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Book Reviews: Ignition Timing and Camshafts

Basic and old but still useful

Reviews by Julian Edgar

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Let’s get the bad news out of the way right up front. Firstly, despite being the most recent editions, both of these books are very dated – they could have been written 20 years ago. Secondly, each is a very small book (about 60 pages) and so any coverage of as complex a topic as camshafts or ignition timing must be superficial, adopt rules of thumb and concentrate on what the author sees as the mainstream of engine modification.

The results will be frustrating to someone wanting to really understand the modification of modern engines, is working with a turbocharged or supercharged engine, needs to meet emissions legislation, or has to deal with concepts like variable cam timing.

However, if you want an easy to understand basic primer in each of these areas, the two books are good. In a way, it’s a bit like first learning about engines by pulling apart a 4-stroke lawnmower – the complexity will differ from a car engine but the basic concepts will be much the same.

Both books are in full colour.

How to Build and Power Tune Distributor-Type Ignition Systems

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As the name suggests, if your car uses direct fire ignition, this book is not for you! Well, that’s not actually true – if you have fully programmable ignition timing control (eg through the use of an aftermarket engine management ECU), there’s quite a lot of information that will be of peripheral use. But it’s those owning cars featuring dizzies with centrifugal and vacuum advance mechanisms that will benefit most.

There are 12 chapters in the book but some are less than two pages long. Many of the chapter headings are self-explanatory, for example:

- Modified Engines Need More Static/Idle Speed Advance

- Estimating Total Advance Settings

- Vacuum Advance

- Ignition Timing Marks

- Altering the Rate of Mechanical Advance

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With distributors, the static (and usually) idle advance can be set by just turning the distributor, so the book covers selecting the appropriate timing, taking into account primarily the cam specs. The advice is practical and down to earth. Modifying distributors to alter the rate of advance and the total advance is detailed, along with some rules of thumb for correlating combustion chamber design and ignition timing. However, there aren’t any dyno graphs showing the results of such changes and - in parts - the book is rather simplistic. No mention is made of wiring-in aftermarket transistor assisted ignition systems (let alone CDI) or of converting points systems to Hall Effect or optical triggers.

In summary: a decent book for someone with a points-and-dizzy car who wants a quick overview of some DIY, non-electronic modification techniques.

How to Choose Camshafts and Time Them For Maximum Power

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Again, this is a book that couldn’t have been written 20 – or more – years ago. The nine chapters include:

- Terminology (a good chapter on camshaft basics)

- Choosing the Right Amount of Duration (not so good: rules of thumb applied, no dyno graphs showing different results, no mention of emissions or anything like that, no specifics on any engines)

- Checking Camshafts (short but useful)

- Camshaft Timing – three chapters (good primers on the basics of setting up cams)

- Camshaft Problems (useful)

- Engine Testing (poor)

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If you want to know how camshafts function in terms of engine airflows, this book isn’t really for you. (In fact, the documentation that comes with engine simulation software programs is often better on this topic.) It’s also pretty unhelpful if you’re dealing with an engine managed engine and want to (say) work out an optimal overlap taking into account the effects of a tuned-length intake system and the ability to alter injector timing.

But if you’ve just bought a cam and want to install it in your pushrod, SOHC or DOHC engine, this will be a useful book – especially if read in conjunction with a good workshop manual for the car being worked upon.

How to Build and Power Tune Distributor-Type Ignition Systems, Des Hammill, Veloce Publishing, ISBN 1-903706-91-2,

How to Choose Camshafts and Time Them For Maximum Power, Des Hammill, Veloce Publishing, ISBN 1-903706-59-9,

Review copies provided gratis by the publisher

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