When it comes to distributors, anyone just getting into this hobby might not realize just how good we have it when it comes to both availability and quality of the distributor options out there. While there aren’t any current-production distributor-based ignitions coming out of the OEMs, the distributor market is far from dead. Pertronix and its line of Flame-Thrower billet distributors is proving that.
The Flame Thrower line itself is a seasoned lineup of incredibly reliable and precise ignition components. However, the demand for performance distributors exceeds application coverage in a lot of cases. This is what prompted the Pertronix R&D team to branch out into some of the more underserved engine architectures, and bring the benefits of the Flame-Thrower distributors to a new set of applications — all of which carry C.A.R.B. E.O. numbers, for 50-state emissions legality.
Helping Out The Oddballs
If you’ve been to any kind of event with classic vehicles in the past few years, you’ve probably noticed that the lesser-known makes and models of vehicles are becoming more and more popular as projects. Just like finding a 1953 Studebaker Commander Headlight bezel is probably a challenge, finding replacement parts for the car’s V8 engine is equally as difficult, let alone high-performance parts.
Kelli Murrow, Pertronix’s Marketing Director, explains how they go about identifying these underserved applications. “We go to many shows and get feedback from our end users on what might be missing from our offerings,” Murrow explains. “We also have long-standing relationships with our resellers that give us feedback on demands of a certain product — or lack thereof — in the marketplace.”
Once Pertronix has an application or group of applications identified, that’s when the real work begins. “Once identified, we have a meeting where we can determine the scope of the project for that application. From there we can start sourcing parts we need or even designing and building them from scratch in-house,” says Murrow.
“If it is an update to an existing product that we offer, it can sometimes be a short turnaround to finalize the new design and bring it to market. If we’re starting from scratch with a brand new distributor for an application never offered, this could take up to six months before bringing the finished product to market.” That’s not a small amount of time and effort to devote to a low-volume application, but coming from a company full of hot-rodders, it makes sense.
This latest release adds coverage for the 239-255 Ford Flathead, Ford Y-Block (which is what our sample is for), AMC Jeep Inline-6, GM Inline-6, Toyota F-series, Chevrolet Corvair, 331-390 Cadillac, 472-500 Cadillac, 331-354 Chrysler Hemi, 392 Hemi, Buick Nailhead, Studebaker V8, and Holden V8 engine platforms.
The Nitty-Gritty Tech
As the name suggests, the Billet Flame-Thrower distributors start with a CNC-machined billet-aluminum housing body, as opposed to the more common cast aluminum housings seen on OEM units. “We use 6061-T6 billet aluminum for the housings because it is lightweight yet strong. The CNC machining operations provide much tighter clearances than the OEM pieces as well,” Murrow explains.
In addition to a stronger body material, Pertronix also utilizes an upper ball-bearing along with a lower bronze bushing to maximize stability throughout the system. Remember, even though the camshaft — and subsequently, the distributor — runs at half the crankshaft speed, that can still mean the distributor is rotating more than 3,000 times per minute. That’s a lot of inertia.
“The upper ball bearing and oil-impregnated bronze lower bushing work well together to reduce friction and provide shaft and advance mechanism stability, reducing high-RPM vibration,” explains Murrow. “In many applications, there isn’t room to install a second ball-bearing in the lower housing. Plus, the long lower bushing’s additional bearing surface handles the side forces better, resulting in additional stability.”
Moving on to the internals, the Billet Flame-Thrower distributors have two different options when it comes to the type of advance mechanism — mechanical or vacuum-assisted mechanical. Each method has its pros and cons, based on your application, which is why Pertronix has designed the distributor to allow you to choose. The mechanical advance mechanism relies on the physical speed of the distributor shaft, combined with different spring tension to advance the timing curve, making the curve RPM-dependent.
The vacuum advance — as the name implies — further advances the ignition timing based on the engine’s vacuum, making the curve a engine load-based track as well. While vacuum advance offers improved all-around performance in varying driving conditions, in certain straight-line, constant-load situations (like drag racing) the mechanical advance alone is the preferred method of timing adjustment, and the vacuum advance can be locked out with the included hardware.
The distributors have an emissions-legal performance curve set out-of-the-box and are further adjustable with the included additional springs. You can even lock out both the vacuum and mechanical advance mechanisms in the distributor if you have a computer that will control the timing advance independently of the distributor.
Add into that, the Ignitor II integrated electronics, which incorporate a microcontroller programmed to adjust the dwell to maintain peak spark, regardless of engine speed and load. Built with Cobalt magnets and a Hall-effect trigger to add to the precision and stability of the spark timing, the Ignitor II module also adjusts spark timing in the upper RPM range to compensate for the delays inherent to the electronics, further increasing the accuracy of spark timing.
Taking into consideration that these distributors will likely be used on modified combinations in addition to the original-style rebuilds, Pertronix has designed them to both directly integrate with each specific system’s ignition components, or integrate with aftermarket ignition components. “Pertronix distributors are plug and play with Pertronix coils and all of the ignition wire sets we offer. Most of Pertronix distributors can be used with our competitors’ ignition boxes, rev-limit boxes, and coils as well,” Murrow says.
That opens the door to using additional components from Pertronix’s lineup, like the Second-Strike CDI ignition box or the Digital Rev Limiter. Or, if you happen to have a performance-based build, the Flame-Thrower distributors are compatible with the company’s pinnacle CDI ignition system, the Digital HP. It provides 172mJ of spark energy, a 3-step rev-limiter, starting ignition retard, and an additional RPM-trigger output; perfect if you are building a Studebaker for the quarter-mile (don’t laugh, they exist).
In the same vein of being designed with potential aftermarket parts compatibility in mind, the distributor comes with a steel distributor gear, made from 20CR steel and hardened to 45 on the Rockwell C scale for standard camshafts. A bronze gear is also offered for those cam manufacturers who specify one for their billet cores.
Finally, the Flame-Thrower distributors themselves have been designed to be user-serviceable, in the event of something failing outside of the warranty. Pertronix offers a complete selection of all of the distributor’s components, whether you’re just doing a cap and rotor swap along with plugs and wires, or looking to perform a complete rebuild on the distributor, you’re covered. The Billet Flame-Thrower line of distributors is packed with features whether you have a popular performance application, or something a little more oddball.