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Adding Modern Coil-Per-Cylinder Ignition to a Vintage Engine

By: Todd Ryden | 12/03/2020 < Back to Motor Life Home
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Many people don’t realize how much our old cars ride and run like, well, old cars. Carbs can be temperamental, especially with today’s gas, drum brakes will fade and pull, old ignitions are weak and wear out, plus there’s a chance of a few rattles or wind noise here and there.

To many enthusiasts, these characteristics are part of the charm of cruising an old car. However, when you’re on a road trip, or really plan to rack up the miles on your classic car, many of these old-car nuances should be replaced with modern technology.


There are two main harness that help make the wiring the Coil-per-Cylinder system a lot easier that you’d expect. The harness on the left connects to the two coil harnesses (on the far right) while the center harness connects to the sync distributor and other accessories such as the 3-Step rev limiter, step retards and more.


Case in point is Chris DeVillier’s ’65 Mustang convertible. He decided a couple years ago that he was done with finicky carburetors and installed an Atomic EFI throttle body system from MSD to fuel the 289. The next upgrade included an AODE trans and front disc brakes, both of which really improved the overall drivability and enjoyment of his drop-top pony car.

The next update Chris decided upon was to update the ignition system and rather than go the usual route with a new distributor, coil and ignition box, he upped the ante with MSD’s new Direct Ignition System with a coil per-cylinder, just like every modern muscle car available. The timing curve is controlled electronically based off parameters you set, or by manifold pressure, plus there are also advanced features including a 2-Step rev limiter, a step or launch retard, data acquisition capabilities and more.

The DIS Kit is based around a compact controller (smaller than your average CDI box), eight LS3 style coils and a distributor housing that provides a cam sync signal and crank signal to fire each cylinder. Harnesses for a complete installation are supplied along with a set of Super Conductor Spark Plug Wires since you’ll be installing eight new coils.


The installation was very straightforward as most of our time was spent routing the main harness after mounting the ignition box under the dash. Chris had already fab'd coil mounts to a set of valve covers so only the harness and plug wires had to be connected. The distributor housing has a very low profile and really cleaned up the look of the engine without having plug wires snaking around.

Once the components were all in place, the MSD View software was downloaded and opened on a Windows-based PC. From here, you get to do as much programming as you feel comfortable doing. Since Chris’ Mustang is primarily a weekend cruiser, a base timing curve was plotted, and he plans to take advantage of the overheat safety feature the ignition offers. There are loads of other settings including timing-per-cylinder, a launch retard feature to aid getting off the line quicker, not to mention being able to record data to review after a race!


For this cruiser, the modern timing curve and rev limiter were welcome updates and it’s nice to not have to mess with a distributor, coil and wires for a change. The car starts crisp, idles smooth (thanks again to the advanced control of the timing) and there are options available that Chris will take advantage of as his Mustang continues to be refined and updated.


When it comes to Ford distributor gears, there has been updates, changes and utter confusion. MSD applies tags to each distributor that explain the use and break-in of each gear. In this case, an iron gear was being used to mate with the standard flat tappet cam. Liberally coat the gear with the supplied break-in lube before installing the distributor.


With the distributor positioned correctly, it was time to get serious and open the View software. The first steps include selecting the Settings and Engine tab to program the engine type (Ford) and firing order (1-5-4-2-6-3-7-8). Other engines are listed as well as the ability to program a custom setup.


The View software and the DIS system are loaded with cool features. This example shows the real-time gauges you can select to view with the engine running. There are also optional features like a step or launch retard, 2-step rev limiter, coolant temp safety feature and even alter the timing of each cylinder.


The DIS system, by use of pre-terminated wiring harnesses, is surprisingly simple to wire. In fact, the only separate connections required are a couple grounds, battery positive, ignition on and a tach wire!


It’s nice not to see a big distributor cap with a spiderweb of wires right in front of the engine. Even with the coils mounted on the valve covers, the engine bay has a cleaner appearance combined with modern technology for improved performance and tuning.


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