though this is one example of a Carb-to-EFI conversion using a MegaSquirt-II this system
can be used on just about any vehicle, using TBI or Multi-Port injection, even Central Port injection if
you so choose. We’ve kept the focus on these first two articles on converting to EFI as affordably as
possible, in stages allowing the first time EFI to take on EFI in steps that will help take much of the
mysticism out of the process. We’ll be doing further articles including converting to Multi-Port EFI
soon which will involve more cost, and provide more performance. Stay tuned.
As always, we highly recommend you dig into the MSExtra Manuals in addition to these articles. It’s
a big read, but it’s a valuable resource that our guides are meant to supplement and not replace.

What we did: Stock GM TBI Era

Back to the Boneyard…

Digging up the Distributor and Coil

I headed back down to the local pull-a-part looking for Chevy/GMC vans again as this seems to be
the most prevalent source of GM TBI era bits for Chevy V8’s. Look for VIN ‘K’ vehicles for SBC 350
motors, though for the ignition parts the 305 bits would have been just fine I imagine. I found a
distributor, coil, and all pigtails with a foot or so of wiring attached. Paid my $31 for them and was on
my way. On the way back to the shop I stopped and picked up a new cap and rotor for them. That
was $29, about as much as I paid for the dizzy and coil ;). So I was $60 in. Not bad.
By the way- make sure your dizzy has the HEI module inside of it, I saw a few with this
missing. And check for broken clips on the pigtails, there’s always another van you can snag them
from if you need it. You can probably find the same pigtails in the 6cyl vans in a pinch.
Distributor rebuilder Pierre Payant contributed a couple of tips about common problems to check for
on used HEI distributors:

First concern: the distributor uses a plastic base to secure the cap. The ears on
that base are very-often cracked or broken… These distributors are nearly
impossible to fix inexpensively, so checking the cap-mounting ears is very
important. Junkyarders should remove the cap and check for damage before
they pull and purchase. Also, using caution whenever reinstalling the cap is of
paramount importance… this is old, heat-cycled plastic and those tabs are easy
to break. It doesn’t take a lot of fastener torque to secure a distributor cap, so
don’t go crazy.
The other thing to check is the factory ignition coil used with this setup. These
are notorious for voltage leakage from the coil’s windings through the case to the
laminated surround plate, which will cause intermittent misfires under load that
can drive a person to drink trying to diagnose. The problem is easily seen,
though, by inspecting the coil itself. If the plastic coil case has what appear to be
“hard-water” stains (dry white or grey marks) near the laminated surround, it
shouldn’t be used as the coil has been grounding itself and will continue to do so.
The problem with this leakage is that it seems to only happen under a load,
making it nearly impossible to diagnose in the shop. High-performance
aftermarket coils seem less susceptible to this problem while GM and parts-store
replacements seem to eventually fail in the same manner… though these E-coils
rarely outright die.
I thought you might want to insert this information in your ignition article to avoid
heartbreak or frustration among the frugal Chevy guys duplicating your setup.
Thanks, Pierre!

Checking out what I’d found

All appears to be in good shape. The distributor has an 8-pin HEI module inside of it. Two of the
eight pins go straight to the VR sensor inside the distributor. Then there is a 2 pin connector and a 4
pin connector on the outside of the distributor, both mushroom shaped. You did get the pigtails for
these right?
Installing the Distributor (don’t pull the old one out yet!)
You install your distributor pretty much the same way you would any other time. There’s one notable
exception– you get to choose which distributor terminal is #1 now. To reduce the chance of
confusion, and because your plug wires are probable already laid out for it, I’d choose the distributor
terminal that’s in the same position #1 has always been in. Here’s a step-by-step though….

1. First get your #1 cylinder at TDC on the compression stroke. The easiest trick to do this is to
pull the spark plug out of the hole, cover the plug hole with your finger tip (not in the hole,
over the hole sealing it) and have someone ‘just bump’ the ignition until it pops your finger off
the plug hole with a burst of air. You’re close to TDC now. Look at your damper timing
markings and use a socket on the crank pulley bolt to line it up just right at TDC.
2. Pull your old distributor out. If you waiting until now to pull it out your life will be easier as the
slot in the top of the oil pump shaft will be lined up just right to drop in the new distributor. If
not then you’re going to have a bit of fun with a long screwdriver or pry bar lining that thing
up before the next step. Don’t drop the screwdriver.
3. Determine which way you want the electrical connectors on the HEI8 distributor to point
out. I pointed mine directly out towards the passenger fender.
4. Insert the new HEI8 distributor with the electrical connectors pointed where you want them,
and the rotor pointed just a few degrees COUNTER-clockwise of the #1 plug position. As
you sink it into place it should seat all the way down and the rotor will rotate a few degrees
back clockwise now leaving it pointing at or near the #1 terminal (or where that terminal will
be when you install the cap).
5. Snug the distributor into place, you don’t have to crank it down yet, you’ll set base timing a
bit later and will need to twist it a bit.

Mount the Coil

Find a suitable place and mount the coil. Many aftermarket intake manifold have holes
drilled/tapped in the factory location for this coil right next to the distributor. If your throttle bracket
isn’t in the way then this is the perfect place to mount the coil. If it is in the way, or you need to put it
somewhere else for another reason, then find a good spot and mount it up. I’m more into function
than form myself and just mounted it to the firewall right next to the distributor. Keep in mind the
wiring length you’ve gotten from the junkyard for the Coil-to-Module wiring (which you could extend if
you wanted to really). Also note that the coil bracket needs to be grounded. Bolting it to the engine
is perfect, in my case it’s working fine bolted to the firewall with that as a chassis ground.
How do I wire it up?

Pretty straightforward setup here — Note I’m only showing the ignition related wiring attached to the
relay board here. If you were previously running a fuel only setup similar to what we detailed in this
article then you had a wire run from the TACH terminal on your old distributor to the TACH terminal
on the relay board. You’d remove that (and it’s shielded wire that was connected to a ground on the
relay board). Then you’d wire the new setup in as shown above.
1. COIL 12V POWER: It’s pretty simple to use the stock 12v wire that used to connect to the
factory distributor.
2. COIL to MODULE WIRING: This is two wires (C and + in the diagram above) with factory
connector on each end. Just plug the coil into the HEI Module, that’s it.
1. G (Ground): Wire to TPS Ret on the Relay Board
2. B (5V): Wire to VREF on the Relay Board
3. R (Signal from Reluctor/Module to ECU): Wire to TACH on the Relay Board
4. E (Signal from ECU to HEI Module to fire the coil): Wire to S5 on the Relay Board
(S5 goes back to pin36 on MegaSquirt)
One note: You might notice in the MSExtra MS2 Manual, the recommendation to wire the B wire
(5V) through a relay that makes this 5v signal hot when the engine is running, but not when it is
cranking. Let me explain why– this 5v signal tells the HEI module to allow the ECU to control the
timing. When the ECU is NOT getting a 5v signal it goes back to base timing (whatever you set with
a timing light here in a few minutes). The stock ECU does NOT send 5v when cranking so that the
engine cranks at base timing. Wiring this as per the manual creates the same type of behavior. My
wiring recommendation above goes about this differently, but works well nonetheless. The
difference is the computer is controlling timing during cranking. This shouldn’t cause a problem as
long as the computer is configured properly, and in my tests I’ve had no negative effects at all.
Ignition Timing Connector- The factory wiring you snagged had a single wire disconnect on the B
wire (wired to VREF on the Relay Board). This is there to allow you to set base timing as controlled
by the module. Go ahead and disconnect this leaving this circuit open for now. This will allow the
car to be started at module base timing, you can then set the base timing with a light (with the old
dizzy twist) and then you’ll connect this connector back up, giving the computer control.