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Do-It-Yourself Projects
Replacing a DistributorPrintable version
Degree of DifficultyDifficult
Estimated Time90 minutes
90 minutes
A distributor is the key component of a vehicle's ignition system. Most vehicles manufactured prior to 1985 have standard mechanically controlled distributors. Many later model-year vehicles are equipped with computer-controlled distributors, or in some cases, crankshaft-triggered distributorless ignition systems. These later designs are highly integrated into the engine's computer-controlled engine management system, and there is very little a do-it-yourselfer can do with them.
If you are the owner of an older vehicle and are interested in improving the performance and reliability of your engine, you should consider replacing your current distributor with a new or rebuilt unit. This DIY article will take you through the steps of replacing a standard, non-computer-controlled distributor with an electronically triggered (point-less) distributor. (Rebuilding your distributor is an advanced project that requires specialized tools, and is beyond the scope of this DIY project.)
Park your vehicle inside the garage or outside in a well-lighted level area. Locate the distributor under the hood in the engine compartment. Here are some hints on what to look for:
  • The distributor has a plastic cap with the spark plug wires coming out of it (there should be one wire for each cylinder of the engine).
  • It also has a center wire that goes to the ignition coil, which is a metal can-shaped component about 2 to 3 inches in diameter and about 6 inches tall.
  • Most distributors are located on the top of V6 and V8 engines, and are to one side of inline four- and six-cylinder engines.
You may also want to check your owner's manual, since there is likely to be a diagram of the engine compartment noting the placement of the distributor.
Once you have located your vehicle's distributor, take a good look at how it is attached to the engine. There should be a clamp with a bolt or screw that prevents the distributor from rotating. This bolt may also hold the distributor to the engine, or there may be a separate set of bolts that hold the distributor to the engine. Make sure that you can reach these bolts with either socket or combination wrenches.
To perform this DIY project, you will need to use a timing light to set the timing of your engine once the new/rebuilt distributor is installed. In order to do that, you must find the timing specifications/instructions that are specific to your vehicle. For most newer vehicles, these specs are on a sticker located in the engine compartment. You can also check in a repair manual or go to several online sources for your vehicle. Follow the instructions that come with the timing light, and practice finding the timing mark as specified for your vehicle.
Point of No Return
If you cannot find these specifications or you cannot locate the timing marks with a timing light, you cannot perform this project. Take your vehicle to a trusted technician to perform this distributor replacement.
Tools Required
  • Combination wrenches
  • Socket wrenches (generally 3/8- to 3/4-inch)
  • Timing light
  • Flat-bladed and Phillips screwdrivers
  • Allen keys
Tools Required for Replacing a Distributor
  • Rebuilt or new electronically triggered distributor, and a new cap and rotor (if not supplied with the distributor). These should be available at your vehicle's dealership or, for popular models, at auto parts stores. Older vehicles may have specific online sources for rebuilt distributors.
  • Repair manual or other source for ignition specifications for your vehicle
If they have not been replaced recently, it may be wise to change the spark plug wires at this time.
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