How to Set the Ignition Timing on Ford Cars

by Contributing Writer; Updated June 12, 2017

Since the transistorized ignition module and/or engine control computer fully controls the spark advance and dwell angle, the initial timing is the only thing that is possible to set at all. The Ford car engine family is just like all the others when it comes to ignition timing, and this is something that any modestly skilled home mechanic can do. Whether your Ford car is an older model, with a vacuum advance on the distributor, or a later model that is fully electronic, it isn't a difficult procedure to do at all.

Under The Hood:

 How to Set the Ignition Timing on a Small Block Ford

For Older Models With a Vacuum Advance on the Distributor

Locate the timing mark notch on the harmonic balancer. If the mark is not visible "bump" the engine over by turning the ignition key to engage the starter then immediately releasing it (do not allow the engine to start). Observe the balancer each time. Once the mark is visible, chalk or paint a line around it. This will make it easier to see when you set the timing.

Determine the initial timing setting for your engine. This is usually located on the emissions label, which is commonly attached to the upper radiator support or the left shock tower on some models. If you can't read it, check with your local auto parts store. They will have the information that you need.

Locate the timing plate on the front of the engine (usually attached to the front timing chain cover). Note the location of the mark that corresponds to your timing setting. Chalk or paint it if necessary.

Start the engine and let it warm up to operating temperature. Shut the engine off. Locate and pull off the small rubber hose on the vacuum advance unit. Plug the hose to avoid any vacuum leak.

Attach the timing light leads to the battery posts and clamp the spark sensor over the spark plug wire of the #1 cylinder. This is usually the front cylinder on the right-hand (passenger) side.

Start the engine again. Aim the light straight down at the timing plate. Press the trigger, if so equipped, on your light. The timing notch on the balancer should be in line with, or very close to, the desired mark on the timing plate if the timing is set properly. If the mark is off considerably, the timing needs to be reset.

Loosen the distributor's clamp screw with a distributor wrench. Observe the timing mark and plate while you carefully turn the distributor. Turn it in either direction until you have the marks lined up.

Tighten the clamp bolt. Observe the timing marks again to verify that they line up properly. Make any necessary adjustments until they do. Replace the vacuum advance hose and anything else you may have removed earlier.

For Later Models With No Vacuum Advance

Locate the timing mark and plate, as in Section 1, and chalk or paint them if necessary. Determine the timing setting.

Locate the ignition module, which is screwed onto the side of the distributor. Unplug the computer connector from the module.

Connect the timing light as in Section 1. Start the engine and observe the timing marks.

Loosen the distributor clamp bolt and rotate the distributor until the marks are aligned. Tighten the clamp bolt and verify that the timing is set correctly. Replace the computer connector.

Items you will need

  • Work light

  • Chalk or brush-type white touch-up paint (optional)

  • Timing light

  • Distributor wrench

 How to Set Ignition Timing in a 1995 460 Engine

How to Set the Timing on a 460 Engine in the 1995 F-350

Insert your key into the ignition of your 1995 Ford F-350 and start the engine. Turn off all accessories, including the radio and air conditioner/heater.

Put the transmission in "neutral" and engage the emergency brake. Bring the engine to a warm-idle speed of 750 rpm.

Open the hood and connect the leads on the timing light and/or tachometer to the F-350's battery, the Number 1 spark plug and the main crank pulley.

Look to see where the timing mark on the pulley falls (the correct setting is 10 degrees).

Loosen the distributor lockdown bolt with a wrench. The lockdown bolt is located by the base of the distributor housing.

Disconnect and plug the distributor vacuum hose.

Rotate the distributor with your hand until the timing mark drifts to 10 degrees BTDC.

Tighten the distributor lockdown bolt with your wrench once you have set the timing to 10 degrees. Unplug and reconnect the distributor vacuum hose. Remove the timing light and/or tachometer and close the hood.

Items you will need

  • Timing light

  • Tachometer

  • Wrench

 How to Set Ignition Timing on a Ford

Clean and mark the timing marks and pointer, located on the timing cover and the harmonic balancer. Refer to the service manual for the recommended timing advance and exact timing mark location for your specific vehicle. Highlight the corresponding mark, with the white crayon, on the balancer. This will help it show up better under the timing light. This information is also listed on the tuneup tag that is located under the hood.

Loosen the distributor by loosening the retaining bolt at the base of the distributor. This is most commonly a 13mm bolt, and is accessible from the front of the engine.

Start the engine and allow it to warm to normal operating temperature. On most Fords, normal operating temperature is a gauge reading between the "R" and the "M" in the word "Normal" printed on the gauge. Computer-controlled engines must be at operating temperature to go into "Closed Loop" status and allow the on-board computer to control ignition timing. "Closed Loop" status is also required to set base timing.

Turn off the engine. On non-computer-controlled engines, disconnect and plug the vacuum line to the vacuum advance, located on the side of the distributor. On computer-controlled engines, remove the shorting bar, plugged into a connector located near the distributor.

Restart the engine. Turn the distributor slowly while observing the timing marks and line up the timing marks to the specifications in the service manual.

Turn off the engine and tighten the distributor bolt. Recheck the timing to verify that the timing did not move while tightening the distributor. Replace the shorting bar or vacuum line.

Items you will need

  • Service manual

  • Timing light

  • Wrench set

  • White crayon

 How to Set the Ignition Timing on a 1994 Ford 4.9 Liter

How to Set the Ignition Timing on a 1994 F-150 with a 4.9 Liter Engine

Put your key in the ignition of your Ford F-150 and turn the car on. Turn all car accesories off, including the radio and air conditioning/heat.

Put your transmission in drive and engage the emergency brake. Bring the engine to an idle speed of 750 rpm.

Connect the timing light and/or tachometer to the engine's battery, No. 1 spark plug, and the main crank pulley.

Check where the timing mark on the pulley falls. It should be at the standard 10 degrees. You don't have to adjust anything if the ignition timing already reads 10 degrees.

Loosen the distributor lockdown bolt with your wrench. The lockdown bolt should be by the base of the distributor housing.

Disconnect and plug the distributor vacuum hose into the distributor housing.

Rotate the ditributor with your hand until the timing mark drifts into 10 degrees.

Tighten the distributor lockdown bolt with your wrench once you have set the timing to 10 degrees. Unplug and connect the distributor vacuum hose. Remove the timing light and/or tachometer.

Items you will need

  • Timing light

  • Tachometer

  • Wrench

 How to Set the Ignition Timing on a 351 Cleveland

Attach a deep socket connected to a socket wrench onto the single bolt located in the center of the vibration dampener, then rotate the bolt in a clockwise direction until the numbered lines on the edge of the dampener are visible.

Scribe a mark across the number "6" on the edge of the vibration dampener, using chalk. Note that the rare, high-performance 351 Cleveland engines uses different timing points, so consult the engine’s specification’s manual.

Loosen the single bolt at the base of the distributor with a distributor wrench. The bolt is located where the distributor enters the top of the intake manifold.

Clip the timing light’s black alligator clip to the negative battery post.

Clip the timing light’s red alligator clip to the positive battery post.

Clip the timing light’s third wire anywhere along the length of the spark plug wire, which attaches to the spark plug wire on the front of the passenger’s side of the engine.

Locate the metal timing pointer just above the chalk mark, on the edge of the vibration dampener.

Start the engine and aim the timing light at the vibration dampener.

Pull the timing light’s trigger to activate the light. Each time the light flashes, the spark plug wire that the timing light is attached to fires, resulting in a strobe effect. The chalk mark must align with the timing pointer. Rotate the distributor in either direction to move the mark, then turn the engine off when the marks align; tighten the distributor’s bolt.

Items you will need

  • Deep socket

  • Socket wrench

  • Chalk

  • Engine’s specification’s manual (if high-performance model)

  • Distributor wrench

  • Timing light

About the Author

This article was written by the It Still Runs team, copy edited and fact checked through a multi-point auditing system, in efforts to ensure our readers only receive the best information. To submit your questions or ideas, or to simply learn more about It Still Runs, contact us.