Most new cars now have electronic ignition rather than the more traditional distributor/points and coil system. As explained earlier for fuel injection the need to reduce toxic emissions by improving the efficiency of the combustion process has almost finished off the older electrical system which was always imprecise in when and with what energy it fired the charge to ignite the fuel/air mix.
The old points system was notoriously unreliable and the first place to check if the car failed as can be seen from the number of times the distributor is mentioned in the repairs sections of this and other books.
A benefit of the modern electronic systems are that there are no parts to wear or go out of adjustment so they are considerably more reliable in use than the older systems.
Although systems vary the commonest is where the major elements described above are retained except for the system's Achilles Heel, the points, which are replaced by a permanently sealed system which never needs adjusting and rarely fails in use. Some very recent systems replace the coil - which produces that big spark - with an individual "mini" coil on each sparking plug.
The downside of all the newer systems is that they are usually beyond the ability of amateur mechanics to repair at the roadside and, if a part fails, it must usually be replaced not repaired.
Article © Graham Benge 2007