Introduction to Collecting Antique Spark Plugs

Collecting antique spark plugs helps us understand how the internal combustion engine itself has evolved over the years.


| September/October 1994



Plug body from the engine

W. B. Handee Quick Detachable, this plug was made so just by turning the rabbit ear handles, the insulator could be removed for cleaning, without having to remove the plug body from the engine.

Photo by Jeff Bartheld

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.

Types of Spark Plugs 

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.