People collect the zaniest things from Pez dispensers to vintage Zippo lighters to toilet seats. And Joe Cook just might be king among spark plug collectors. His New Jersey basement museum collection boasts more than 2,400 spark plugs plus an exhausting amount of spark plug-related items including copies of more than 5,000 early patents, letterheads and envelopes from various spark plug companies, and marketing and promotional items. Over the century and a half that spark plugs have been around, they’ve been packaged in lead, wax and wax paper, wooden containers and decorative tins and accompanied by promotional items such as decals, matchbook covers, glassware and posters depicting Old Hollywood starlets. Cook has many of them.
“I originally started restoring antique tractors and Hit & Miss (open flywheel) engines,” says Joe when asked what inspired his spark plug collection. “As I was restoring them, I noticed some interesting spark plugs in them. I was intrigued by them so I removed them, cleaned them up and put them on the shelf. Pretty soon I had about a dozen or so and I thought I must have all the different types that there were.”
Feeling proud of his dozen-strong collection, Joe attended an antique tractor and engine show where fate stepped in – in the form of a fellow antique spark plug collector displaying 50 of them on a table. He informed Joe that there were more than 6,500 manufacturers of early spark plugs and told him of the Spark Plug Collectors of America. Joe joined and quickly climbed the leadership ranks while continuing to build his collection. Many of his spark plugs came into the collection in interesting, even amazing ways.
“My son, Peter, and I were scuba diving in the Bahamas. As we were swimming along the coral reef, I spotted something and stopped and picked it up and put it in my dive pouch,” Joe says. “When we surfaced, my son asked me, ‘What did you stop and pick up?’ I opened my pouch and showed him a spark plug all encrusted in coral. He said, ‘Only you could find a spark plug 80 feet underwater amongst all the sea shells. That’s a one in a million chance!’ Well, on the very next dive I found a second one!”
If you’re feeling inspired to start your own spark plug collection, you’re in luck. Turns out, your collection starter might be only as far away as your granddad’s garage.
Back in the day, “Every corner gas station made and sold plugs, usually in their local area as they did not have the network to distribute them nationwide, let alone worldwide,” Joe explains. “And everyone had an idea on how to make a plug that would not foul. This is what makes collecting so interesting. Another point to remember is the early spark plugs were re-buildable. When the plug wore out, you could take the plug apart and replace the core and have a ‘good as new’ plug for a fraction of what a complete new plug cost. This is also why there are so many antique plugs still around. No one threw them out. When they were removed, they usually got put on the shelf to be rebuilt. Many plugs are found in old garages and barns just sitting on a shelf waiting to be rebuilt or reused.”
Joe takes portions of his collection on the road to antiques, tractor and auto shows, schools, retirement homes and annual SPCOA meetings. He remains a member of the organization’s Board of Directors and is a former co-editor and vice president. And while he loves his collection, it’s the collecting that’s the most meaningful.
“I have been a mechanic all my life. A spark plug to me used to be the final point of ignition in an engine,” he says. “But now that I have retired and collect them, a spark plug to me is a thing of mechanical beauty, pure joy and fascination and most importantly, a means to an end – The end being the camaraderie of my fellow club members as we share the joys of finding a new addition to our beloved hobby!”
Got a spark plug or related item you’d like to share with Joe? Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell him E3 Spark Plugs sent you.