Engine Spark Plug Collection

1 / 12
The One Point spark plug. The maker intended the center electron to fire off of the top of the piston as it came up to the top of the cylinder. “I don’t believe this was a very successful plug,” says collector Mike Healy.
2 / 12
A Maco dual priming plug, typical of those often used on early fire trucks. When the petcock on the plug’s side was opened, gas was put in for priming. A primer line on the other side of the plug connected it to the vehicle’s cylinders. A pump on the dash was then used to get fuel to all cylinders simultaneously, allowing quick starts.
3 / 12
Janet and Mike Healy at a summer 2005 show, with a small sampling of their spark plug collection. The two are avid collectors, and active members of the Spark Plug Collectors of America.
4 / 12
A Clean Point plug, featuring a baby blue porcelain core with black lettering and arrow. The Clean Point was designed with a loose ball in the center electrode advertised to resist carbon build-up. While sifting through boxes at a farm auction, Mike Healy found the plug, which was wrapped in string. It apparently had been used on the farm as a plumb bob.
5 / 12
A Dave’s Hole in the Wall plug.
6 / 12
During the early 1920s, the Barney Google comic strip featured a horse named “Spark Plug.” Door-to-door salesmen reportedly sold a Barney Google plug with a small check ball mounted in the side of the plug base. The selling point, besides the name, was the fact that the ball allowed air into the plug, keeping the electrode clean and the plug cool.
7 / 12
Ball and J.P. Helmet plugs.
8 / 12
Fire-A-Ford spark plug.
9 / 12
Double Head spark plug.
10 / 12
Maytag Twin, Single and 82D spark plugs.
11 / 12
Nine Lives spark plug.
12 / 12
Missouri

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.”

Portland meet seals the deal

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.”

What’s in a name?

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.

Varied options for collectors

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: holycow2@earthlink.net

Need Help? Call 1-866-624-9388
Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment