Collecting Antique Spark Plugs

Antique spark plugs tell tale of American industrialism and ingenuity

| December 2010

  • A tray of plugs from Bob’s collection.
    A tray of plugs from Bob’s collection.
  • Spark plug collectors (left to right) Bob Barrett, Lanning Baron and Rich Niezabitowski.
    Spark plug collectors (left to right) Bob Barrett, Lanning Baron and Rich Niezabitowski.
  • A spark plug “go-along”: A dealer promotional piece from Bob’s collection.
    A spark plug “go-along”: A dealer promotional piece from Bob’s collection.
  • Note the ball in this Ball Point plug from Bob’s collection. When the ball bounces, the plug fires.
    Note the ball in this Ball Point plug from Bob’s collection. When the ball bounces, the plug fires.
  • Plugs with glass insulators from Bob’s collection. “When you fired the engine, you’d adjust the carburetor to get the right color showing in the visible plug,” Lanning says. “They say it looked like the Fourth of July when they were running.”
    Plugs with glass insulators from Bob’s collection. “When you fired the engine, you’d adjust the carburetor to get the right color showing in the visible plug,” Lanning says. “They say it looked like the Fourth of July when they were running.”
  • A trio of “window” plugs from Lanning’s collection. The opening allows a peek at the spark.
    A trio of “window” plugs from Lanning’s collection. The opening allows a peek at the spark.
  • Bob’s Twin plug: When one end fouled, the plug could be flipped and re-used.
    Bob’s Twin plug: When one end fouled, the plug could be flipped and re-used.
  • A French-made DeDion dating to the late 1890s is among the oldest spark plugs. This one (from Bob’s collection) was made for a three-wheel trike; it has never been used.
    A French-made DeDion dating to the late 1890s is among the oldest spark plugs. This one (from Bob’s collection) was made for a three-wheel trike; it has never been used.
  • Bob’s Eyquem Nationale plug, commemorating the return of Alsace-Lorraine to the French.
    Bob’s Eyquem Nationale plug, commemorating the return of Alsace-Lorraine to the French.
  • A Jumbo Jiant from Bob’s collection.
    A Jumbo Jiant from Bob’s collection.
  • Bob’s Nine Lives plug.
    Bob’s Nine Lives plug.
  • An Ouaka top primer plug.
    An Ouaka top primer plug.
  • A spark plug compression whistle. The modern spark plug comes in one piece. “Before World War II,” Lanning says, “you could take plugs apart and renew them with a new core.”
    A spark plug compression whistle. The modern spark plug comes in one piece. “Before World War II,” Lanning says, “you could take plugs apart and renew them with a new core.”
  • A Rawa primer plug made in Germany, one of only three known. The plug was one of the first Bob bought. “I had no idea what it was,” he says. “I stayed up half the night to get it off eBay.” He dates the piece (which has an ebony handle) to the years immediately preceding World War I.
    A Rawa primer plug made in Germany, one of only three known. The plug was one of the first Bob bought. “I had no idea what it was,” he says. “I stayed up half the night to get it off eBay.” He dates the piece (which has an ebony handle) to the years immediately preceding World War I.
  • At left: Lanning’s Mayo quick detachable plug. The plug could be removed without use of tools. Right: Lanning’s Maco dual primer plug. Commonly used in early fire trucks, the plug’s two sets of priming cups allowed quick and easy priming. “When you have to prime 12 cylinders, that made a difference,” Lanning says.
    At left: Lanning’s Mayo quick detachable plug. The plug could be removed without use of tools. Right: Lanning’s Maco dual primer plug. Commonly used in early fire trucks, the plug’s two sets of priming cups allowed quick and easy priming. “When you have to prime 12 cylinders, that made a difference,” Lanning says.
  • Spark plug boxes – like this one for the Montgomery Ward Leak Proof, from Lanning’s collection – are also collectible.
    Spark plug boxes – like this one for the Montgomery Ward Leak Proof, from Lanning’s collection – are also collectible.
  • A Winestock quick detachable plug from Lanning’s collection.
    A Winestock quick detachable plug from Lanning’s collection.
  • A Twin Fire spark plug counter display.
    A Twin Fire spark plug counter display.
  • Vintage plug display cases give depth to Lanning’s collection.
    Vintage plug display cases give depth to Lanning’s collection.
  • “Go-alongs” from Lanning’s collection. Signs, boxes, motor graphite and lubricants.
    “Go-alongs” from Lanning’s collection. Signs, boxes, motor graphite and lubricants.
  • Lanning’s fully outfitted dealer displays show antique spark plugs in their retail element.
    Lanning’s fully outfitted dealer displays show antique spark plugs in their retail element.
  • Antique spark plugs offer collectors a different perspective on collectible tractors
    Antique spark plugs offer collectors a different perspective on collectible tractors
  • Bob’s HMS plug showing a fierce bulldog.
    Bob’s HMS plug showing a fierce bulldog.

  • A tray of plugs from Bob’s collection.
  • Spark plug collectors (left to right) Bob Barrett, Lanning Baron and Rich Niezabitowski.
  • A spark plug “go-along”: A dealer promotional piece from Bob’s collection.
  • Note the ball in this Ball Point plug from Bob’s collection. When the ball bounces, the plug fires.
  • Plugs with glass insulators from Bob’s collection. “When you fired the engine, you’d adjust the carburetor to get the right color showing in the visible plug,” Lanning says. “They say it looked like the Fourth of July when they were running.”
  • A trio of “window” plugs from Lanning’s collection. The opening allows a peek at the spark.
  • Bob’s Twin plug: When one end fouled, the plug could be flipped and re-used.
  • A French-made DeDion dating to the late 1890s is among the oldest spark plugs. This one (from Bob’s collection) was made for a three-wheel trike; it has never been used.
  • Bob’s Eyquem Nationale plug, commemorating the return of Alsace-Lorraine to the French.
  • A Jumbo Jiant from Bob’s collection.
  • Bob’s Nine Lives plug.
  • An Ouaka top primer plug.
  • A spark plug compression whistle. The modern spark plug comes in one piece. “Before World War II,” Lanning says, “you could take plugs apart and renew them with a new core.”
  • A Rawa primer plug made in Germany, one of only three known. The plug was one of the first Bob bought. “I had no idea what it was,” he says. “I stayed up half the night to get it off eBay.” He dates the piece (which has an ebony handle) to the years immediately preceding World War I.
  • At left: Lanning’s Mayo quick detachable plug. The plug could be removed without use of tools. Right: Lanning’s Maco dual primer plug. Commonly used in early fire trucks, the plug’s two sets of priming cups allowed quick and easy priming. “When you have to prime 12 cylinders, that made a difference,” Lanning says.
  • Spark plug boxes – like this one for the Montgomery Ward Leak Proof, from Lanning’s collection – are also collectible.
  • A Winestock quick detachable plug from Lanning’s collection.
  • A Twin Fire spark plug counter display.
  • Vintage plug display cases give depth to Lanning’s collection.
  • “Go-alongs” from Lanning’s collection. Signs, boxes, motor graphite and lubricants.
  • Lanning’s fully outfitted dealer displays show antique spark plugs in their retail element.
  • Antique spark plugs offer collectors a different perspective on collectible tractors
  • Bob’s HMS plug showing a fierce bulldog.

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.”