TECH TIP Technical Index

Installing a Solid-State Ignition in Your VW

by Mike C. -

Aaaaah, breaker points! Donít you just love to continually check the gap, clean them if necessary, replace both the points and condensor, and keep tabs on your timing? I personally like the "throw it in and forget it" peace of mind that the solid-state ignitions provide. Donít get me wrong, points are actually very reliable pieces if they are given the proper attention just like the rest of your VW engine. Anyone who owns and drives an air-cooled VW knows that they are not maintenance-free relative to todayís cars, but you can get that much closer if you install one of the several solid-state ignitions that are out there.

Just how does a solid-state ignition work? It works by using a Hall-effect magnetic rotor ring that slips on over the part of the distributor shaft where the points rub against. The points and condensor are replaced by a self-contained sensor and electronic triggering device. The rotor ring contains four magnets spaced 90 degrees apart. When one of the magnets passes by the sensor, the sensor then detects this and triggers the coil to fire. Since there is no contact made between the rotor ring and the sensor, nothing wears out, and the timing and dwell always remain constant. These solid-state units usually have a little more dwell programmed in, as well as increased current output, so the spark lasts a bit longer and is stronger, as well. What this means is that your fuel mixture is burned more completely and will give you a slight power increase over the points, plus your rpm limit will be extended, and your gas mileage will be a little higher on average. The conversion kits I know of are Pertronix, Compufire, Mallory Unilite, and Crane. The one I have recently installed is a Pertronix Ignitor, and I will use this as the basis for the article. The other units I listed will be similar to install.

You will need:

  • 10mm Ratchet/Socket Small regular-slot Screwdriver
  • 3/16" Nutdriver Magic Marker
  • Timing light.

If your distributor cap, rotor, and plug wires have seen better days, replace them now to avoid problems later.

  1. Start by taking off the distributor cap. You can just leave the wires on the cap and move the cap aside.
  2. Next, pull the rotor off.
  3. Mark the distributor on the body and clamp so you can have a good reference to put it back where it was to re-time everything. Now loosen the distributor clamp with the 10mm socket and rotate the distributor so you can gain clearance to remove the condensor.
  4. Take the condensor loose with the screwdriver and pull the wire off the ignition coil. You will no longer need the condensor, but donít throw it away.
  5. Put the screw back in that held the condensor to the body, as it also holds one side of the vacuum advance on if you are working on a vacuum advance distributor.
  6. Pull the points wire off the connector inside the distributor. Remove the points with the regular screwdriver, but donít throw the points or screw away. Undo the screw on the other side of the distributor body that holds the wire grommet in and pull the grommet out along with the wire that connected to the coil.

Donít throw any of these old parts away. Clean off the distributor shaft where the points used to rub against. Now you are ready to install your solid-state ignition.

  1. There is an adapter plate that mounts exactly in the same spot where the points went. Install it with the screw included in the kit.
  2. Now get your solid-state unit and slide it on the mounting studs. Put the small nuts on, but donít get them tight yet.
  3. Take the rotor ring and put it on the distributor shaft. Rotate it until it lines up with the shape of the rubbing block on the distributor shaft, then push it on. The fit will be snug and you can use the distributor rotor to help push it on there.
  4. Push the wires through the hole and push the grommet through to lock them in place. You will have to pull the wires through the grommet to adjust the length.
  5. Get the clear plastic piece that is included in the kit. This is about .030" thick (use a feeler gage if you donít find this piece) and will be used to set the correct spacing between the rotor ring and solid-state unit. Put the piece between the rotor ring and solid-state unit, butt the unit up against the inserted piece, and while holding the unit against the piece, tighten down the nuts fairly snug with the nut driver.
  6. Hook the red wire to the + side of the distributor coil and the black wire to the Ėside of the coil.
  7. Put the distributor rotor and cap with wires back on, line up the marks you made on the distributor body and clamp, then fire up the engine.
  8. Hook the timing light up and set your timing to whatever spec you use. Lock the distributor down and thatís it!

From now on, you can turn your maintenance attention elsewhere, as you should be able to get years of service out of the solid-state system without ever going inside the distributor.

Remember all the stuff I told you not to throw away? Get a ziplock bag and put the old points, condensor, and all the hardware in the bag and keep it, plus the essential tools, to have as a back-up just in case the solid-state unit fails. I have had no trouble from any of these, but if they go out on you in the back roads somewhere, you canít band-aid it home like you can with points (the only disadvantage I see to using solid-state).

By the way, the Pertronix and the others work with MSD capacitive discharge units (I used one of these on my í74 Super Beetle with success), Jacobís Bugpack ignition systems, and most any ignition coil you want to use except inductive-type coils (these will burn the solid-state units out unless they are designed to work with those coils). You notice that your distributor is not as cluttered, since you do not use the condensor. Nice for show cars and when you need extra clearance around the fuel pump and carb bolts. I got mine at Roy Rogers for around $60. Mail order catalogs sometimes have them a bit cheaper, but shipping will likely more than make up for the difference you would save otherwise. Decreased maintenance means more time to enjoy that bratwurst burger!

Your VW Maniac And Tech Specialist,
Mike C.