Settling the debate between electronic vs. points ignition it's not going to be an easy thing, especially for those that appreciate vintage motorcycles.
Like most things in life, there are pros and cons to each system, but which has the advantage and disadvantage will inevitably be up to the individual rider. In principle, both of these systems perform the same function: they create the spark that ignites the air fuel mixture within your motorcycle's internal combustion engine. How they go about doing that is completely different, which will explain in more detail below.
So, if you're looking to understand electronic versus points ignition on a motorcycle, then you come to the right place!
Ready to talk shop? Let's get into it.
In order to supply the voltage required to run your motorcycle, a motorcycle ignition system uses a series of parts that have been around for decades and decades.
Points ignition systems have been around since the 1910s, while electronic ignition systems have been commonplace since the late 1970s. Technology between motorcycles and automobiles has been mirrored, and both types of engines run the same way. Many parts are also shared between electronic and points ignition systems.
Here are the common components in a contact point ignition system:
Battery that supplies low voltage for spark
Mechanical contact points that control the point of ignition
Rotating Cam that operates the contact points
Condenser to reduce arcing
Spark plug (s)
On the contrary, here are the parts in an electronic ignition system:
Battery that supplies low voltage for spark
Electronic control module or ECM
To properly run an internal combustion engine, you need a spark that's perfectly timed to the rising and falling of the piston in an engine.
This crucial spark is created by a buildup of electric energy at the tip of the spark plug, known as the electrode. Once the energy is sent from the ignition system to the electrode, the electrical energy arcs across the electrode and ignites the air fuel mixture that has entered into the cylinder via the carburetor or electronic fuel injection system.
Motorcycle batteries range anywhere from 6 to 12 volts, but motorcycle internal combustion engines require about 25,000 volts at the spark plug to achieve the spark required for combustion. How does an engine accomplish this task? That's right, an ignition system.
Motorcycles have two circuits: primary, and secondary. The primary circuit consists of the 6 or 12 volt battery power supply, and an ignition coil. To achieve a higher level of voltage, a clever device known as the ignition coil effectively magnifies the voltage from a battery by utilizing the relationship between electricity and magnetism.
The Ignition coil is basically a tightly wound series of electrical coils (windings) wrapped around a soft iron central core. As electrical current is passed through the tightly wound coils within an ignition coil, a magnetic field is created. This magnetic field, known as magnetic flux, is like charged energy around the iron core of the ignition coil.
Once voltage stops flowing through the ignition coil, the magnetic field collapses and produces a massive amount of electrical energy. This energy then gets transferred to the spark plug (through a distributor) at a timed interval and the process gets repeated over and over again.
The main difference between a point system and an electronic ignition system comes down to how the electrical current is delivered to the spark plugs.
Point systems using mechanical process, while electronic ignition systems perform the same function with a series of electronic components that carefully control ignition timing.
Vintage motorcycles and cars use a points ignition system that is actuated by mechanical contact points. These mechanical contact points are controlled by the camshaft of an internal combustion engine. As the camshaft spins, it manually opens and closes contact points that start and stop the flow of current to the spark plug. Closed contact points complete a circuit that allows the flow of electricity from the battery to the coil.
As the ignition coil charges, the contact points are closed. Once the contact points open, the electricity is suddenly discharged and released in the form of high voltage. This energy rushes to the spark plug and provides the arc that's required for ignition.
While the operation of this system is exceedingly simple, it also has major downfalls when it comes time for maintenance. If the points are pitted, burnt, or corroded then they will need to be replaced immediately or your motorcycle will not run.
Regular maintenance is imperative on bikes that run points ignition systems, and it's also a good idea to always have a couple extra points with you while on the road.
In an electronic ignition system, the points are replaced by an armature that communicates via the electronic control module or ECM.
Instead of the camshaft movement deciding when to make or break the circuit, this is the job of the armature. Think of it as a cog in a spinning housing, each time a tooth of the cog passes by a switch, it initiates an electronic pulse on the pickup coil. The electronic control module picks up the signal from the armature, and stops and starts the flow of power from the primary circuit just like the contact point on a points ignition system.
In the early days, these systems could be a bit troublesome but that anxiety was short-lived as electronics became more reliable and more inexpensive.
There's a level of simple mechanical delight that a points ignition system represents. It doesn't require any complicated electronics, and it doesn't require any complicated troubleshooting if it suddenly stops working while you're riding across the country. On the other hand, it does require a fair bit more maintenance and attention to avoid being stranded. Adjusting timing is also quite simple on a point ignition system and can be done with only a few basic hand tools.
On the contrary, electronic ignition systems require almost no maintenance, but require additional troubleshooting steps and repair that may not always be practical in certain scenarios. Timing is adjusted automatically via the computer controlled systems, and again, when it works it's wonderful.
If you're running a vintage bike, and don't mind getting your hands a little bit dirty, there's no reason why you can't stick with the points ignition system. Just be sure to maintain the system properly, and keep extra points with you when you're on the road.
Upgrading to an electronic ignition system is a viable option for those who are looking for additional performance and emissions gains, or are less interested in maintaining their motorcycle. Electronics have come a long way in the last 40 years, these systems are generally extremely reliable and relatively cheap to install.
Have fun out there!