As a guy who has been twisting wrenches since my early teen’s I have put in a spark plug or two in my day. It’s more than likely that both mine, and just about everyone else’s very first act as a budding mechanic was to remove…or attempt to remove one of those easy to spot and easy to pull objects that are such an integral part of our beloved internal combustion engine.
Back in the early 60’s when I began my automotive journey the ubiquitous sparkplug had pretty much taken on its current, modern look. There were the L-87Y Champion’s for VW’s, and the Champion N-9Y for just about everything else. And the Bosch counterparts. I installed thousands and thousands of each. But every now and then, generally out at the Flea Market, I would run across large, exotic looking primitive sparkplugs with strange names. As these were usually rusted hunks of metal, and often had broken porcelain and electrodes I rarely gave them more than a quick onceover in my hunt for Fiat, Renault and VW racing parts.
Then about 25 years ago I attended a large antique car show during Speedweeks in Daytona. I ran across a display featuring antique sparkplugs and I was hopelessly hooked. I realized that there was an entire segment of automotive history that was virtually unknown outside of a very small group of similarly hooked enthusiasts; the collecting of antique sparkplugs and related memorabilia.
Fast forward to the present and little has changed. When I say to folks, even fellow car guys; “I collect sparkplugs”, I get an initial blank stare, followed a few seconds later by the look that one’s Uncle Chester gets when he announces in front of company that he collects UFO parts. I will often get a weak, “oh yeah, there are a lot of different heat ranges, I’m sure it’s interesting……….” They trail off, with a sympathetic look, the same one they give Chester, refraining from the “did you take your medication yet today” that poor old Chester gets.
Of course, it’s nothing like that at all. There are over 6,000 known, yes, known companies that have, at one time or another, manufactured sparkplugs for the various applications the internal combustion engine has had throughout its 125 year history. And just about every single one of these entrepreneurs, some being little more than one man in his little machine shop at the dawn of the automobile, was sure that his special electrode design, his unique sculpturing of steel, brass and copper, his clever shaping of the insulator, produced a better version of that mysterious spark, without which, the finest mechanical steeds we can create will simply sit silent.
These artifacts from our automotive and mechanical past date back to the dawn of the industrial age and the very beginning of the car as we know it. At times they were custom made to fit just one manufacturer. They have been exquisitely made out of brass and copper, reflecting the brass age of the cars of that era they were powering. Some of them were primer plugs, allowing the driver to open a spigot and pour a little of what passed for gasoline in those days down into the cylinder for easier starting. Fouling was a major problem back then, so early on take-apart plugs were invented, that were designed to be serviced on the side of the road by the intrepid drivers of the day. There are salesman’s kits from these bygone times. Yes, there was a time when there were “door to door” sparkplug salesman. There were good reasons for that, in the early 1900’s some plugs cost as much as 5 dollars apiece, a true small fortune at that time.
I think one of the true charm’s of the early plugs is that it reflects the subtle awe in which our ancestors looked at electricity. That was a mysterious force, a thing of mystery, primeval and understood by very few. Remember that Mary
Shelley; the teenage author of Frankenstein, had her mad scientist, bring her monster to life with electricity, and Hollywood has been doing the same since the beginning of movies. And think about it, how many kids science projects have to do with electricity in some way?
The early sparkplug makers marketed devices such as “spark intensifiers”; forcing the spark to bridge a gap was thought to increase intensity of the spark. They built “air gaps” into the body of the plug itself. They made the spark leap through a metal ball that compression would move up and down. And as for electrode design; well, there seemed to be just as many ways to skin that particular cat as there were makers of Sparkplugs themselves!
The assorted tins, tubes and boxes looked, at times, like miniature circus wagons. They can be covered with intricate designs, festooned with assorted renditions of lightning bolt themes. And the sparkplugs themselves can be just as colorful. There are numerous plugs that have wild designs and colors, all a testament to the respect shown to that mysterious, almost unworldly force of electricity. When all of this is in your hands, you sense the loving, handmade craftsmanship and heart that forgotten machinists put into the products they sold to the various factories, garages and individuals of the dawn of the automotive age. There are many complex and unnecessary machining operations woven into the finished product. Intricately knurled and whittled designs and pieces in place to show off the craftsman’s proud masterpieces. It’s all simply wonderful.
So, from now on , when I say “I collect sparkplugs”, and get that thousand yard stare from folks, I can point them not only to my website here, but at the same time to the excellent resources that are building up on the internet. Of course, there is always a downside. I confess I’m a bit schizophrenic, on the one hand I want to turn people on to this very interesting hobby, and then on the other hand I want as few folks as possible to know anything about it! See, these things are getting harder and harder (insert more and more expensive) to acquire, and with my luck I’m going to get Trump hooked!