Collecting Antique Spark Plugs
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Gadgets, gimmicks and artistry
The Eyquem Nationale plug, manufactured in France, is noteworthy for being hand-painted. Each of less than perhaps 2,000 plugs shows two women wearing provincial dress in the French colors of red and blue. Commemorating the return of Alsace-Lorraine to French control in 1919, the plug is the collector’s holy grail. “Everybody has to have it,” admits Bob Barrett, Middletown, N.Y.
Dating to a period of immense optimism and progressive technology, antique spark plugs were colorfully named. The Red Head plug sported an ornery looking scamp with red hair. The Vesuvius declared itself “indestructible.” The Boss plug was made, naturally, in Chicago. Some companies customized their plugs as theft deterrent, hoping that a widely recognized plug would stand out too much to be used by anyone other than the rightful owner.
Manufacturers attempted every conceivable gimmick to set their plugs apart. There were plugs with windows, plugs with primers, dual plugs (when the first one fouled, you just flipped the piece and used the other end), plugs with glass insulators (creating a visible plug), plugs with a ballpoint (the ball bounced up and down to fire), and even plugs with a tiny working fan. The latter had a potentially disastrous design flaw: The fans had a nasty habit of falling into the engine. “It’d turn the average engine into a hand grenade,” Bob says.
Easy to get started
Antique spark plugs offer the novice collector an easy entry into the hobby. “Beginners can get in very inexpensively,” Bob says. “There are a lot of plugs out there for a dollar or two. You can have 500 and never spend more than a buck or two each. The supply is almost infinite; when you go to car shows or tractor and engine shows, a lot of vendors will have a coffee can full. Then as you get more involved in the hobby and learn more, you can start collecting more upscale pieces.”
Time was, you could grab a shovel and go to the source. “When one company that made porcelain products – including spark plug cores – went out of business in the 1930s, they buried tens of thousands of cores,” Lanning says. “I don’t know whether they were just unsold cores, or seconds or what. But no building was ever erected at that site and collectors used to go ‘prospecting’ there. It was like a gold mine. A lot of good stuff turned up that way.”
The category is not limited to plug collections. “There are a lot of ‘go-alongs,’” Lanning says, “like spark plug signs and boxes, advertising literature and catalogs, and display cases. I know people who just collect the go-alongs.”