Super advanced timing

Bought a 1989 Ford Festiva, passed CA smog when I first registered it. Now, 2 years later it passed all the emission specs but my timing is at 53 BTDC. ?!?!
Went to adjust the timing and I can barely get near the adjustment marks as the engine runs more and more sluggishly. I think at these settings it may no longer pass the emissions specs. Any idea why it would be so far off in the first place?
(I have had a squealing belt lately in damp weather.)

Timing lights are easy to use wrong, especially the adjustable ones. Tell us how you’re determining that it’s 53* BTDC first so we can make sure it’s actually there.

There are two marks on the pulley. One is yellow (TDC), one is white (10*BTDC). But realistically they’re probably both just little dimples by now as the color has long since vanished. If you’re looking at the pulley straight on, you want the one to clockwise. Be aware that sometimes pulleys can get dings that look suspiciously like timing marks, so make sure you’re actually looking at a timing mark too.

The 53 degrees came from the smog station guy using a timing light, don’t know what other attachments it might have had. He may have been reading the wrong mark as you pointed out. Though getting 53 degrees by eye seems odd? I’ll take another look with my light. Really glad for the info. By the way, what would the other mark be for?

Perhaps the inspector was too young to be familiar with the vacuum advance, the vacuum hose must be disconnected to read base timing.

The other mark is for getting the pulley to top-dead-center for when you’re installing the belt.

I bet that old pulley has chips in it and the goober at the smog station got confused. Either that or what @Nevada_545 said – that’s entirely possible as well.

Why was he using a timing light on your car anyway? Is that standard procedure in your state? When I lived in a smog inspection state, they just stuck a sniffer in your tailpipe and if it came back within regulations, you were good to go.

With the vacuum hose connected, is 53° even a reasonable number? It just seems wild to me. BTW, thank all of you for your inputs in this.

My wag somebody replaced the distributor incorrectly, and timed it by ear.

Your harmonic balancer may have shifted, particularly if it has a rubber isolator in it. Otherwise it could be an inspector that doesn’t know what he is doing.

No, with vacuum advance about 14 degrees BTDC. The EFI engine has two timing marks on the crank pulley, with the vacuum advance disconnected the timing marks should line up with one of them. You must be looking at the wrong mark.

I’ve had a similar problem w/my Corolla. I mean the problem where the Calif Emissions report says the timing is way, way off from the under-hood spec. In my case the report said the timing was 8 degrees ATDC. In fact when I measured it immediately after the test, at home in my driveway, it was 10 degrees BTDC, which is exactly where it is supposed to be.

I expect the report that says your timing is 53 degrees BTDC is wrong, and somehow your own measurement method is not working either.

An engine wouldn’t start at 53* BTDC timing. It is unlikely that an engine could operate with 53* of timing advance. I would strongly suggest moving the distributor timing back as close as possible to where it was prior to re-timing the engine. Then confirm that the harmonic balancer has not spun the mark out of position and re-test.

I’ll bet the outer shell of the balancer has shifted due to the aged rubber isolator. You may have to use the crank key as TDC to remark the reference.

Whatever the reason, it needs to be sorted out just in case. If the engine had that much advance the engine should be rattling like a can of marbles on acceleration. In conditions like this an engine won’t last long before things start coming unglued.

I wonder if by 53 degrees they mean 53 degrees of total advance. I’m not familiar with timing on these but that seems excessive on anything.

In theory anyway, excessive advance should cause an engine to refuse to start or lurch back as the starter motor cannot overcome the early firing of the spark plugs.
I’m personally aware of one incident involving a VW Westfalia and a blown engine that had 30 degrees of static advance (total advance unknown due to the obvious…) and would start right up though.

53 degrees would be trying to push the upcoming piston backwards… There’s no way the engine would run IMHO. And if the rubber isolator in the harmonic damper were so far deteriorated as to allow the timing mark to be 53 degrees BTDC, I would think the damper would be falling apart and the engine would be shakin’ like a bronco… if the pulley even stayed on.

I have no doubt that someone is misreading something. I agree that whatever is going on should be sorted out. It sure would be interesting to find out what the deal is. I can’t imagine what might be going on.

I would turn the engine over by hand while feeling in the #1 spark plug hole for the piston to get to the top. Then check the timing marks to see where TDC is on the harmonic balancer.

I think you’re reading the wrong marks. I have a hard time believing that the engine would start…let alone run at 53* BTDC.


Yrs ago I bought my caddy when it was 4 yrs old with 48k miles. It had a large white stripe painted on balancer. This balancer has no key way and motor has no distributor. Thought it was odd someone had gone thru a step to “time” motor? Never had any issues.

If the outer shell of the balancer has spun, it’s time to replace it, not “remark” it, in my opinion

When that outer shell comes loose all the way and bounces around in the engine bay, there will be consequences

I’m wondering if anybody actually has a new balancer for this car, collecting dust in the warehouse

I seem to remember that Fords were well known for having balancers separate

But I’m not sure OP’s car even has a Ford motor. I believe the car is actually a rebadged Mazda 121

For what it’s worth, Benz also had balancers separating left and right, for several years. They finally fessed up and issued a campaign, which meant the part would be replaced at no cost to the owner, or he’d be reimbursed, if he already paid to have it replaced.

I used to mark my timing marks with white paint. It’s a lot easier to see on a spinning pulley than an engraved line. The timing light lights a white line up beautifully.

I agree with TSM on repainting the actual mark. I’ve always kept a small bottle of “white out” in the shop just for this. I like the ones that have a kind of ball point tip.

But it’s been so long, I presume it’s dried out.


I’ve often put a white chalk mark on the balancer mark