Multi-coil ignition systems have been around for ages and they’re now the norm for production engines. Automakers prefer this configuration largely because it cuts exhaust emissions and reduces spark-plug fouling issues. But this type of system also offers a number of performance advantages for all types of cars.
For one thing, multi-coil systems typically have stronger spark energy. By locating the individual coils close to the spark plugs (coil-near-plug) or mounting the coil onto the plug itself (coil-on-plug), there’s less resistance from plug wires. And the usual problems with spark plug wires can be reduced or eliminated. This means less chance for misfires caused by wires that are crossed, burned, or worn through.
Also, the individual coils in a multi-coil system have greater time to recharge between firings compared to a single coil, resulting in more saturation time and a hotter spark. This advantage becomes even more significant at higher RPM, where the time between cylinder firings is reduced.
Along with having multiple coils, modern OEM ignition systems also typically don’t use a distributor. These distributorless ignition systems instead use a crank trigger to establish base timing, and then control most other ignition parameters electronically. This does away with the wear and maintenance demands that come with a distributor.
But of all the advantages modern ignition systems offer, the most important is computer control, which allows precise tuning and optimization no matter how wildly built a motor is.
Okay. That’s great for late-model enthusiasts with Mod-motors, LSs, Coyotes, and Gen-III Hemis. But so far there have been very few truly modern ignition systems available for traditional V8s like the small-block Chevy and Ford Windsor. Folks with those powerplants have had to either cobble together a more modern system themselves, or just make do with the limitations and tedium of doing things the old-fashioned way.
Recently MSD tackled this need and came out with a system for converting traditional V8s to a modern multi-coil configuration. It’s sold in a complete, easy-to-install kit, called the Direct Ignition System, or DIS for short. To learn more about it, we spoke to Joe Pando, Drag Racing Manager for the MSD brand at Holley. He’s been with MSD for more than four decades, so he’s seen it all in terms of performance ignition systems.
Everything In One Package
According to Pando, enthusiasts have been clamoring for a multi-coil conversion for quite some time. “Every SEMA Show and PRI Show we’d go to, people would ask, ‘Are you guys going to make a coil-near-plug kit?’ But what consumers didn’t understand was the cost. We developed a coil-near-plug system many years ago. We had it on one of our project cars. We knew back then everybody wanted this. And we also knew it was like a $2,500 system. But as time progresses, parts get cheaper. So we finally developed it. And now we’re just getting it in the public eye to let people know it’s available.”
For now, the DIS kit is offered for just a few popular engines — small- and big-block Chevy and Ford Windsors. But MSD indicates that kits for others will be available down the road. The company hasn’t said which engines it plans to offer them for next, but the kit’s instructions have several references to other engines, including Ford FE and Cleveland, Chrysler SB, 383/400 and 426/440, Pontiac V8, and Oldsmobile V8. Given their inclusion in the manual, it seems likely these engine families are in the company’s future DIS plans.
To trigger the spark and set base timing, the MSD DIS system uses an MSD Dual Sync distributor housing with a low-profile blank cover instead of a traditional distributor cap.
The DIS kit is available in black or classic MSD red, and it includes the control unit, coils, plug wires, wiring harness, software, and distributor replacement with cap.
Modern Features For Not-So-Modern Engines
Aimed primarily at street cars that see occasional track use, the DIS system is a coil-near-plug configuration that offers a well-chosen set of features to improve performance, tunability, and convenience. Setup and tuning of the system is done via the company’s proprietary Windows-based MSD View software, which comes with the kit on a flash drive. Once loaded on your computer, the software sets program changes through a Mini-USB communication port on the DIS control box.
Besides the much greater precision that computer control offers, the software can also save a lot of time-wasting, knuckle-skinning work under the hood. Take for example how you would set up an advance curve on a traditional distributor — a tiresome drill that Pando knows all too well. “You take the distributor cap off, you take the rotor off, pull the springs off, and put a different combination of springs on. Then you have to get that little bushing out and put in another one. Not the easiest thing to do. So after the third time, you’re gonna say ‘Screw it, that’s good enough.’”
So much for the “Good old days.” With a modern digital ignition system, you just plug in your laptop, go into the software, and set the distributor however you want. Easy, simple, and quick.
Central to using the DIS system are the fully programmable 2D and 3D timing maps, designed to give users complete timing control. With that, you can even set individual cylinder timing to compensate for inconsistencies in fuel and nitrous delivery. Along with this, the system’s programmable max-RPM and launch-RPM limiters protect the engine by allowing precise control over engine speed on track and street.
Complementing these features is the programmable launch timing retard, a clear nod to the strip side of this system’s dual-purpose intentions. This feature is accessed via a switch mounted on the car’s shifter or other convenient location. When the switch is activated, the launch timing retard function goes to work helping the car launch better. “It’s a form of traction control,” says Pando. “When it’s grudge race time, you hit that little button and you pull timing out to launch the car without smoking the tires.”
To aid driveability in normal street conditions, the DIS system is available with optional temperature sensor input to control timing based on temperature. “You could use this feature to aid you in warm-up, just like a choke,” says Pando. “So when it’s cold, you can add timing to it.” It can also be used as a safeguard against overheating. “You can set kind of a precaution here, in case let’s say something happened to the thermostat or the radiator and the water temp starts to escalate. If the water temp gets to a certain temperature, you can have it start dumping timing way out.”
Onboard data acquisition rounds out the DIS system’s features. It allows users to look at a wide variety of parameters and analyze them in detail, giving crucial insight for making programming changes.
So Easy A Caveman Can Do It
Getting the system installed appears simple and straightforward. The kit comes with complete step-by-step instructions that are illustrated with photos and diagrams. Worth noting, the instructions devote more than five pages to using the MSD View software, alone.
That said, there is a small typo in the software and instructions, according to Pando. “To install the distributor, you drop it in and point it to number 15. And in the software, there’s an indicator in there. It’s called tightening verify. In the software we call it normal timing and in the instructions, we display it as timing lock 15.”
But, aside from that, the initial setup for the distributor is pretty simple, according to MSD. “Once you get the engine running, you click on this little green button on the very top of the software,” says Pando. “And that gives you a reference point in the system. Now, with a timing light, adjust the distributor until you see 15 on the balancer. Once you establish that it’s got 15 on there, you know that the distributor is in the correct location. Then unclick that button in the software.”
Once the distributor is in place, installation is largely a matter of mounting components and running wires. Worth noting is that the kit doesn’t include any mounting brackets for coils. Holley does, however, offer a number of different coil mounts, sold separately, which should do the job well.
And, of course, there’s no law saying you have to mount the coils on the valve covers. At least one user has mounted them to the firewall, to maintain a somewhat more traditional look in the engine compartment. That said, doing so forfeits one of the DIS kit’s advantages — shorter plug wires.
Adding it all up, the MSD DIS kit is worth considering for people running the most popular classic engines. Granted, with a list price of $1,235 this setup probably won’t be a casual purchase for most people. But with its aims of precise computer tuning, stronger spark, and greater reliability, it may be just what your engine needs.