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A distributor handles several jobs. Its first job is to distribute the high voltage from the coil to the correct cylinder. This is done by the cap and the rotor.
The coil is connected to the rotor. The rotor spins past a series of contacts, one contact per cylinder. As the tip of the rotor passes each contact, a high-voltage pulse comes from the coil. The rotor and the contact don’t actually touch. There is a small gap between them from where the pulse arcs across. It then continues down the spark-plug wire to the spark plug on the appropriate cylinder.
The cap and rotor eventually wear out because of the arcing. Even the spark plug wires eventually wear out and lose some of their electrical insulation. This can be the cause of some very mysterious engine problems. Another section in the bottom half of the used distributor does the job of breaking the current to the coil. The coil is connected to the breaker points. The used distributor pushes a lever connected to one of the points. Whenever the lever is pushed, it opens the points. This causes the coil to suddenly lose its ground, generating a high-voltage pulse.
The points control the timing of the spark. Spark timing is so critical to an engine’s performance that some used distributors use a sensor that tells the engine control unit (ECU) the exact position of the pistons. The engine computer then controls a transistor that opens and closes the current to the coil.
In some places one needs to drive up and down mountains, deserts and the coast. A used automatic distributor can be used instead of having to change manually the Advance / Retard thumb wheel located on the distributor. The used automatic distributor works automatically for adjusting itself to engine tick-over to fast running.
At every tune-up visually check the distributor cap and rotor for damage, burns or corrosion. Check the spark plug towers and their terminals under the cap to be sure they are free of corrosion that would inhibit proper spark distribution. One often overlooked part of the used distributor cap are the terminals on the underside. Small burn spots or deposits of corrosion here can lead to engine misfiring. Inspect the rotor for cracks, excessive burning of the contacts and mechanical damage.
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