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Street Race Truck More... The Toolbox

Ignition Upgrades for Classic Mopar Muscle

5/1/2019

As many will attest, bringing an old Mopar back to life isn’t always a breeze. Fortunately for many of these classic beasts of the road, MSD has come up with a solution for those outdated and unreliable points-type ignition systems. The Ready-to-Run Pro-Billet Distributors for 383-400 Big Block Chrysler engines are the perfect upgrade from beaker points or weak electronic ignitions as shown on this 1968 Dodge Charger.

For this application, the MSD 8386 Ready-to-Run Distributor made all the difference. After struggling with proper timing and firing issues, the Pro-Billet distributor cured all symptoms and could not have been any easier to install. After matching up the three wires and setting the proper timing, the Ready-to-Run was a simple drop-in install and in no time the car was literally ready to run!

MSD Chrysler 383-400 Ready-To-Run Distributor

The charts below show two popular ways to wire your ignition system for MSD’s distributors. Options are available as well for Rev Limit programming, setting vacuum advance, and vacuum advance lockout. All of which can be determined post installation for your specific application needs and desires. For our application, we left all adjustments as is for correlation with other stock components and for optimal use as a weekend cruiser.

As with all distributors, there is always more to installation than just plugging in all the wires and expecting to fire right off the bat. MSD’s instructions go into detail on these steps to help increase the chances of a successful start-up:

  1. Remove the existing distributor cap without disconnecting any of the spark plug wires.

  2. With the cap off, crank the engine until the rotor is aimed at a fixed point on the engine. Note this position by making a mark to line it up on.

  3. Place the distributor cap back on and note which plug wire the rotor is pointing to. MARK THE SPARK PLUG WIRES and remove the distributor cap.

  4. Disconnect the wiring from the distributor.

  5. Loosen the distributor hold-down clamp, slide the clamp out of the way and lift the distributor out of the engine.

  6. Install the supplied O-ring seal in the groove on the distributor land. Apply a thin layer of oil to the housing O-ring.

  7. Install the distributor making sure that the rotor comes to rest pointing at the fixed mark. If the distributor will not fully seat with the rotor pointing to the marked position, you may need to rotate the oil pump shaft until the rotor lines up and the distributor fully seats. (For engines like the Mopar 383 and 400 it is easiest to rotate the oil pump shaft using a flathead screwdriver one tooth at a time, being careful NOT to pull the shaft all the way up from the pump).

  8. Position and tighten the hold-down clamp onto the distributor.

  9. Install the rotor and distributor cap. It is recommended to use a drop of Blue Loctite on the distributor cap hold down bolts.

  10. Install the spark plug wires from the old cap one at a time to ensure correct location.

  11. Connect the supplied wiring harness to the distributor. Route the wires to their connections as shown in the diagrams above.

When shopping around for a new distributor, the price point on the MSD Pro-Billet isn’t the most attractive aspect compared to many other aftermarket electronic systems or even a stock replacement breaker points setup. This was actually one reason that held us back from pulling the trigger on the conversion initially, since keeping the car a budget build while pushing to get it road worthy didn’t want to match up at all.

Needless to say, frustration got the best of us and eventually it was time to give the Ready-to-Run a shot. Boy were we pleasantly surprised with the new! The MSD Ready-to-Run had us kicking ourselves for not buying it sooner, as the reliability factor alone was enough to justify the extra cost. Again, the old saying; “you get what you pay for” holds true and it shows with the tremendous amount of quality included in this piece. Aside from reliability and improved fuel efficiency and horsepower, this Ready-to-Run distributor comes with a truck load of benefits and features sure to bring any old Chrysler engine into the modern age of performance.

Some of the features to note on the Pro-Billet Chrysler distributor include; a powerful built-in module to produce high-output spark for improved combustion in the cylinder, CNC machined billet aluminum housing and base, maintenance-free magnetic pickup, chrome-moly steel fine blanked advance plates, nylon pads for smooth operation of advance plates, a built-in rev limiter, and a polished steel shaft that is QPQ coated and guided by sealed ball bearings. For those unfamiliar with QPQ or Quench Polish Quench, it’s a specialized type of nitro carburizing case hardening that increases corrosion resistance and prolongs life due to high wear.

Another noticeable difference from the conventional ignition system vs. the ready-to-run setup was the amount of increased throttle response and just an overall healthy feel, with no hesitation at all. Although not necessarily applicable to our project but still pretty cool, is the fact that these conversions are engineered for stock and aftermarket applications as they do not require an MSD ignition control for use, yet they are designed in a special small diameter housing to clear aftermarket cylinder heads and valve covers.

With any distributor upgrade it is recommended to swap out those old spark plugs and plug wires while you’re at it. For replacement wires, we once again turned to MSD with their Street Fire product line.

MSD 5531 Street-Fire Spark Plug Wire Set for Chrysler 383-400

We chose these wires due to the ease of install as they are pre-cut for 383-400 Chrysler engines and we didn’t have the tools and time to work with a cut-to-fit set. Other motivators for going the route of Street Fire plugs is that they feature a low resistance conductor in 8mm silicone with heavy duty terminals for longevity.

Another added feature is the sleek black sleeve that keeps the engine bay looking subtle and clean. Lastly, the sockets on these wires worked great with our application. The long, straight ends were desired for our spark plugs as clearance was minimized for use with alternative boot ends such as 90 or 45 degree.

Another recommended upgrade with any ignition system is your ignition coil. For this application, we suggest going with the MSD 8202 Blaster 2 Ignition Coil.

MSD 8202 Blaster 2 Ignition Coil

This ignition coil is great for stock upgrades while complimenting the performance of our new MSD distributor. It also can be used without a ballast resistor on our application, which allows us to keep a clean looking engine compartment by minimizing excess wires.

Maybe a step away from our new MSD ignition system, nonetheless we thought we’d share another important upgrade to your stock Mopar - the starter.

Typical OEM starters on cars like our ’68 Charger are heavy, gigantic in size, and can be prone to failure. One way we discovered to get a performance starter (in comparison) on a budget was to simply replace the factory oversized paperweight with a stock replacement starter for newer Dodge/Chrysler vehicles. These can be sourced from your local auto parts store. Just tell the tech behind the counter you need a starter for a 1998 Dodge Ram (for example) and boom, you have yourself a brand new “performance” starter that is half the weight, significantly smaller, and features an offset gear ratio for improved cranking power.

One item to note when making the conversion to these modern starters is the fact that you need to source a new plug/wire from the solenoid to the ignition switch. These newer starters utilize a unique plug that looks like a needle designed for a special socket. In our case, we simply robbed one of these wires off of a wrecked late ‘90s Dodge Durango from the local junk yard. A little bit of work, but it is sure worth the time to scavenge in our opinion.

In review, MSD and the Ready-to-Run Pro-Billet Distributor is a Mopar enthusiast’s best friend when it comes to upgrading ignition systems in a snap. It has proved to breathe new life into our 1968 383 big block and is one item we will not hesitate to pull the trigger on for a second project!

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