Repair Pontiac Mid-size 1974-1983 Repair Guide

Description and Operation


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Fig. Fig. 1 HEI distributor cap and rotor checkpoints

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Fig. Fig. 2 Exploded view of an HEI distributor. Note that some distributors have a vacuum advance unit mounted on the side

The General Motors HEI system is a pulse-triggered, transistor-controlled, inductive discharge ignition system. Except on inline six-cylinder models through 1977, the entire HEI system is contained within the distributor cap. Inline six-cylinder engines through 1977 have an external coil. Otherwise, the systems are the same.

The distributor, in addition to housing the mechanical and vacuum advance mechanisms (1975 through 1980), contains the ignition coil (except on some inline six engines), the electronic control module, and the magnetic triggering device. The magnetic pick-up assembly contains a permanent magnet, a pole piece with internal "teeth," and a pick-up coil (not to be confused with the ignition coil).

The 1981 and later HEI distributors are equipped with Electronic Spark Control (EST). This system uses a one-piece distributor, with the ignition coil mounted in the distributor cap similar to the 1980 system. For more information on EST, refer to .

All spark timing changes in the 1981 distributors are done electronically by the Electronic Control Module (ECM), which monitors information from various engine sensors, computes the desired spark timing and then signals the distributor to change the timing accordingly. No vacuum or mechanical advance units are used.

In the HEI system, as in other electronic ignition systems, the breaker points have been replaced with an electronic switch-a transistor-which is located within the control module. This switching transistor performs the same function the points did in a conventional ignition system; it simply turns coil primary current on and off at the correct time. Essentially then, electronic and conventional ignition systems operate on the same principle.

The module which houses the switching transistor is controlled (turned on and off) by a magnetically generated impulse induced in the pick-up coil. When the teeth of the rotating timer align with the teeth of the pole piece, the induced voltage in the pick-up coil signals the electronic module to open the coil primary circuit. The primary current then decreases, and a high voltage is induced in the ignition coil secondary windings which is then directed through the rotor and high voltage leads (spark plug wires) to fire the spark plugs.

In essence then, the pick-up coil module system simply replaces the conventional breaker points and condenser. The condenser found within the distributor is for radio suppression purposes only and has nothing to do with the ignition process. The module automatically controls the dwell period, increasing it as engine speed increases. Some dwell is automatically controlled, it cannot be adjusted. The module itself is non-adjustable and non-repairable and must be replaced if found defective.

When experiencing a "no start" situation with the HEI system check the rotor carefully. The HEI system has a tendency to burn a hole through the rotor which will cause a no start situation or cause the engine to stop running when going down the highway.

It is a good idea to carry a spare rotor and electronic module in your car.


Before going on to troubleshooting, it might be a good idea to take note of the following precautions:

Timing Light Use

Inductive pick-up timing lights are the best kind to use if your car is equipped with HEI. Timing lights which connect between the spark plug and the spark plug wire occasionally (not always) give false readings.

Spark Plug Wires

The plug wires used with HEI systems are of a different construction than conventional wires. When replacing them, make sure you get the correct wires, since conventional wires won't carry the voltage. Also, handle them carefully to avoid cracking or splitting them and never pierce them.

Tachometer Use

Not all tachometers will operate or indicate correctly when used on a HEI system. While some tachometers may give a reading, this does not necessarily mean the reading is correct. In addition, some tachometers hook up differently from others. If you can't figure out whether or not your tachometer will work on your car's engine, check with the tachometer manufacturer. Dwell readings, of course, have no significance at all.

When using a tachometer with the HEI system the following procedure will help save you time.

  1. Secure a piece of 14 gauge wire about 8 inches long.
  3. Skin both ends back about 1 / 2 inch.
  5. Place a female spade connector on one end. Make sure this connection is secure by soldering it together.
  7. Place a small washer, about 7 / 16 , on the other end and solder it to the wire.
  9. When you hook up your tachometer slide the female connector over the male connector. You can now hook up your tachometer to this connection.

HEI System Testers

Instruments designed specifically for testing HEI systems are available from several tool manufacturers. Some of these will even test the module itself. However, the tests given in the following section will require only an ohmmeter and a voltmeter.