Everyone in my generation (fifty-something) and older grew up with cars that required a tune-up as often as every year or 12,000 miles. There were moving parts (ignition points) inside the distributor to wear, and additives in the gas (lead) that left deposits on the spark plugs. As preventive maintenance, the fuel and air filters and PCV valve were commonly replaced, as well. Carburetor adjustments and ignition timing were also checked as part of a tune-up.
But beginning in the mid 1970s, with the development of electronic ignition systems, the need for a tune-up began to diminish as the points inside the distributor were replaced with electronic components—no more moving parts to wear! Around the same time, lead was removed from our fuel because of the health concerns and damage lead could cause to catalytic converters that were becoming a major part of the vehicle’s emission control system.
The combination of removing lead from our fuel and the introduction of electronic ignition systems quickly pushed the tune-up interval out to 30,000 miles. The tune-up had now become part of the 30,000 mile service. Many customers would still come into a shop before the 30K interval service was due, requesting a tune-up. Most shops would tell them that a tune-up was unnecessary. However, it was quite difficult to convince many customers that this was the case!
As the distributor type ignition systems began to disappear and were replaced by multiple ignition coil systems, the 30K spark plug replacement remained. During this time, electronically controlled fuel injection took hold, replacing carburetors and the periodic adjustments they needed. These fuel injection systems also helped engines run more efficiently, increasing spark plug life. Beginning in the mid 1990s, the manufacturers began using platinum on the spark plug electrodes. (There are two electrodes on a spark plug, the spark jumps between them, causing wear). Platinum is a much harder metal than the copper it replaced. These platinum-tipped spark plugs can last up to 100K miles or more!
The absence of parts to wear and adjustments to be made have combined to make an engine tune-up a thing of the past. Following the recommended maintenance schedule will take care of replacing the filters and spark plugs when necessary—no more tune-ups needed! If your engine is not performing as is should, don’t expect a tune-up to fix it. Engine performance issues should be properly diagnosed to isolate the cause of the problem and repaired as necessary in order to avoid replacing parts that are perfectly fine.
The desire to clean up our air and become more environmentally friendly is what ultimately eliminated the need for engine tune-ups. Plus, we can now drive our vehicles tens of thousands of miles without needing to worry about getting a tune-up.
How long were you able to drive your current vehicle before an engine performance-related issue cropped up? How long before you needed to replace your spark plugs?