Antique spark plugs tell tale of American industrialism and ingenuity
Sumptuous beauty. Red Heads, Royals and Rajahs. “Rags to riches” drama. It may sound like a sizzling new mini-series – but the story here is collectible spark plugs.
Hardly anybody, it seems, sets out to collect antique spark plugs. “Most of our people started with gas engines, tractors or antique automobiles,” says Lanning Baron, president of Spark Plug Collectors of America (SPCOA). “But the technology, the clever manufacturing, the ideas going through the inventors’ heads, it just draws you in. Really, it’s the same thing a gas engine collector would say about his hobby.”
Despite the nearly limitless supply of plugs, few collectors limit their hobby. “Spark plug rarity is often driven by unusual features of ‘gadget plugs,’” Lanning says. “It’s mind-boggling to see the variety. There are some people who collect, say, just plugs from their home state. But a real spark plug collector will go for anything. If it’s cool, you’re going to want it.”
Antique plugs have a certain practical appeal as well. “A lot of people who’ve gotten into spark plugs really appreciate the fact that they’re a lot easier to display than gas engines or tractors,” Lanning says. “My collection of 2,000 spark plugs fits in a comparatively small place. Who has 2,000 tractors?”
Engine heyday spurred boom
Fifty-seven Heinz products? Thirty-one flavors of ice cream? Compared to antique spark plugs, that’s kid stuff. SPCOA maintains a master list of more than 6,700 spark plug manufacturers operating from about 1900 to the mid-1930s.
“With the various models and styles, we figure there are at least 50,000 types of spark plugs out there,” Lanning says. “More than 2,000 U.S. patents were issued on spark plugs alone. So many people wanted to get on the bandwagon, and everybody had a ‘better mousetrap.’ There were a lot of gimmicks and gadgets.”
First invented in the 1890s as a component of the fledgling internal combustion engine, spark plugs took time to come up to cruising speed. Early engines burned a lot of oil, fouling plugs in the process. “There was a lot of focus on developing new spark plugs that wouldn’t foul,” Lanning says.
In addition to conventional collectible spark plugs, “gadget” plugs fall into six categories:
Champion leaves his mark
Innovation aside, the real challenge for early manufacturers was finding a material for the core capable of withstanding extreme heat and vibration. Inventors experimented with mica and stone before Frenchtown (N.J.) Porcelain Co. developed its “775” formula in 1915. When sillimanite (later designated the official mineral of the state of Delaware) was incorporated into porcelain formulas, the result was the long-lasting plug. Frenchman Albert Champion was among the first to capitalize on that, mining sillimanite deposits in a remote section of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California in the 1920s.
And that “rags to riches” story? In 1901, Champion formed a company (Champion Ignition) in Boston, Mass. Soon after, he sold the company to another spark plug manufacturer. That company continued in business as Champion, and became the exclusive plug supplier to Henry Ford in 1911, forming a lucrative partnership that would continue for more than 50 years. “From 1911 to the 1960s,” Lanning says, “if you bought a Ford product, it had a Champion plug in it.”
Meanwhile, Albert Champion started a new company in Flint, Mich., in 1908. Having sold rights to his name with the previous transaction, he launched the new firm under the moniker AC, for his initials. AC started out by supplying plugs for the fledgling Buick line – and ultimately General Motors, a relationship every bit as lucrative and long-lasting as that of Champion and Ford.
“Success bred success,” Lanning notes. “Spark plugs tell the history of American technology and industrial development. There were thousands of companies making spark plugs in 1915. But by the 1960s, nearly all of the independents were gone: It was just the big three: AC, Champion and Auto-Lite.” Today’s collector focuses on plugs produced up to the mid-1930s.
In their heyday, spark plugs were easy and inexpensive to produce. Countless small businesses had their name and/or logo put on porcelain cores, machined the base and assembled the components. “Any parts dealer of any size could have his own plugs,” Lanning says.
That’s particularly true in farm country. “There were a lot of experimental plugs,” says collector Rich Niezabitowski, Simsbury, Conn., “especially in agricultural equipment. When it comes to development of the internal combustion engine, there was more experimentation in agricultural engines than anything else.
“A lot of really rare plugs come out of tractors. They were made by small, rural companies that may have only produced a few hundred plugs.”
The ease with which plugs could be created launched a dizzying number of names, designs and patterns. “The graphics on some of the plugs were really tremendous,” Lanning says. “There were pictures of cars, planes, animals, hometown references and patent numbers. It’s almost like collecting signs.”
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.”
Online auctions offer the biggest, most immediate supply of spark plugs. “It used to be you’d get them from an old auto parts store, or buy coffee cans full of them at estate sales or swap meets,” Lanning says. “But eBay has awakened people to the values, and dried up a lot of traditional venues.”
Prices run the gamut from a few dollars to a few thousand dollars. “I saw a prototype sell for $2,200,” Lanning notes. “Basically, eBay has driven the prices of the good ones up and the others down. There are a lot of collectors (perhaps 700 in the U.S.) competing for the same number of items. If you buy good stuff, it’s always going to hold its value.”
For new collectors, SPCOA offers immediate access to otherwise hard-to-obtain information. “Being able to identify what you have is so important,” Lanning says. “It was the people that got me in,” Bob says. “They’re so nice; it’s like instant friends.”
The group meets each August at the Tri-State Gas Engine & Tractor Assn. show in Portland, Ind., where SPCOA has a permanent display building; at the LeSueur County (Minn.) Pioneer Power April swap meet; at the Antique Automobile Club of America flea market in Hershey, Pa., in October; and at the Florida Flywheelers Show each February at Avon Park. FC
For more information:
Lanning Baron, 2969 Home St., Wantagh, NY 11793; e-mail: LBaronLI@verizon.net; (516) 783-9159; (516) 426-1098 (cell); Bob Barrett, 220 Dosen Rd., Middletown, NY 10940; (845) 386-3962; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.Spark Club Collectors of America, c/o Rich Niezabitowski, 9 Heritage Lane, Simsbury, CT 06070; (860) 651-9015; e-mail: RNiez@sbcglobal.net; online at www.SPCOA.net. Membership dues ($25, U.S. and Canada; $35, international) includes subscription to The Ignitor, the club’s award winning newsletter.
View a couple of great museum collections: Visit the Nethercutt Museum, Sylmar, Calif., or the Antique Auto Museum, Hershey, Pa.