KEYWORDS: plugs, right, engine, distributor, spark

What Every Driver Should Know--Chapter 4: Time tor a Tune-Up

David Berg

DFO851_410 July 1979

1. NOW ABOUT EVERY 10-20,000 MILES YOU'RE PERHAPS ALSO GOING TO NEED A TUNE–UP. Sometimes you may need it more often than that, you might need it whenever you get it greased if it easily gets out of adjustment. A tune-up is not an overhaul‚ it's just a tune-up. It's adjusting & cleaning several things outside the engine.

2. IF SOME THINGS ARE GETTING OUT OF ADJUSTMENT, THEN WHEN YOU GO TO HAVE YOUR CAR LUBRICATED YOU SHOULD HAVE A TUNE–UP TOO. But you shouldn't have to have a tune-up more often usually than about every 10,000 miles. Ten thousand miles usually is normal. At the 10,000 mile period you stick your car in the garage & expect to leave it there for a day to have the wheels pulled‚ bearings packed, maybe new brake linings & a tune-up. That's at least a full day's work for one mechanic for the whole car.

3. A TUNE-UP USUALLY CONSISTS OF PULLING OUT THE SPARK PLUGS, called pulling the plugs, cleaning them, readjusting them & putting them back in if they're not too badly burned. If the points of the spark plugs are badly burned, & the mechanic will usually show you that they've almost burned right down to the porcelain & they're really in bad shape‚ then you need a new set of plugs. (Maria: What are spark plugs?)

4. SPARK PLUGS ARE THE THINGS IN THE ENGINE HEAD THAT IGNITE THE GASOLINE INSIDE THE CYLINDERS & cause the explosion that drives the piston that drives the car. Almost everybody knows what a spark plug looks like, Honey; don't you know what a spark plug looks like? (Maria: I know what it looks like‚ but I didn't know what it did!) Okay.

5. WIRES ARE ATTACHED TO THE HEADS OF THE SPARK PLUGS FROM THE CAP OF THE DISTRIBUTOR. The distributor distributes the electricity to the spark plugs to make them fire at just the right moment when the gas has been vapourised & compressed in the cylinder & ready to explode. But those spark plugs have to be clean. Especially in an old car that's burning oil, they get coated with oil & they get very dirty. I've seem 'em so dirty they wouldn't even fire!

6. IF THE ENGINE'S NOT RUNNING PROPERLY, IT'S TIME TO GO FOR A TUNE-UP.—If it's missing or if it keeps dying on you. Now an engine will sometimes stall & die on you when it's cold, but once it's warmed up, if it's still missing & not running smoothly, & every time you come to a stop or slow down, the engine dies‚ then you probably need a tune-up.

7. SOMETIMES IT DIES JUST BECAUSE YOU DON'T HAVE THE IDLING SET UP HIGH ENOUGH. That's a small adjustment you can do with your own screw driver or with a little wrench, very easy to do if you know where it is. You could almost do it with your fingers.

8. BUT IF YOU DON'T KNOW HOW TO DO IT OR WHAT IT IS, DON'T WORRY ABOUT IT. Go into a filling station or someplace & ask them to do it. Sometimes the engine's racing too fast, & it's a very simple adjustment, only takes a minute. Or if it keeps dying on you every time you stop, then it may not be adjusted high enough. It may not be idling fast enough. It's the idling adjustment, a very simple thing. (Maria: How does it get out of whack?) Well, just through use & vibration of your carburetor.

9. NOW SOMETIMES YOUR ENGINE IS MISSING & KEEPS DYING ON YOU because your spark plugs are dirty, or it's out of time, or the points are dirty, so until you get to the garage to get it tuned up, you may have to set the idling up a little faster to make it run faster so it won't miss & die on you every time you stop. (Maria: Is that the timing?) No. that's the fuel idling adjustment. It's simply how fast the engine runs when you're standing still, just idling, out of gear or in gear, but engine running.

10. NOW IN A TUNE-UP THEY PULL OUT THE PLUGS, CLEAN 'EM, READJUST THEM & PUT THEM BACK in if they're okay. If they're shot or if you have one or two plugs that are not good, you can buy one or two plugs. But usually by that time they're all getting in bad shape & you buy a whole set, which probably costs about 15 or 20 dollars now, at the rate of inflation.

11. THEN THEY ALSO TAKE OFF THE DISTRIBUTOR CAP. It's a little round thing about the size of a tea cup, & they pull out what they call the rotor & they look at it. If it's okay they clean it.

12. THE DISTRIBUTOR ALSO HAS LITTLE BREAKER POINTS. These are small flat pieces of metal that are just a fraction of an inch apart, & when they come in contact they pass on the electricity which goes to the spark plugs. These frequently get burned & dirty from just normal wear, & the mechanic who knows what he's doing will possibly take a little piece of crocus cloth, something like sand paper, & just run it back & forth a few times to clean 'em. Then he'll adjust them so that they're exactly the right distance apart.

13. SO YOU FIRST TAKE THE CAP OFF THAT HAS ALL THE WIRES ATTACHED TO IT & INSPECT THE POINTS & THE ROTOR. Then clean the rotor & the points & readjust the points. They usually have to be readjusted because they're burned a little, or if the points are in pretty bad shape, too burned & pitted to really do a good job, then they replace the points. That used to only cost $1.50 or $2‚ probably $5 now. It's a very simple operation, one or two little screws, with a screwdriver. They take them out & screw in a new set & then adjust them.

14. THIS IS ALL PART OF THE TUNE–UP NOW: Pulling, cleaning & adjusting the plug & putting them back. Opening the distributor, cleaning the points, rotor, contacts, readjusting & putting it back on again. Than when that's all properly adjusted & the spark plugs & the distributor & everything is either renewed‚ cleaned & readjusted or replaced‚ the final thing to do on a tune–up is to set the timing.

15. YOUR DISTRIBUTOR HAS TO BE SET TO EXPLODE THE GASOLINE IN THE CYLINDERS OF THE MOTOR AT EXACTLY THE RIGHT SPLIT SECOND.—And this is judged by a special timing light. This is a special strobe light that plugs into a distributor wire & flashes at exactly the right interval.

16. ON THE FLYWHEEL THERE ARE SOME LITTLE MARKS, sometimes they'll even be carved into the flywheel. It'll say 0o, 5o, 10o on the flywheel. The manufacturer will tell you exactly what degree or where to set the timing in his book on that specific car. It might be 7o‚ 8o or 10o, whatever. Usually it's somewhere between 5 & 10 degrees.

17. SO YOUR MECHANIC TAKES A PIECE OF CHALK & HE MARKS THE FLY WHEEL AT EXACTLY WHERE IT'S SUPPOSED TO BE in relation to another mark or a pointer on the frame. Usually it's a little metal pointer right above the flywheel. He marks with the chalk on the flywheel exactly what degree it's supposed to fire—savvy? He then starts your engine & while the engine's idling & his flashing strobe light is focused on that flywheel, he adjusts the distributor.

18. ADJUSTMENT OF THE DISTRIBUTOR IS USUALLY DONE BY ROTATING IT slightly in one direction or the other by hand. Some distributors you adjust with a screwdriver. He holds the timing light so that it's pointing right at the pointer & he has the other hand on the distributor.—It had better be a gloved hand too, because sometimes you get a shock!

19. HE WATCHES THAT MARK WHILE ROTATING THE DISTRIBUTOR until every time the light flashes the pointer is pointing exactly at the chalk mark‚ then your timing's perfect. Every time his light flashes, it looks like the flywheel is standing still. If the chalk mark is a little one side or the other of the pointer, it's firing too soon or too late & it's "out of time." You adjust the distributor with one hand until the chalk mark is exactly opposite the pointer, exactly to the fraction of the inch, & then he knows he's got it right.

20. SO IN A TUNE-UP THEY CLEAN & ADJUST THE PLUGS, THEY CLEAN & ADJUST THE POINTS, & TIME IT. Plugs, points, timing—three minor operations. I used to always adjust all my own stuff. I hardly ever fiddled with the mechanics that way, because I knew how to do it myself. I could pull & clean my own plugs & adjust them when I had the proper tools, points & timing too.

21. YOU'VE GOT TO HAVE A SPECIAL LITTLE MICRO MEASURER THAT YOU SLIDE IN BETWEEN POINTS of the plugs to know they're exactly the right distance apart. And you've got a special little measurer that goes between the points of the distributor to measure exactly the gap there (feeler gauges).

22. DURING A TUNE-UP A GOOD MECHANIC WILL ALSO INSPECT THE SPARK PLUG WIRES to see if they're old & cracked & you're losing spark. I've known wires to be so cracked & lying up against the engine head, that instead of firing & sparking inside the engine at the plug & igniting the gasoline, they were sparking outside the engine. This doesn't do a bit of good because it makes that cylinder miss entirely, just like you didn't have it. So your wires need to be well insulated & not old & cracked.

23. DUE TO THE HEAT OF THE ENGINE THE WIRES OFTEN GET BURNED & OLD & BRITTLE & CRACKED. You can open the engine hood, start your engine & put it on idle‚ & if you're in a place that's dark, like a garage or someplace, you can look at both sides of the engine & watch for sparks.

24. YOU CAN SEE IF THE CABLE IS BROKEN & SPARKING or arcing someplace where it shouldn't. Right there in the engine compartment in the dark you can see the sparks flashing. (Maria: You shouldn't be able to see the sparks flashing?) No, you shouldn't be able to see any sparks flashing.

25. IF ANY SPARKS ARE FLASHING IN THE PITCH DARK, THEN YOU'VE GOT LEAKY WIRES or you've got a leaky distributor. It's called leaky because it's leaking sparks, leaking electricity. If you see a spark jumping outside the plug, the plug is cracked. If you see sparks jumping on the wires, the wires are cracked. If you see a spark jumping on the distributor, the distributor cap is probably cracked. So all those things have to be checked.

26. SOMETIMES A MECHANIC WILL ALSO CLEAN & ADJUST THE CARBURETOR. Sometimes the jets need adjusting in the carburetor, & the idling needs adjusting. So the mechanic may want to clean & adjust your carburetor. (Maria: What's the carburetor?)

27. THE CARBURETOR IS WHERE THE GASOLINE IS MIXED WITH AIR TO MAKE AN EXPLOSIVE MIXTURE that's sucked into the cylinders to be exploded by the spark. The explosion drives the pistons down, which drives the crankshaft, which drives the gears, which drives the wheels & makes the car go.

28. SOMETIMES THE JETS GET DIRTY & THEY'LL PULL THEM OUT & CLEAN THEM off & stick them back in. It's a little sort of a plug or pin‚ very small. He may not take the carburetor clear off & clean it, sometimes he just pours carburetor fluid through it. That'll sort of clean it out, & then he'll adjust the jets & adjust the idling & so on.

29. TUNE-UP IS PLUGS, POINTS, TIMING, CLEANING THE CARBURETOR & CHECKING THE WIRES. That all has to do with all the things you can do outside of the engine, outside of the motor, all the little adjustments, mostly electrical that can be taken care of outside the motor, not getting into the motor. That is a tune-up (Maria: No matter how long it takes, you oughtta sit there & watch it?) Yes!

30. YOU OUGHT TO STAND RIGHT THERE & WATCH 'EM TO MAKE SURE THEY DO IT & see how they do it. You can drive your car in & walk off & have lunch & come back & they could say they tuned it up, but the only way you could tell if they've done it or not is whether it still doesn't run good.

31. A LOT OF MECHANICS ARE GYPS, & A LOT OF GARAGES ARE GYP–JOINTS. It's a real racket‚ it's about as bad as the used car business or the television business‚ because if you don't know anything about it & you don't watch 'em, you don't know whether they do the work or not.

32. BUT ANY IDIOT CAN SEE WHETHER THEY'RE PULLING OUT THE PLUGS & looking at them & cleaning them & adjusting them with the special little flat measuring piece of metal that they push back & forth between the points to see if they're right. You can even tell if they're working on the distributor‚ at least see if they're doing something. And you can certainly tell if they're doing the timing with that strobe light flash flash flashing on the flywheel. You can certainly tell whether he's adjusting the carburetor or not, & looking at the wires.

33. JUST BY WATCHING YOU CAN TELL HE'S DOING SOMETHING. They might not always do it right but at least they're doing it. But if you walk off & have lunch while they're doing it, they might not do a thing!

34. A GOOD TUNE-UP JOB USUALLY TAKES A COUPLE OF HOURS. So that's just the morning or the afternoon time to stick your car in the garage & stick around & watch it if you can. I was a full time chauffeur‚ so that's all I had to do. The car was my job, & so I just stuck with the car, the captain of the ship.-To make sure it didn't go down, I made sure they fixed it!

35. THE DAILY CHECK IS SOMETHING ANYBODY OUGHT TO BE ABLE TO DO BY THEMSELVES, even a woman should be able to do that: Check the oil & water & gas & windows & tires. Next comes the 2-3‚000 mile or month lubrication & differential/transmission check, & usually they check the condition of your tires at that time.

36. SOMETIMES YOU NEED TO ROTATE YOUR TIRES because tires were faster on certain wheels than they do on other wheels. So you rotate them around. Usually when they pull the wheels it's very simple to rotate the tires, rim & all. That means they put each tire on a different place.

37. YOUR LEFT FRONT TIRE GETS THE LEAST WEAR. Your right rear tire gets the most wear. Your left rear tire gets the second most wear. Right front tire gets the third most wear. (Maria: On all cars?) On all cars. Well, there may be a difference on front-wheel drive cars, & left-side drive countries.

38. BECAUSE THE REAR WHEELS ARE THE DRIVE WHEELS ON AMERICAN CARS USUALLY, THEY GET THE MOST WEAR. If it's front wheel drive, the front wheels may get the most wear. Whichever the drive wheels are, they get the most wear. And the tires on the low side of the road, the right side in most countries, the side that you drive on, towards the curb, will always get the most wear because the weight of the car is usually more on that side. so on American cars, the right rear wheel gets the worst wear, a drive wheel on low side.

39. TO ROTATE YOUR TIRES SO THEY'LL WEAR MORE EVENLY‚ when the right rear tire begins go get a little worn, take it off & exchange it for the left front wheel where there's the least wear. The left rear tire & the right front tire get about equal wear, so you can usually rotate them. They call it rotating, if you change them diagonally.

40. THE MAIN TIRE TO WATCH IS THE RIGHT REAR WHEEL ON REAR-DRIVE CARS. I suppose it would be the right front wheel on front-drive. In England it would be the left front if it's a front-drive, because they drive on the left.

41. YOU JUST TAKE THE TIRE THAT WEARS THE MOST & PUT IT WHERE IT GETS THE LEAST WEAR.—It's that simple! And take the tire that's getting the least wear & put it where it gets the most wear. That way the tires begin to wear evenly. Otherwise you'll soon find that your right rear tire is almost smooth while the rest of the tires are still in pretty good shape. If you let it go that far then the best thing to do is buy a new tire to put on the right rear. Then take off your smooth tire or worst tire & put it on your spare wheel.

42. GOOD NIGHT! I DIDN'T REALISE I WAS BEGINNING A WHOLE COURSE ON MECHANICS! I haven't even had my breakfast yet! She's making me give a whole course in mechanics before she lets me get up! Ha!—So she won't let you down!