Lowly old spark plugs becoming highly collectible
I have always been a collector. In my youth, it was bottle caps, then rocks. From there I progressed to Coca Cola items, and finally to the niche I've occupied since 1972: antique gas engines originally used on the farm.
At an engine show in 1985, a friend introduced me to the hobby of collecting old spark plugs. I had known Craig Solmenson as a collector of gas engines. But the words he greeted me with on that February day were:
"Got any old spark plugs?"
"Why?" I asked.
"Well, I've been collecting them for a while now," he said.
A collection, I thought. What are there, maybe a half a dozen different brands? But I politely said "Really. How many do you have?"
"Quite a few," he said. "In fact, I have a few with me. Would you like to see them?"
He pulled out a new old stock Tungsten spark plug made in Marshalltown, Iowa. It was beautiful, with a cobalt blue insulator and a shiny nickel-plated base.
Craig showed me some other plugs he had, and they could have been the rarest plugs in the world. But the shining Tungsten had caught my eye.
I asked him if he knew where I could get a plug like that. He said it was an extra; if I wanted to buy it, he would sell it for $5. I was sort of taken aback: I mean, $5 for a spark plug ... let's get real here. But I said OK; besides, it was the only old plug that I was more than likely ever going to own.
Later, I visited his home to view his collection. He showed me the brass Dow, Champion primers, Bethlehem plugs made in Minnesota, and the Red Head priming pump. I fell in love with the Red Head, and decided that one of those would look really good in one of my show engines. Well, he didn't have an extra, but he gave me the name of another collector – Cornelius Bergbower from Illinois – who might have one to sell. The price would be spendy, he said: as much as $40 to $50.
Craig also showed me a book by Jack Martell on automobile collectibles. It had pictures of spark plugs, and I wrote down the names of 12 that really caught my eye. Those I'd picked, he said, were some of the rarest plugs in the book, and chances were slim that I'd ever find any of them. As I left, Craig told me "These things are really addictive; you'll be the next one collecting them." "No way," I said. "I have enough collections."
Thirteen years and 1,500 plugs later, I have to admit he was right. The Red Head? Well, "Bergie" did have a Red Head Primer that he sold me for $35 (My wife was ready to have me committed when she found out how much I had spent. From that day on, we never did discuss plug prices any more, for both of our sakes ...). And the list? On Sept. 24, 1993, I picked up the last plug I needed to complete the list of 12. I still have that handwritten list, in a frame now, to remind me of where it all started.
The early internal combustion engine did not have a spark plug: it used a mechanical sparking device called the ignitor. While the ignitor did the job, it was a constant source of trouble and frequently failed.
At the turn of the century, the first spark plugs were already being developed in Europe. Made of mica and brass, these early pieces were very similar to today's modern spark plugs.
Before 1907, there were relatively few spark plug manufacturers in the U.S. The budding automobile industry, though, was hungry for a well-made and inexpensive spark plug. Albert Champion, a French bicycle and motorcycle racer living in Boston, was among the first to meet that challenge: his first effort was a spark plug called the Nuport.
When Robert A. Stranahan and Frank D. Stranahan met Champion in Boston, and saw the Nuport, they were impressed by its quality. The two agreed to invest in the Albert Champion Company.
Champion was no stranger to spark plug manufacture: before coming to America, he had worked with the Renault company. He also had experience in manufacturing magnetos.
In 1908, Champion attempted to sell magnetos to William Durant, then head of the Buick Motor sales organization. Durant told him that although the company was no longer using magnetos, he was looking for a source of spark plugs that would work in Buick's high speed, high compression engines.
To save money, Durant wanted to manufacture his own plugs. If Champion could build a plug that would meet Buick's specifications, Durant said, he would build a factory to produce the plugs, and give Champion an interest in the company.
Champion was able to persuade the Stranahans to sell out. But they would not sell the name Champion Spark Plug Company. The new company briefly operated as Champion Ignition Company. After a legal battle with the Stranahans, however, the name was changed to A.C. (for Champion's initials) Spark Plug Company.
With the advent of the Tin Lizzie came a huge demand for spark plugs. Everyone seemed to have a better idea. The product that has survived is today's spark plug: one with a center electrode that fires off a grounding electrode.
Other ideas, though impractical, were certainly imaginative.
The Fan Flame plug made in Yonkers, N.Y., for instance, had a fan that was supposed to blow the carbon off the plug. That idea resurfaced in the Multi Point, Multiple Point, Schletc Sliding Gap and Movie Plug, among others.
Another unique feature that enjoyed a brief moment of fame was the Breather Plug. The Breather Plug had a breather valve inserted into the plug, generally on the side of the plug body (or, in the case of the Automat, in the top of the porcelain). The Blue Ribbon spark plug, made in Indianapolis, weighed over a pound and had a breather on the side of its unusual square body. The Barney Google plug was also a breather plug, but the manufacturer was banking on name recognition from the famous cartoon of the time.
The Carbon No, Kant Kollect Karbon and Fleet Wing Air Spark were only a few to employ this device.
In the early days of motoring, carbon was the engine's biggest enemy. Oil-burning engines produced carbon, fouling out the plug. Early drivers often had little understanding of an engine's operation, so even something as minor as a fouled plug could mean disaster. That challenge resulted in the creation of the Breather Plug. However, the breather itself usually got clogged with carbon and never really worked as designed.
One idea that did work – in fact, worked very well – was the priming spark plug. Usually a priming cup was built in on the body (but sometimes on top of the insulator). If the engine was flooded, the cups could be opened and the engine turned over until the excess gasoline was gone. They also aided in starting, especially in the winter.
The Champion Spark Plug Company manufactured several different styles of priming plugs. However, many others (such as the Emil Grossman Company, which marketed the Red Head Plug) also had a share in the market. Similar plugs included the Fox, Czar, Shurnuff, Griffin Multiplex, Vital, Universal, Benford's, and Clean E-Z. The primer plug's downfall came when automobile engines became high compression, and the priming cup would leak compression.
One style of spark plug came and went so fast that few specimens remain: The Coil Plug. The Coil Plugs had the spark coils built right into them. The idea was that there would be very little voltage lost, because the coil was right there and would not have to pass through the plug wire. The inventors, though, failed to anticipate the engine's intense heat which melted the insulation from around the coils, thus rendering the spark plug useless. The concept did have some success in the boating industry, though: It seems that just enough water splashed on them in the old inboard engines that they stayed cool enough to keep from melting. Perfex, Bullock, Orswell and Connecticut were among the leading coil plugs.
Next to the plug fouling, the spark was the next biggest source of a headache for the early motorist. If you had a visible plug in your engine, you could keep a close eye on your ignition. Plugs such as the Beacon Light or the Prismatic or Sunderman made it easy, as those plugs used glass insulators. Plugs like the JD Visible, MC Visible, Dynam, Pittsburgh Visible, Molla, Becmar, and several others had holes directly in the insulators, while Frank's Window Plug, Bullseye and Protecto had windows in the plug bases, allowing observation of the spark.
Among the most beautiful plugs built were the quick detachable plugs. These plugs had their own handles attached: With just a quarter-turn, the insulator could be removed for cleaning. Some brands – Brown, Mayo and PDQ – had an accessory spark plug air pump that snapped on to the plug base (with the insulator removed) to pump up flat tires.
Two other odd styles of spark plugs were twin plugs and series plugs.
Twin plugs are also known as reversible plugs. These had electrodes on both ends of the plug: If one end fouled, all you had to do was remove the plug, turn it over and run on the clean side. A special cover was used to hook the plug wire on and, in theory, the dirty side would be cleaned while the clean side vas in use. The Twin, Chicago Reversible, Double Head and Double Service are examples of reversible plugs.
Series plugs were actually two plugs built into one: the Cadillac Series Plug was used in the 1909 Cadillac. The Edison Double System, Champion Series Plug, Ensign and EWB Dual were all designed so that one wire could be hooked to the magneto and another could be hooked to the battery and coil. That way, you could start the engine on battery and coil, and when it was running, you could switch over to the magneto, thus saving the charge in the battery.
Early spark plugs had colorful names: Benford's Ford Angle, Billy Hell and Helfi, for example. If the plug was named right, it would sell: How could you resist Sure Pop, Red Hot Special or Blue Blaze? Many small town garages had their own house brand. The railroads had their own brands as well, with their names fired on the plugs to prevent theft.
There were plugs with pictures of diamond rings on them, plugs with pictures of elephants, and plugs with pictures of gophers. One of the most beautiful was the French Eyquem Nationale, with a hand-painted picture of two French women in period dress.
As with any new collection, the first question the prospective collector asks is "How much is this going to cost?" While some plugs will bring in excess of $200, those are the exception, not the rule. There are literally hundreds of plugs in the $5-$20 range. As with all collectibles, condition and rarity play a big part in the cost. But getting started is easy. All you have to do is pose that simple question: "Got any old spark plugs?"
The Spark Plug Collectors of America is an international organization, founded in 1975 by Bill Bond of Ann Arbor, MI. The group is dedicated to the promotion of spark plug collecting, spark plug history, the exchange of information (and spark plugs), and fellowship.
The Spark Plug Collectors of America hosts three annual membership meetings. The Midwest regional meeting is held at the end of April in LeSueur, MN. The National-International meeting is held at Portland, IN, in August. The Eastern regional meeting is held in Hershey, PA, in October.
Annual membership in the group includes a subscription to the club newsletter, The Ignitor, and full voting privileges. Dues are $20 per year (in the U.S. and Canada), and $25 elsewhere. Current membership is over 300. FC
For more information on spark plugs, spark plug collecting or the SPCA, contact Jeff Bartheld, vice president, SPCA, 14018 NE 85th Street, Otsego MN 55330-6818; (612) 441-7059.