A few days before my birthday in early 1996 I found myself standing in the rain, in the dark, with the car’s hood up and the engine inoperative. The chain of events leading up to that unhappy situation had been set in motion the previous year, when I drove up to see my grandparents in Seattle. On the way I stopped at the home of a fellow Slant-6 club member, who had worked out an early version of the HEI swap. Together we replaced the points-condenser ignition with a Chrysler electronic distributor and a GM HEI ignition module. Hey, cool, the car was running without breaker points!
We also made provisions to install an MSD box he sold me. MSD stands for “Multiple Spark Discharge”, and the claim was better performance by dint of firing each spark plug a bunch of times in a quick row instead of just once. A few weeks later, I bought a bunch of wires and terminals, and wired in the MSD box. I used the same cruddy consumer-grade crimp terminals as had been used in wiring up the rest of the system, and that’s what came back to bite me.
When I left the car at Eugene Airport to fly home for Thanksgiving, I opened the hood and pulled the feed wire from the ballast resistor shunt to disable the ignition so roving bands of Valiant thieves would have to go “Curses! Foiled again!” or something. HEI and MSD don’t use a ballast resistor, so we’d just made up a little wire shunt to connect the two wires originally on either end of the ballast, with a tap wire out the side to power the MSD box. As I pulled it at the airport, the wire pulled out from the terminal. “Geez, I’d better fix that” I thought as I hurried to catch my plane. But other things occupied my mind, as other things are notorious for doing, and the car started right up on my return and ran fine until that day in January when I went to NAPA for a fuse puller and six spark plugs. Figured I’d do some recreational spark plug changing and install that headlamps-on reminder buzzard I’d picked up.
At NAPA I recalled that loose wire, so thought I’d get the replacement terminal and install it at home. But when I just barely touched the old terminal, it fell off the wire and wouldn’t go back on. Oops, that wouldn’t wait til we get home. So I bought the new terminal, came out and installed it.
I plugged the feed back into the shunt, thinking to myself that maybe the improved contact would make the engine run better; the gods heard this and laughed: plenty cranking, but no fire. Back under the hood, I spotted the problem. When I was plugging it back together, one of the shunt terminals had pulled apart, speaking of cruddy crimp terminals.
How courteous of the car to fail in a NAPA car park, eh! I went back inside and bought another new terminal, installed it, plugged the shunt back together, and…still plenty cranking, still no fire. H’m, that other shunt terminal didn’t look so good; maybe I knocked it loose as well? Oh, the hell with it, I’ll drink the pieces!
Back into NAPA again for a roll of black 14-gauge wire and more of the fancy non-cruddy terminals with heat shrink tubing attached ($4.49 apiece in early 1996) and a new wire tap. I made a whole new shunt, installed it, and very quickly found myself separated by the car’s firewall from exactly zero internal combustion.
It was getting considerably darker and wetter—ideal conditions for underhood electrical work. My mind began torturing me in that sadistic way it does, coming up with conclusive, sturdy, highly plausible explanations (in Technicolor IMAX THX surround) for what surely must be causing the trouble—perfect and airtight in every way except that they were wrong.
I tightened every connection I could reach, which wasn’t all of them because some of them were, erm, wrapped in, um, duct tape (go right on ahead and judge me; I sure as hell did!). This time I thought I was finally getting somewhere, because the car began acting like it had a dead ballast resistor: it would kinda try to fire with the starter engaged, but die as soon as the key was released. Gotta be that shunt! And here I’d thought I was so superior, not having to worry about a ballast resistor.
Back inside to NAPA, buy more terminals, repair old shunt and reinstall, which resulted in plenty cranking, but no fire no mo, not even with the starter engaged. I was well past exasperated sighing and into grim-determination territory, certainly glad I’d installed a very good battery, very thick battery cables, and a very good alternator, and beginning to wish for my breaker points back.
I wheedled one of the NAPA countermen into coming out to the cold, dark, wet car park to crank the engine for me; while he did so, I ripped the brand new $4.49 terminal off the feed wire and touched it to the shunt terminal to see if maybe the tap wasn’t tapping. No such soap.
It was 7:52, and NAPA closed at 8. Counterman had to go in and start shutting stuff down. Crankity-crankity-crankity-crank: denial is an anagram of my first name, but enough was enough; it was just not going to start.
Sigh. Curse. Close hood, wheedle back into NAPA, call AAA, get told by a cheerful computerised voice that my call is very important,but all agents are assisting members like me. Lather, rinse, repeat-repeat-repeat; it is now 8:07. The NAPA guys begin turning off the lights. Agent comes on, tow arranged, but no guarantee of when it might happen. Rest of lights go out at NAPA.
It’s dark, it’s raining, and the car won’t start. And worst of all, it’s my own stupid fault. If not for putting in the MSD in the first place, then for doing a cruddy job on the wiring. Hey, waitamin…the wiring! That GM HEI system was still all there in the engine compartment, just not hooked up!
Roll up sleeves. Sheeyoot, cruddy terminals on the HEI job, too; half of them have gone missing. Unplug MSD feed from shunt. Unplug MSD trigger signal 2-way disconnect from distributor. Plug HEI trigger signal 2-way disconnect into distributor—or try to, anyway; one wire has no terminal, and it’s a tiny little flat blade I’ve got to connect to. But it’s a tiny little blade with a hole in it, so I grab the wire crimper-strippers I’d borrowed from NAPA—I said I’d bring them back, I didn’t say when—and strip an inch of insulation off this tiny 20-gauge wire. Twist strands, cram through hole, wrap.
Unplug coil leads from MSD wiring. Hello, what’s this? Oh, lookit there, that had to be the problem all along: one of those wires had come out of its terminal, too. Musta been making intermittent contact with its mate an hour ago when it was spluttering with the starter engaged, and now it’s pulled clean out. Okeh, well I can (»snap!«) DANGit! This coil lead’s terminal just broke off, too!
Grab wire strippers, strip an inch off this 12-gauge household wire (did I mention this wiring was not done properly?). This time it was a ¼” blade, with a hole. Attempt to cram wire through hole: nope, too big, won’t fit.
Make primitive noise. Seize wire cutters. Cut five strands off wire. Cram the wire, now it fits. Push it through, wrap it. Remove duct tape from dangling lead adjacent to coil. Plug it in to lead 3 off the positive side of the coil (which I had provided with a plug-in to use in just such a case).
Wipe greasy hands on soaked lawn. Hop in car, turn key. We’re cranking—noticeably slower now than however many hours ago when this whole fiasco started—and…that’s all we’re doing. Cranking, no fire.
Inhale deeply through nose in an effort to stop myself breaking something. Smell gasoline strongly. Oh, hey, now this one I’ve known since I was four: put a stick in the choke!
Hold accelerator to floor, turn key. Crankity-crankity-crankity-oh-you-have-got-to-be-kidding-crankity-crankity-crankity-Putt-crankity-PuttPutt-crankity-CoughPuttPuttPutt-crankity-PuttPuttPuttPuttVROOM! Big cloud of black smoke out the tailpipe, primal yell of victory out of me.
Ammeter said CHARRRRRRRGE!!, which I took as a directive and get going. I left the car in 2nd gear for about a mile to keep the alternator speed up for the benefit of its charging and cooling. Eventually the gauge centred and I dropped back into Drive. Red light: car idled as smoothly as always. Green light: car accelerated normally. Returned home with no incident, paused in driveway: engine still ticking over smoothly.
I was soaked and greasy, I had missed The Simpsons and the State of the Union Address, and I was multiple hours behind on homework and housework. Also, I learned a few object lessons: wiring is worth doing properly, aftermarket “upgrades” don’t necessarily live up to their extravagant marketing claims, wiring is worth doing properly, and wiring is worth doing properly.