Advancing vs. Retarding Ignition Timing: Everything You Need to Know


There are a lot of moving parts in a car’s engine. From the crankshaft and camshaft to the pistons, rods, and pulleys, all of these components are moving quickly and at specific times so things function properly.

During this process, your car’s engine utilizes four distinct piston strokes in order to run effectively. There are four steps involved: intake, compression, power and exhaust. A car’s ignition timing comes into play during the compression stroke. Ignition timing controls when the spark plug fires during this process.

Ignition timing is an important process that plays a big role in the performance of an engine. Considering this, it makes sense that there would be ways to affect the ignition timing process to increase vehicle performance. The best way to maximize engine performance is through advancing or retarding ignition timing.

If you’re interested to find out more about ignition timing, how it works, and how you can modify it to affect the performance of a vehicle, then keep on reading.

What Is Ignition Timing?

Ignition timing is an important process when it comes to running an engine. If the spark plug fires too soon or too late during the compression stroke, damage to the engine can occur over time.

Ignition timing graphic

During the process, the following steps occur:

  • The spark plug fires during the compression stroke.
  • The air/fuel mixture in the combustion chamber is ignited.
  • Pressure is built in the cylinder as the burning gases expand.
  • Just as the piston hits top dead center (TDC), pressure is maximized.
  • Pressure pushes down on the piston as hard as possible.

After the ignition timing process, the exhaust stroke occurs to release the old gases so the process can happen again. The timing of the spark is extremely important to maintain high engine performance.

A range of factors can influence the ignition timing in an engine, including the condition of the spark plugs, the temperature of the engine, and the intake pressure. Changes or upgrades to an engine will require subsequent changes to the ignition timing settings.

Ignition Advancing vs. Ignition Retarding

Ignition timing is measured in degrees of a crankshaft rotation before top dead center (BDTC). Spark plugs need to fire at the right time, which can be achieved by advancing or retarding the timing of the engine.

Timing advance means that the spark plugs are firing earlier in the compression stroke, farther from TDC. The air and fuel mixture in the combustion chamber doesn’t burn right away. Ignition timing advancing might be needed to allow time to get everything ignited.

The major benefit to advancing the timing of a vehicle’s ignition is increasing the horsepower of an engine. Advancing the ignition timing helps raise the high-end power while reducing the low end. It also helps get the spark past the ignition delay and run at peak power.

Retard Timing causes the spark plug to fire later in the compression stroke. The effects of retarding ignition timing include reducing engine detonation, which is combustion inside the cylinders after the spark plug fires. This is also known as engine knocking.

When it comes to turbocharged or supercharged engines that are running at higher levels of pressure, retarding the timing of an engine can be more beneficial. Retarding the timing on these kinds of engines helps compensate for denser air and fuel mixtures and allows them to run more efficiently.

Engine Timing

It’s important to consult with your owner’s manual for the details of your specific engine before determining what can be adjusted with the ignition timing.

When it comes to modern engines or engines without modifications, ignition timing is typically controlled by the engine computer. It will advance or retard depending on a range of factors to keep your engine running smoothly.

Ignition timing is an important process that plays a big role in the performance of an engine.

For engines with distributor timing off symptoms, you can make manual adjustments fairly easily but will want to have a background of knowledge and the right equipment first. You can also consult with a repair shop to ensure the procedure is done correctly.

Signs Your Ignition Timing Is Off

If the timing of your ignition system is off, there are several performance issues that can occur. It’s important to pay attention to these signs so you are able to make adjustments or get your car looked at sooner rather than later.

Problems can occur even if the timing is only slightly off in one direction or the other. Some things to look out for:

  • Engine knocking: Engine knocking occurs when the air-fuel mixture is ignited too soon in the cylinder. The mixture then pushes against pistons that are still trying to compress the mixture. This causes loud pinging sounds to come from the engine.
  • Decreased fuel economy: The timing of the spark plug is crucial during the ignition process. When this starts to happen at the wrong time, the combustion process is off. This causes your engine to use more fuel to compensate for reduced power.
  • Overheating: If the air and fuel mixture is ignited too soon in the combustion process, the heat generated will increase. This can damage different parts of the engine.
  • Low Power: Ignition timing that is retarded too far can result in the spark plug igniting the mixture too late. This can reduce the power of your engine.

These are just a few things you can look out for when it comes to ignition timing and performance that will allow you to be proactive in maintaining your vehicle.

Learn More About Ignition Timing at UTI

If figuring out how things work under the hood of a car is something that interests you, you can take your passion and turn it into a career with an education from Universal Technical Institute (UTI).

Our Automotive Technology program will help give you the hands-on experience and training you need to be able to diagnose, maintain, and repair a range of systems — including the ignition system.1 Specifically, the Power & Performance II course builds on knowledge when it comes to timing and engine performance.37

You can graduate from the program in less than a year with the education needed to enter the workforce.7 Find out more about the program by requesting information here.

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1 ) UTI is an educational institution and cannot guarantee employment or salary.
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7 ) Some programs may require longer than one year to complete.
37 ) Power & Performance courses are not offered at NASCAR Technical Institute. UTI is an educational institution and cannot guarantee employment or salary. For program outcome information and other disclosures, visit

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