Yep, thatís it. Nothing more, nothing less.
The spark needs to occur at somewhere near the correct time. This is a function of the spark plugs, the wires, the distributor, the timing, lots of things come into play here. We can assume that if you are getting a spark at the plug then youíre probably ok. This is unless the distributor is 180 degrees out. Note that above I used the term "at somewhere near the correct time".
Letís see if you have spark. Remove one of the spark plugs and unhook the wires to the others. Put the spark plug in the cap and lay the plug body (so itís grounded) on something like the exhaust manifold or cylinder head and have your assistant turn the engine over as though you were trying to start it. The reason we unhooked the other plug wires is that we donít want the engine to start while youíre under there. A four cylinder engine will start on only 3 cylinders. You have spark at the plug? Good! No spark? We probably need to look at the distributor, coil, points, etc., then.
Are the plugs wet with fuel? If you can smell raw gasoline on them then youíre probably getting fuel to the cylinders. No fuel on the plugs? Hmmm. Is there fuel in the tank? Donít laugh. Itís happened!
Are the float bowls for the carbs full? If not check the pump. Donít assume anything. Look things over. Try squirting a little fuel into the throat of the carbs. Does the engine fire and then die when you do this? Perhaps we are not getting fuel to the cylinders. Look the carbs over. If the car has been sitting for a while then youíve perhaps found a stuck needle in the seat and there is no fuel getting to one of the carbs.
Hereís where it can get expensive. Unless youíve lost compression on several cylinders (2 out of 4 or so) you should be able to make the engine run. If more than one cylinder is low on compression then weíve got a problem. If two cylinders out of four are low this could be a bad sign. It could also be a good sign. Two cylinders side by side being low on compression can be as simple as a bad head gasket. It can also be a bad sign as this problem can be caused by a cracked head. If all the cylinders are above 75 pounds then the engine has enough compression to run. If only one cylinder is low on compression then it could be a head gasket in this case too. Remove all the plugs. Unhook the coil wire from the coil. Have your assistant spin the engine with the starter for 6 revolutions with a compression gauge in the plug hole. Record the compression. Do the same for the other cylinders. Now, if you have good compression in all the cylinders, somewhere in the neighborhood of 125 pounds or better, weíre good to go. Remember too, that you'll want the engine warm (if you can get there) and the throttle wide open (so the engine can get air in it TO compress).
If you have a low cylinder(s) we need to do one more test. With the cylinder that is low, squirt in some motor oil. Four squirts will do as it doesn't take much. Now check the compression again. If the compression RISES noticeably then you have bad rings. If the compression stays the same then you can bet itís either a valve problem, a blown head gasket, cracked combustion chamber or something in that area.
Again, remember that these are relatively simple engines in our little cars. They donít require a great deal of equipment to work on but they do require some tlc. Get back to basics when there is a problem. Donít assume anything. Start at the beginning with the THREE things our engines need to run.