The Right Distributor Keeps Vintage British Race Cars Sparking

Five distributors after the rebuilding and upgrading process
Five distributors after the rebuilding and upgrading process

If you are running a vintage British car on this historic racing circuit and running the original Lucas ignition system, chances are pretty good you’re going to bump into Jeff Schlemmer and his company Advanced Distributors somewhere along the line.

Ironically, Schlemmer’s first distributor rebuild was done on a Delco distributor from a ’67 Camaro. That was back in high school when he used to get his assignments done ahead of the rest of the class and play with an old distributor testing machine stored in the back of his high school auto shop.

“The shop teacher didn’t know much about the old Sun machine, except that it wasn’t functional.” Jeff recalls. He repaired the tester’s strobe light and used it to re-curve the Camaro distributor with the help of a Hot Rod magazine article. Since then, he’s been tuning every car he’s owned — plus many more owned by his customers. Working on British car ignition systems is his specialty.

As you know, a car’s distributor sends the flow of high-voltage electricity from the coil to each of the engine’s cylinders. The electricity moves from the coil, through the high-tension center wire, to the center tower on the distributor cap. Inside the distributor cap is a rotating contact (rotor) that transfers the pulse from the center tower to one of the spark plug contacts inside the cap. The cables connected to each contact carry the voltage to the spark plugs. As the rotor spins, it hits each successive contact, firing one cylinder, then the next one.

The sparking action must speed up — or be advanced — as the engine runs faster. Older distributors use weights to advance the spark. Vacuum-type distributors use engine vacuum to speed the spark. Later cars adopted transistorized or electronic ignitions, often with computers controlling advance.

Distributors suffer mechanical wear or electrical failures like shorts and loose wires. Parts can freeze up from rust or break from abuse. Oil, dirt and moisture can cause additional problems. There are some NOS (new old stock) distributors available for classic cars, but they are hard to find. Luckily, most distributors can be rebuilt, unless they are damaged or weathered beyond repair.

Schlemmer does only first-class distributor rebuilds. “Every distributor we rebuild is disassembled, cleaned and glass-bead blasted,” he told The Burnout. “Then, it is inspected for wear. After we fully assess the problems, we contact the car owner with a list of necessary and optional repairs.”

Repairs to an older points-type distributor can include polishing the distributor’s shaft and the cam lobes that force the contact points to open. “We seal or lubricate any parts that may rust,” Jeff pointed out. “We also reduce end play in the main shaft and cam assembly to closer-than-factory tolerances.”

According to Schlemmer, in a good rebuild, the advance weight pivots will be repaired as needed. “We grind the weight stops so that both weights seat at the same time,” said Jeff. “The seat stops are often misplaced in the initial assembly procedure, which alters the distributor’s amount of total advance.”

Schlemmer pointed out that shops with the proper knowledge and equipment can test a shaft for run-out and straighten it if it tests bad. He recommends replacing ground wires and terminal block wires whenever needed. “When the advance assembly is held together with a clip, this can be a problem,” said Schlemmer. “It’s possible to modify the shaft so the whole assembly can be retained with a screw. This allows adjustment of any excessive end-play. “

A rebuilder should be able to re-curve a distributor to either its original advance curve or to optional high-performance specifications, says Schlemmer, He uses a Sun 680 distributor tester or a Snap-On Distrib-U-Scope tester for this. “It makes me feel young,” he says. “It takes me back to my high school days.”

About John Gunnell 141 Articles
John “Gunner” Gunnell has been writing about cars since ‘72. As a kid in Staten Island, N.Y., he played with a tin Marx “Service Garage” loaded with toy vehicles, his favorite being a Hubley hot rod. In 2010, he opened Gunner’s Great Garage, in Manawa, Wis., a shop that helps enthusiasts restore cars. To no one’s surprise, he decorated 3G’s with tin gas stations and car toys. Gunner started writing for two car club magazines. In 1978, publisher Chet Krause hired him at Old Cars Weekly, where he worked from 1978-2008. Hot rodding legend LeRoi “Tex” Smith was his boss for a while. Gunner had no formal journalism training, but working at a weekly quickly taught him the trade. Over three decades, he’s met famous collectors, penned thousands of articles and written over 85 books. He lives in Iola, Wis., with his nine old cars, three trucks and seven motorcycles.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


I agree to receive emails from I understand that I can unsubscribe at any time. Privacy Policy
Copyright © 2005-2022 MH Sub I, LLC dba Internet Brands
All Rights Reserved.

Internet Brands