Collecting antique spark plugs helps us understand how the internal combustion engine itself has evolved over the years.
This article was reprinted with permission from The Antique Trader Weekly, Dubuque, Iowa
When I tell people that I enjoy collecting spark plugs, many times I get the look, you know the one, it's like, "Yes, I understand, crazy Aunt Mable loves her doorknob collection, too." Well I've seen Mable's doorknobs and I was impressed, and likewise when the uninformed see a collection of plugs in person, they can't help but be in awe just a little, for it helps them understand how the internal combustion engine itself has evolved over the years.
To truly understand how the spark plug came to be, we must travel back in time to the late 1800s. The internal combustion engine was in its infancy, and was fired by a mechanical device called an "igniter." It was a troublesome apparatus that worked great, when it wanted to, and was quite complicated for the mechanics of the time. As engines refined, so did their ignition systems. The first spark plug per se could most likely be traced back to France. It was much like the plug of today, with the exception that the insulator was made out of ruby mica instead of porcelain and the body made from brass, otherwise it just had an electrode and a grounding lug. A collector from the U.S. found a box of these plugs while traveling in Europe a few years ago. The only markings on them were the letters "A.E.C." What they stood for is anyone's best guess.
By the early 1900s, Henry Ford had introduced his amazing Model T to the world, and the door was open to anyone who could build a better spark plug. Anyone who can remember those early days of "care-free motoring" will also remember what a sweetheart that old Tin Lizzie was to start. And so it was that every little backwoods garage, as well as major manufacturing companies, tried their hand in the spark plug business. This accounts for the over 5,000 different names that The Spark Plug Collectors of America have on file in their club files. Some of these names go clear back to the turn of the century, names like For-A-Ford, Janey Steimetz & Company Flashlight, For 4 One, just to name a few.
When collecting spark plugs, the plugs can be broken down into eight different categories: priming plugs, quick detachables, series plugs, coil plugs, gadget plugs, 'just name plugs' and finally double plugs.
Let's start by looking at Priming Plugs. Priming plugs, as the name suggests, are spark plugs with priming pet cocks built on them so the gas would get to the plug electrode faster, without having to turn the car over for a long period of time to get the gas up from the carburetor. Keep in mind that in those days the car was started with a crank not a starter. Just imagine how good a plug must have been if it was called "The Starter Plug," or perhaps "The Prime E-Z Cleaner Plug." Other primer plug names were Red Head, Benfords Monarch Priming Plug, Brownell, and, of course, the Champion Priming Plug. All these plugs had little cups on the side of the plug body to prime with, but the Czar, the Primekleen, the Haco and the beautiful Eyquem Top Primer, from France, had the little cups mounted on the top of the plug. It didn't prove to be any better or worse, just a different idea.
The Quick Detachable or QD plug (as it's called in collectors' circles) was a real engineering marvel for the time. These little beauties were designed so that with a flick of the wrist you could take the electrode out of the plug and clean it if it was fouling out. No longer was it necessary to soil your hands with a wrench to get going again. Most of these had handles built right in. The most famous of the QD Plugs would have to be the "Breech Block" Plug. The famous race car driver Barney Old-field endorsed them; the sales pitch was "All 4 Plugs can be cleaned in 16 seconds of the watch." This was quite impressive considering that the car was able to be left running! In my opinion and that of others in the S.P.C.O.A., the most impressive of the QD Plugs would have to be the "W. B. Handee." It is a very large plug with big rabbit ear handles on it. Other QD names you will see are: Winestock, Brown Loc Bar, Mayo, 'Bobra, B & C and Bathurst. A footnote to this style of plug, is that most came with a tire pump that would snap in where the insulator came out, and thus you were able to fix one of those pesky flats on the road too.
Series plugs are plugs that were hooked in a series with other plugs to eliminate the need for so many buzz coils. It also was used so one plug wire could be hooked to the magneto and the other to the battery and coil. The car was started on battery and coil as it was easier to start, and then could be switched over to the magneto to save the battery. The 1909 Cadillac had these plugs as standard equipment! As a matter of fact Cadillac even built their own plug, buying the cores from Rajah and other spark plug manufacturers. In this category, my favorite vote has to be for the J.D. Double System plug. It has an enormous piece of porcelain on the body. The EWB Dual plug resembles a catfish with its two long wire terminals. The Ensign series plug incorporated two Splitdorf hexagonal insulators on a brass base, the Sudig, the Superior and Edison, were all built with little oddities. But as with all other fad plugs, when the ignition gave way to the generator, the need for this style of plug just vanished.
Visible plugs, as the name implies, were built so one could observe how the ignition sequence was going. In this type of plug, there were two different styles, the first being those with all glass insulators such as the Warren, the Beacon-Lite, the Anderson Glass Plug and the Spark King. The idea behind this design was that the flash from the charge igniting in the cylinder could be observed through the plug and necessary adjustments to the carburetor could be made. (The author has tried a Beacon-Lite plug in an antique farm engine, and it did work well. We purposely gave the engine too rich of a charge of gas and when we observed the plug, it showed red. As we leaned the mixture out the color changed to a yellow blue.) The other style of visible plugs are those with holes in the insulators or the bases so one could see if the spark from the coil itself was hot enough. Plugs like the Elk, the J.D. Visible, the Bullseye, James, the M.C. Visible and the Leda all had observation holes in them. On most of these plugs there was a built-in intensifier so the spark would have to jump twice, thus giving a hotter spark, and allowing the plug to work better in an oil burning engine.
Coil plugs have to be some of the largest spark plugs ever built, with the G.M. Compression Igniter tipping the scales at four pounds! The idea of the coil plug was to put the coil right over the top of the cylinder, thus there was less of a chance to lose current through the spark plug wire. These were also the favorite of the 'boating set' of the time. Those who had the old Inboard marine engines in their craft didn't have much room to move around and if they touched the top of the plug or the plug wire, they got quite a jolt, so this plug helped eliminate that. While for marine duty these plugs worked, under the hood of a car or old tractor they were a disaster. The heat would build up so high that the insulation around the coil would melt off, thus rendering them useless. Most coil plugs could be considered rare, as they were not built for a long period of time, and had such a limited usage that not many were sold. The only coil plug to really work well in an automobile was the Bosch. It was installed in the early Mercedes as a stock item. This is also the most plentiful, if you can call it that, of the coil plugs. Others include the Orswell, the Perfex, the Connecticut Plug Coil, the Bullock, the Boston Igniter and the Hi-Lo from England.
Gadget plugs are among the favorites of many collectors. As I stated at the start of the article, everyone had a better design for spark plugs and in this section we see some of the more, well let's say interesting ideas. The ZWP & 'The One Point' both had long adjustable electrodes so the plug would fire off the top of the piston. The Multi Point, Multiple Point and Fan Flame all had little fans on the bottom to blow carbon off the plugs. The Barney Google had a little breather on the side of it. The Blue Ribbon had a big breather on its side, the Movie Plug and the Schlecht Sliding Gap both had little propellers sliding up and down the electrode, the Duraball, Yale Ball Point, Fouless Non Oyle, and Mulkeys all had little balls that rattled around loose in the plug to keep carbon from forming. Then there were those that had the ball mounted solid to the end of the electrode with the idea that the spark would jump from various points on it thus making it foul proof. Plugs using this idea were TAD Flash Ball, the Ball, and Milwaukee Flash Ball, Taco and the Ball Arc. There are more gadget plugs than we have talked about here, some with ceramic balls, some with valves and even some with whistles, but this gives a little insight to those trying to cash in on the spark plug bonanza.
Just Nameplugs are a real insight into the marketing strategy of the time. They lack the bells and whistles of gadget plugs, but more than make up for them in the names. Just imagine the confidence one could have in a plug called Never Miss or Sure Pop. How about Kant Miss, Kant Kollect Carbon, Kant Break, or Kant Foul? These plugs certainly would keep you out of trouble. Plugs like Stone 6k Mica, and Hot Stone had to be real tough. Then there were plugs named after people: Little Jeff, Gloria, Franks and Roosevelt; if a plug had your name on it, it had to be a good one, right? There was even a plug that got personal: Bald Head. Some plug names made you wonder just a little, The White Hope, or how about Bily Hell? The Helfi had to produce a spark hotter than hell itself! The Eyquem Nationale has to get the award for most beautiful art work on a plug. Fired on the insulator is a full color picture of two French girls in native costumes. Then there was one plug that was to be the voice of the sexual revolution - made by the Viktry Products Company, they proudly called it V-D.
The final class of spark plugs are double plugs. Many people put these in the same class as gadget plugs, but there are enough different ones that they should be in a class of their own. Simply, a double plug is two spark plugs built end to end as one. When one end would foul you could simply take the plug out, turn it over and you'd be back in the running. Names in this category include Twin, Chicago Bi-Plug, Chicago Reversable, Double End and Double Head.
Spark plug collecting follows no lines; young and old alike are enchanted by these little marvels of the past. There are many different directions one can take when going after a collection. Some people just try for a certain brand name, or plugs that were made only in their state, or just a certain style of plug, or they can do like the vast majority of collectors, grab every plug that comes in their grasp.
Plug prices have been on the increase over the past years (like most other collectibles have), and while there are some $200 + plugs, they are the exception, not the rule. As a whole (and as of 1994), most go for $50 or less, with the vast majority in the $2 to $20 range, so having a plug collection does not have to break the bank.
Spark plug collecting is ever changing. What could be considered rare today may be common the next day. A case in point could be the First American plugs with the Indian Chief on it. Many years ago it was trading on the high end, then twenty cases were found in an abandoned warehouse, and now they go in the $8 range. To help keep up with the ever-changing world of plugging, the Spark Plug Collectors of America are there to help. The Spark Plug Collectors of America (or S.P.C.O.A. for short) was founded in 1975 by William Bond, of Ann Arbor, Mich. The organization is dedicated to the promotion of spark plug collecting, the research and preservation of spark plug history, the exchange of information and spark plugs and the fostering of fellowship among club members. Annual membership in the S.P.C.O.A. includes a subscription to the IGNITOR and the HOT SHEET, the official club newsletters.
For more information, visit The Spark Plug Collectors of America.