Lone Genius Makes Epic Discovery:

Yeah – so that’s my click-bait headline done. Now for the article in which a certain highly observant individual discovers the secret of a tragically mis-designed automotive engine … and is ignored. What follows is the magazine article I wrote some 10 years ago – which has been widely rejected (or just straight-out ignored). Here we go:


STARDATE 04/12/1999: In the middle of a blazing summer, my little family arrive in Australia from That Other Place We All Like To Make Sheep Jokes About. (No; not Tasmania)

The first car we acquired, within a day of arrival, was a Toyota Corona. I’d just enjoyed having a Toyota Corolla (the 1300 hatchback model) so – Wow! Yeah! This was stepping up a grade. It had air-conditioning, and we didn’t care about the 40-odd dents and several other minor defects like the terrifying steering.

Yup, we were sweet as, bro!As a born and bred Kiwi, I was accustomed to old clunkers and kept this thing on the road for several years. I got to know the local wreckers and the underside of my marvelous chariot, but I also began to get to know something about the engine too – it was the infamous ‘Starfire’ – hated by all, it seemed, and for good reason: it was gutless.

The Gutless Wonder

Whatever. Beggars couldn’t be choosers. I did my best with it, included making sure it was well tuned. This I did in my usual Kiwi way: I’d loosen the distributor, start the engine and let it idle, then grab the entire distributor and rotate it gradually to advance the spark. It would hit the sweet-spot, then quickly gasp and die if I went too far. Back a bit, lock-off the retaining nut, done!

The sweet spot – Yeah, sweet as, bro! It ran like Jonah Lomu!

STARDATE 12/04/2002: My engine had started to die. I knew all the signs: knocking, smoke, plugs oiling up, gutless, oil in the water and water in the oil. In a word – it was “munted, bro!”

To the wreckers. My father-in-law tagged along, we bought another Starfire, hauled it home and I did the swap-over in his garage. I was setting the timing when he noticed. “What’r’ya doing?” – “Setting the timing.” – “I’ve got a timing light.” – “All good. I’ve got it.” – “No, no, no, use the timing light. Get it right.” – “Oh, alright.”

This was at least my tenth car. I’d also had an old Bedford truck (and I mean OLD! 1948.) and a similar-aged bus. I’ve been under cars since I was seventeen. I knew how to use a timing light. So I got it right. Except … it ran like crap. Gutless. Took a lot of pushing. Used a lot of gas. WHAT A TERRIBLE ENGINE!

But wait a minute, bro, I’d just had one, it’d been fine!

So when he wasn’t watching I redid the timing my way. Advanced the spark by about 15 degrees (it was a really noticeable distance to be turning a distributor!), locked off, and VROOM! My new Starfire hit its straps. It was nearly as good as the old one … Except we soon figured out we’d been shafted. Starfire 2# was barely better than Starfire1#. Father-in-law did a compression test and bingo: we’d been sold a pup. Okay: back to the wreckers. We did a compression test in the yard, found a Starfire worth having, and I repeated the entire nightmare three weeks after fitting Starfire 2#.

And once again – “Use the timing light!” – “Okay, okay …” But the penny had already dropped. Yes I used the timing light and yes it ran like crap once again: gutless, took ages to get up to motorway speeds and was useless for passing, and strewth, mate, it sucked gas like New Zealand sucked at cricket! so I drove home, lifted the bonnet and went straight back to my sweet spot. BOOM: Starfire 3# was a Power Ranger, a superhero! It powered up the motorway, it accelerated, it passed things, and it was right on the mark for fuel. Weird. Amazing. Intriguing. What was going on?

Three of them; same motors, same settings, same story … The infamous Starfire – but I had solved it! Advance the spark by about 15 degrees from factory set (15 degrees is a one-tooth difference on a 24-tooth timing wheel, btw) and they were sweet as, bro!


At some point during the redesign, the retooling, or when the assembly handbook was prepared, or because some part was taken directly off the 6-cylinder Holden engine and plugged onto its tragically fated 4-cylinder daughter without due consideration of some tiny difference, someone managed to offset the timing mark by about 15 degrees. It became standardized, the machinery was set, and every single engine rolled off the assembly line pre-set 10 degrees after TDC instead of 5 degrees before. They were put into cars that people paid good money for, and soon hated.

You see; an engine set with that much delay will run okay at an idle. Rev it – it’ll sound fine (no load). If it seems a bit weak, everyone will just tinker with the carburetor, up the juice a bit, because no-one would ever think that a brand new engine would have been built with such a massive timing error. But as you push it towards its power band on-road and as the spark advances … sure, it’ll still run – like crap.

To the best of my knowledge a delayed spark accounts for all the performance woes that infamous engine had: slow pick-up, lousy performance at speed, and high fuel consumption.

So I’ve ended up like the crazy old man trying to shout his truth on the street corner – no-one will stop and listen.

I gave up. I mean – how could I prove it? Well a scientific bench test would prove it. (Any offers?) And I’d love to be able to get my hands on an original one – factory build – and slowly pick it apart looking for the anomaly I suspect is there. Meanwhile, let History be less harsh on The Gutless Wonder. She was framed!

[Thus ends my magazine-style story.]

STARDATE 2021 – So here’s my take on this tale: BELIEF DESTROYS PERCEPTION. Because every mechanic in Australia so completely believes in the Power of the Timing-Light, coupled with the absolute certainty that a Factory-Set Motor Must be Perfect, no-one has ever achieved what I did: Perceiving The Actual Problem.

That’s a grand statement, you might think. But it has be true a thousand times before. The history of science is riddled with such tales. Look into the deeply messed-up story of the discovery of penicillin as example. [The chap supposedly credited with the discovery actually spent years ignoring the actual evidence. Several of his subordinates did observe it – and tried to get him to look at it too. Yes: for years! Then he swept in and claimed the achievement – simply because he was the top-dog. Similar story to the ‘discovery’ of the double-helix and many other things besides.]

So I’m putting it here, for the future. Once I’m dead, swarms of people will come and read this.

And I absolutely stand by this. It’s all solid scientific fact. Test it for yourself if you happen to have a Starfire engine lying around. Otherwise you’ll be falling for the same old mistake: BELIEF DESTROYS PERCEPTION. Or as Frank Zappa put it: “Minds are like parachutes; if they’re not open, they don’t work”.

Some day, someone else will wake up and ‘discover’ this exact same thing. But I’m claiming this. I was first!

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