One of the great things about old cars is you can selectively update them with modern technology without turning them into modern cars.
An overdrive transmission, but not air bags. Better tires for more grip, but not traction control that countermands burnouts.
Another such upgrade can be performed to an older car’s ignition system. For example, you can swap out a points-type distributor for an electronic/transistorized ignition and a hotter coil—get faster/easier starts and much less maintenance (though it’ll be vulnerable to an EMP if that might happen). Just hang on to your old distributor so you’ll be able to revert if the world goes dark).
An even easier upgrade is to swap out the old plugs for modern ones, giving you a better, hotter, more consistent spark and longer life.
For example, these Pulstar plugs are platinum-tipped and iridium—one better by increasing and stabilizing cylinder pressure during each combustion event, via what the company styles pulse power.
The plug is designed to act as a supercapacitor, which stores and builds electrical energy longer than a conventional plug. It stores and builds (chiefly because of heat build-up) and then releases the energy in a torrent of energy, which more efficiently burns the air-fuel charge within the cylinder.
The company says the electromagnetic field generated by the plug also ionizes the air or a fuel charge just before the spark event, further improving combustion. The result is a noticeable improvement in throttle response and a verifiable gain in horsepower and mileage. The company documents on its web site with before-and-after dyno runs of various cars—including a 2012 Chevy Tahoe equipped with a 5.3 V8 that pulled seven more horsepower and eight additional ft.-lbs. of torque after the installation of the Pulstars (see here for more).
Well, I was intrigued, so I asked Pulstar for a set of plugs to guinea-pig my 1976 Pontiac Trans Am. I haven’t got a dyno, but I have an extremely close relationship with this car, which I’ve owned for 30 years. I know it like I do my own smell, as El Guapo from The Three Amigos once said.
If these plugs make a difference, I’ll know it.
The 455 V8 takes AC Delco R45TSX plugs. They are as ancient in design as the Trans-Am’s 455, which dates back to the mid-1950s. The center electrode is blunt, and the side electrode a large and clunky-looking L-shaped thing.
The Pulstars look sleek and modern, with a center electrode so finely tapered that if your eyes aren’t 20/20, you will need glasses to set the gap. This aspect turned out to be something of a puzzle since the OE spec for the plug gap is .060, but Pulstar says not to exceed the .055 gap.
So I set them at .050 to see what would happen.
I should also mention that my Trans-Am’s 455 has a hotter ignition system already—an MSD soft-touch box in place of the factory HEI (High Energy Ignition) distributor. I installed the MSD unit chiefly because it has a built-in rev limiter, and that’s important to protect the long-stroke 455 from an over-revving catastrophe.
So, what happened?
The car feels snappier, more responsive to the throttle than before. I can’t quantify the horsepower gains, if any, because I haven’t got that dyno, but it feels noticeably stronger. I’d be willing to bet it is more robust and probably in the vicinity of the five to seven hp gain Pulstar documents were achieved in the Tahoe as well as a 2012 Charger.
In fact, the gains may well have been larger since my Trans Am started with plugs much inferior to the platinum/iridium ones that almost all modern cars come with now from the factory.
The bottom line—I think the swap was worth doing in the same way that’s it’s worth going with synthetic oil/lube over the much-inferior (in cold flow characteristics/ resistance to breakdown under load/high heat) conventional oil/lube that were used for older cars.
Whether it’s a pour-in or plug-in improvement, the point is it’s an improvement without altering anything about the car that makes it a neat old car.
Eric Peters lives in Virginia and enjoys driving cars and motorcycles. In the past, Eric worked as a car journalist for many prominent mainstream media outlets. Currently, he focuses his time writing auto history books, reviewing cars and blogging about cars+ for his website EricPetersAutos.com.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.