Final Tuning: Updating An Outdated ECU With A Holley HP

Automotive electronics have given enthusiasts many benefits in power, economy, drivability, and reliability, but they can’t outrun the aging process. Chevrolet’s 1984-’96 Corvettes have always been a great choice for those looking to get into the hobby, and their level of technology was cutting-edge when they were introduced. But, like everything, time takes its toll.

Those cutting-edge technologies have now aged, and modern Engine Control Units (ECUs) offer better fuel control, a broader operating range, and self-tuning capabilities that weren’t even considered back in the ’80s and ’90s. Thankfully, many companies like Holley Performance, now offer complete ECU systems that utilize much of this new technology to get rid of those decade-old harnesses, and are tailored to make the most of any modifications.

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When GM designed the second-gen LT engine, they hid the distributor under the water pump, driving it off the front of the camshaft. With the addition of the crank trigger, you can see how things got tight very quickly.

Background

Many C4s have been modified or seen many years of use, and our ’85 fits squarely into both camps. Almost 20 years ago, our ’85 Corvette had the tuned-port L98 engine replaced with a Vortech-supercharged Gen-II LT1 featuring a V3, T-Trim supercharger. To add to the modifications, the throttle body on the intake was removed, and a single-bore, Camaro LS-style throttle body was placed in front of the supercharger. After years and miles of service, one day, the engine would turn over, but not start. Time had simply caught up with our LT1’s electronics. The Opti-spark had quit working, and digging into the original harness, we were amazed at how many crimp-style connectors were holding our wiring together.

With the technology available two decades ago, the L98 ECU (left) couldn’t read the LT1's Opti-spark sensor information. So, a crank trigger (center) was used to fire the ignition. We used this MAF Translator Gen-II (right) that adjusted the signal from the MAF sensor to adjust for fuel. It was a “set it and forget it” scenario. The new Holley ECU adjusts continually, thanks to its wide-band oxygen sensor and self-tuning capability.

When the swap was initially completed, the computer and harness was updated to use a 1989 Tuned-port (L98) ECU, which was the newest version available at the time that still utilized all the functions of the dash readout such as fuel mileage, etc. Since the ’89 ECU couldn’t read the timing input from the sensors inside the LT1’s Opti-spark distributor, it was given marching orders via an MSD crank trigger. The Opti-spark distributor only served to direct spark to the proper cylinder. This created some space issues with the steering rack, and swapping out belts was like threading a needle using a string with no end.

Holley utilizes the latest micro-processors for complete modern powertrain management like fuel, coil on plug, drive-by-wire, and transmission control…None of this was even available when your factory ECU was designed. – Doug Flynn, Holley

We smugly assumed that the threat of the Opti-spark’s notorious unreliability would be greatly reduced since the optical sensor inside the distributor was eliminated. We found we were not immune. Tests revealed that we had spark to the distributor but nothing coming out.

There are other issues plaguing many other owners of Gen-II LT1 and LT4 engines found in Cadillacs, Buicks, and Pontiacs, as well as other Chevrolet offerings. Optical sensor issues aside, factory LT1 and LT4 computers have become a reason for concern, as components inside the black boxes have begun to show their age. Failing ECUs hound ’92-’97 LT1 and LT4 engines, and for those who modify or use these engines in retrofit applications like ours, tuning is still necessary.

Pressing Updates

One of the Opti-spark’s main issues is excess heat due to a lack of ventilation, especially with the earlier (’92-’94) units. Chris Petris of Petris Enterprises has been working on C4 Corvettes since they were new. He offers updated early- and late-style Opti-spark distributors with ventilation systems incorporated to greatly increase their reliability.

After pulling the supercharger, water pump, balancer, and other items from the front of our engine, we could remove the distributor. At this point, we were envious of those L98 guys - so far as swapping distributor caps! Here’s what we found. Over time, the two tiny screws that held the rotor, eventually backed out. No finer case of a five-cent part bringing an entire car to its knees.

Where a typical Opti-spark might see 75,000-100,000 miles, Chris has seen updated units still clocking miles at 150,000, thanks to improved ventilation and a cap that uses brass terminals instead of aluminum like is found within the factory cap. This is important for those who use CDI boxes and/or increased plug gap, as the additional current puts more strain on the terminals inside.

Even if not heat related, our Opti-spark failure forced us to go in deep under the clam-shell hood of our ’85. Since replacing the distributor on an LT engine is so comprehensive, we decided to couple our Petris Enterprises distributor with a new Holley ECU for a modern upgrade of our engine’s controls, and bring reliability and performance into this century.

The Holley ECU came with everything to make it work, including all harnesses, sensors, and connectors. With trusty notepad and service manual, we began by tracing out the various wiring at the ECU. Having an open work area and tackling one system at a time will help keep it manageable. Take your time.

What makes this complete upgrade possible is the option of using a custom timing wheel for the Opti-spark distributor, designed by Lane Culver of Culver Auto Specialties. Using the factory optical sensors, Culver’s custom wheel puts the engine’s rotation into signals that can be interpreted by Holley’s HP and Dominator ECUs. Since the distributor is driven off of the camshaft, it also allows the Holley unit to operate as sequential-fire systems. This is a vast improvement in fuel control over our dated batch-fire system, and means that the crank trigger will now be relegated to somewhere under the workbench.

The OEM timing wheel (left) has both super-high resolution (outer) and low-resolution slots. Lane Culver designed his own wheel (right) that communicates with Holley’s ECU using the 1 pulse/fire, Digital Falling signal.

Pointing Out Your Spark

Since the Gen-II, LT engines don’t have timing indicators, we fabricated our own pointer and mounted it to the hole on the bottom of our new water pump. Once we found TDC, we marked the balancer with a notch so we could check timing. This is important, not only so we could know where our timing is at all times when tuning, but also, so we could tweak the Holley ECU’s ignition parameters to make sure that we are not over-advancing or retarding spark at higher rpm.

The ECU Upgrade

The aftermarket Holley system brings a much broader realm of tuning, reliability, and safety to the enthusiast. Core features of the Holley unit are the wide-band oxygen sensors to help keep an engine’s air/fuel mixture in tune throughout the entire operating range, and with greater accuracy.

The Holley unit also features controls for boost, traction, coil-on-plug, and data logging of all channels at 100 samples per second. Programmable inputs and outputs, rev limiters, drive-by-wire, and “Advanced Tuning ICF” features allow you to program the new computer with more precision than previously available.

The older ECU used a Mass Air Flow (MAF) sensor to read incoming air, while the Holley unit uses a Manifold Absolute Pressure (MAP) sensor, giving a better indication of the engine’s load cycle from idle to full-boost. For the previous setup to work, it needed a custom tune in the factory prom, as well as additional components like the MAF Translator to tweak the input from the MAF and trim the fuel under various operating conditions. Not ideal, but it worked.

The Opti-Spark is driven off the front of the camshaft, which is why it resides immediately behind the water pump. Inconvenient at best. That is why we ordered a new set of 8.5mm Super Conductor plug wires from MSD (PN32179). Best to swap them while you have the chance!

Holley Performance’s Doug Flynn puts it all in perspective by saying, “The Holley unit uses the latest microprocessors designed for complete powertrain management of fuel, coil-on-plug, drive-by-wire, transmission control, and other features such as rev limiters, boost control, nitrous control, data logging, programmable input and outputs, and a super-tuning tool Holley calls “Advanced Tuning ICF.” That tuning tool allows you to tune individual cylinder timing/fuel per gear, along with tons of other stuff. None of this was even available when the factory ECU was designed.”

We started by routing the harness out from the firewall. Petris Enterprises distributors come with a handy pigtail and factory-style connector which allowed us to trim the shielded wires of the Holley harness for the optical sensors and connect them under the injector cover. We used a factory-style Ignition Control Module and wired it according to the service manual. The module acts like a high-speed relay for the coil.

We opted for the Holley HP ECU, because we didn’t need the additional transmission controls offered by the Dominator ECU. Our transmission uses a TV cable for operation, but we did tap into the HP’s electronics to adjust torque converter lock-up. This gave us the ability to unlock the converter at a set throttle position, and load for tip-in acceleration. We also used the available input/output pins to control the A/C compressor cut-out at high rpm.

We made a diagram of the terminals in the under dash connectors to the ECU. We wired in the ECU to the wires that we would still be using. Note the fewer wires coming out of the connectors to the ECU.

Joining Old And New

Swapping out the ECU does require a bit of schematic reading and wiring prowess. While we had wiring guru Chris Petris close-by for perplexing questions, having a service manual handy will likely answer any questions that might arise.

Working with one system at a time, we trimmed the wires and installed the terminals, being sure to pin them correctly. The injector harness comes with a connector as well, so, if we ever need to remove the fuel rails, we only need to undo one electrical connector.

Integrating the Holley unit required tapping into wires located under the dash and only using those that pertain to the new setup. Wiring for defunct items like the MAF sensor were eliminated, while others, like the two factory fuel injector power wires, were used to each operate one side of the fuel rail. This allows for factory-fused power within the fuse panel and also allows for bank-to-bank testing should the need arise.

The OEM computer fits snugly up under the dash on early C4s. We removed the plastic housing for the ECU and fabricated two mounts fitted to the original bolt holes. The second photo is viewed from the top of the dash, with the dash pad removed, looking down at the interior firewall.

Running the necessary wires to our custom application was made much simpler with the unterminated wiring harness we ordered with our HP system. If you are using a more typical application, Holley has harnesses already terminated, making for a true plug-and-play application. When all is said and done, our installation retains the drivability of the factory system, but affords so much more performance and safety for our engine over a broader operating range.

Dyno Test & Tune

Our car put a lot of highway miles on the odometer, but until now, not one mile was done on a dyno or in anger. Now, with the ability to tune fuel, set timing for boost, and read the A/F ratio in real time, we could safely see how many horses resided under the hood. That meant a trip over to Culver Auto Specialties for some time on their dyno. Lane has worked closely with Holley during development of his custom timing wheel, and several of the files available in the  custom tunes section of the Holley program are in fact, Lane’s handiwork.

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We also wanted to make sure that our fuel system was adequate, so we installed a DeatschWerks DW200 in-tank fuel pump, which flows 255 lph, and carries a three-year warranty. It is ethanol compatible as well, so it will work with today’s fuels.

A quick look at the fuel mapping showed that our 30-pound injectors were woefully inadequate for the amount of power we could produce. Lane suggested a set of 60-pound Siemens Deka IV injectors to make sure that the engine was fed enough fuel under WOT boost. A quick swap, and we were ready to hit the rolling road with the new injectors working happily within 70-percent of their duty cycle.

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Setting up the program for your engine is as simple as following directions and filling in the various drop-boxes. There is a manual supplied digitally with the software, and Holley has excellent customer service tech lines and an online technical forum, should you need assistance.

The Bottom Line

We spent the better part of a day on the dyno tweaking the tune. From there, the ECU would continually compensate for changes in atmosphere and operating conditions. We were content to pull the straps holding our ’85 to the dyno with a documented 432 rwhp and 438 lb/ft of torque at 11 psi of boost. Lane said that with some methanol injection and/or an intercooler, we could bump some timing and see upwards of another 70 horsepower. Even so, our little supercharged C4 is a blast to drive.

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After a short shake-down, we headed over to Culver Auto Specialties for some dyno time. We were treated to 434 super-safe rwhp with the potential for more if we ever want to turn up the wick.

Immediately following the install and dyno session, we drove the nine-hour trip south to get back home. We noticed the computer fine-tuning the program on the drive home, but we also noted in the days and weeks following the trip that daily drivability improved, thanks to the ECU’s constant self-improvement strategy. Overall, the car is a great street performer and the additional safety and reliability will pay dividends for years to come.

Article Sources

About the author

Andy Bolig

Andy has been intrigued by mechanical things all of his life and enjoys tinkering with cars of all makes and ages. Finding value in style points, he can appreciate cars of all power and performance levels. Andy is an avid railfan and gets his “high” by flying radio-controlled model airplanes when time permits. He keeps his feet firmly grounded by working on his two street rods and his supercharged C4 Corvette. Whether planes, trains, motorcycles, or automobiles, Andy has immersed himself in a world driven by internal combustion.
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