When Mike Healy bought a Monitor pump engine more than 30 years ago, he thought he was starting a collection of gas engines. But that 1-1/4 Monitor turned out to be an incubator for another collection: vintage spark plugs.
As a boy, Mike regularly joined his family on visits to steam shows in Missouri. By the time he was 14, he was completely captivated by vintage iron. "I can remember the first time I really got hooked on gas engines," he says. "It was on a visit to my uncle's house. Up on a shelf in the shed was a small Briggs & Stratton engine. My uncle and dad started it and told stories about how it ran the washing machines before electricity was available in rural areas."
In 1973, he bought his first engine (the 1-1/4 hp Monitor) at an auction. The engine appeared to be in good condition, and even had traces of original paint. Buoyed by encouragement from veteran collectors also at the auction, Mike recalls, "I was one happy 19-year-old driving home that day."
When he got home, one of the first things he did was check the Monitor's ignition. "I still remember, to this day, the spark plug in that engine," he says. "It was a Champion. I removed it and cleaned it. It intrigued me that you could take the plug apart to clean the core. It was nothing like the spark plug that was in the lawn mower. "Before long, extra plugs he'd find here or there began to take up residence on a shelf in the shed. Ah, for the good old days: "At that time I could still buy a Champion A-25 spark plug at the local NAPA parts store," Mike reminisces.
As his engine collection grew, so did his interest in the spark plugs that came with them. "Before long," he says, "I learned many engines ran better on good old-stock plugs than the ones I was getting from the parts store."
That casual interest broke wide open on his first visit to the Tri-State Gas Engine and Tractor Show in Portland, Ind., where he stumbled on to the Spark Plug Collectors of America (SPCOA) display. "I was amazed by all the different names and shapes of the plugs," he says. "Some were even in their original boxes!" Portland fast became a regular stop on his show schedule, and before he knew it, Mike was an official collector. "At the 1993 show, I was in the process of buying a spark plug from SPCOA founder Bill Bond when he told me not to buy the plug, but to use the money to join the club instead." Nearly 15 years later, Mike and his wife, Janet, continue to enjoy their affiliation with the organization, which has a membership of nearly 300. "We are very active in the club and I'm editor of the club magazine, The Ignitor, and serve on the board of directors."
As with many collector organizations, SPCOA serves as a clearinghouse of information. "The education, especially what you get through the magazine, is a big resource," Mike says. The group holds three meets each year (Portland, Hershey, Pa., and Le Sueur, Minn.) and a "Winter Plug Fix" in New Jersey. Although the Healys get most of their plugs from other collectors and at swap meets, the club's real appeal, they say, is the people. "We love the fellowship," Janet says. "It's such a great group of people."
Today, the Healys have enough spark plugs to keep General Motors running. Mike remains captivated by the plugs' unique names. "Whether the name was for advertising a gimmick of the plug or a catchy name for marketing," he says, "it caught my interest."
Take the Billy plug or one bearing the name Dave's Hole in the Wall. Early engine designs, fuels and spark plug quality led to a large market for spark plug replacement and maintenance. Manufacturers routinely printed retailers' names on plug cores, which meant any corner garage could sell its "own" plug, emblazoned with the business name.
Hardware stores followed suit. Custom-printed hardware store plugs include the Clear Cut, showing a cut diamond; the Ball, with a baseball as the logo; J.P. Helmet, with a helmet in the logo; Flash, with an illustration of a diamond ring on the core; Blue Ribbon, with a bow above the name; Harrison Machine Screw Co., with a drawing of a bulldog; and one of Mike's favorites, Nine Lives, with an illustration of a black cat.
Then there were the gimmick plugs, designed and marketed to solve early engine problems of hard starting and plug fouling. Print on the core of the Gun-Fire plug proclaims "Gun-Fire Double Action Hits Every Shot," and on the back "Inter-Fires Thru Hot Tube Shoots Flame Thru Oil and Carbon." The Multi-Point plug core features a drawing of a fan-type electrode on the plug bottom.
A bull's-eye motif appears on at least two plugs. One, featuring a target with a dot in the center, used a solid steel ball on the end of the center electrode. The other has an illustration of a bull's head on the core, and three clear glass openings in the base allowing a clear view of the color of the spark in the cylinder.
Then as now, patriotism worked its way into marketing. There were several different Liberty plugs (one showing the familiar Statue of Liberty arm-and-torch image), the Uncle Sam plug and Benford's Golden Eagle, which sported a spread-winged eagle decal (this plug was advertised as being 24 carat gold-plated).
Many spark plug companies offered a line of plugs for use with specific equipment, and many plugs contained the word "tractor" in their name. Some even carried manufacturers' names, like Fordson, IHC and John Deere. Manufacturers of stationary gas engines also got in on the act, and plugs carried names such as Nova, Fairbanks-Morse, New Way, Elgin, Cushman, Fairmont and Maytag.
Automobile names turned up on plugs, both as new equipment and replacement plugs and cores. "No doubt Ford was the most common," Mike says. "Henry Ford had a deal with Champion to supply plugs for Ford's early models." Spark plug manufacturers were quick to jump on the bandwagon, producing all kinds of names and gimmicks for replacements, among them For-A-Ford, Fire A Ford, FOR-DO, Flint's Ford Special and Special For Ford. Even "snake oil" salesmen had a piece of the action, with plugs like Little Dr. Coyle's Wonder and Dr. Ferrell's Oil Proof.
Although spark plugs were patented as early as 1893, those produced from about 1913 to 1930 are considered the most collectible. In 1933, Champion developed a new clay material, sillimanite, which prolonged the average spark plug's life, ending a colorful era. "Most people want pre-1930s plugs because of the artistry and design of plugs from that era," Mike says. But even contemporary pieces draw collector interest: Commemorative plugs are being produced today.
Niche collections are increasingly common. "A lot of people now are getting into miniature spark plugs," Janet says, "like those used in model airplanes as far back as the 1920s. And some people collect only aircraft sparkplugs."
Because of their age, and their exposure to engines, collectible spark plugs often need a bit of tender loving care. Although some collectors opt to leave theirs in the condition they were found, Mike typically cleans his. He wire-brushes and oils metal parts, and cleans porcelain with kerosene. But don't rush into that. "You have to be really careful," he warns. "Some markings are just inked on, and a lot of collectors have learned that the hard way, when they wiped off markings during cleaning."
Early plugs featured a lot of brass; later plugs were made with nickel plating, brass and steel. Sizes range from the tiny plugs used in model aircraft, to 12-inch plugs used in oil field engines and tugboats. The lucky collector may stumble on to a full box of new old stock plugs, or an individual plug packaged in its own tin container. "Those are very collectible right now," Janet says.
The entire category remains active. "Prices continue to rise," Mike says. Prices start as low as 50 cents and have peaked near four digits. "That's the fun thing about collecting spark plugs," Janet says. "You just never know what you're going to find. But the best part is the friendships you make. You just meet the greatest people."
For more information: Spark Plug Collectors of America, Mike Healy, 4262 County Road 121, Fulton, MO 65251; (573) 642-7598; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org