By DAVE PAXTON
Editor and Publisher
Eighty-five year old John Pasut of Albia will tell you the internal combustion engine needs three things to run: spark, fuel, and compression. The spark comes from the spark plug, which ignites the fuel in the cylinder, which creates the compression to turn the crank shaft.
And Pasut can tell you everything there is to know about spark plugs, since he has a enormous collection of plugs dating back to the late 1890s.
Spark plugs consist of a metal threaded shell, a porcelain insulator, and a central electrode, which may contain a resistor. Pasut owns about 1,000 unique examples of different plugs (and many more duplicates), used mostly in cars and trucks, but others used for anything that needs to explode a piston into action.
Some historians say Edmond Berger invented an early spark plug in 1839. Except that Bergen never patented his invention and the general use for the spark plug (the internal combustion engine) didn’t come along until about 1858. But since then, millions of spark plugs have been manufactured by thousands of companies, using hundreds of designs.
France dominated the early manufacture of spark plugs, but in 1889, champion bicycle and motorcycle racer, Albert Champion (a Frenchman) immigrated to the United States, landed in Flint, Mich. and started Champion Ignition Company to support his motorcycle racing habit. In 1908 he started the AC Spark Plug Company with backing from Buick Motor Co. AC presumably stood for Albert Champion.
And the spark plug race was on.
Pasut’s collection includes plugs dating back into the 1890s and includes Champion, AC, Delco, Reflex, World, Auburn, Little Giant and dozens more. “I think there were over 5,000 companies who made spark plugs,” he said.
Knowing spark plugs is knowing automotive history and Pasut knows his history. “The early cars weren’t exactly built tight,” he said. In the early Model Ts, you’d use a quart of oil to drive 200 miles and need to change and clean the plugs because they were fouled,” said Pasut. “The old plugs came apart so you could clean them.”
Pasut is especially proud of the plugs he owns from Iowa manufacturers, although he continues to search for the ACME Telephone Company of Albia, Iowa’s plug. “I think the plug parts were manufactured somewhere else and assembled in a factory that eventually housed the old fire station.
He does have plugs from Council Bluffs, Cedar Falls and Sioux City.
Spark plugs are utilitarian for sure, but they are also part art. Pasut has plugs with clear glass where you could see the spark. There are whistle plugs, solid brass plugs, chrome plated plugs, plugs with cooling ribs, plugs with really pretty art work on them, including the Jumbo Molite plug with the elephant insignia.
One plug he owns looks like a part of a flintlock rifle, using a priming plug to ignite the spark. He has double-ended plugs so that early car owners wouldn’t have to stop and clean their plugs, but simply turn them end for end. Early race car drivers, said Pasut, would brag about the speed they could change their plugs during the course of a race.
The retired LPN from the VA in Knoxville, who also farmed and built houses during his career, would like to make a stop at the Albia Rodders Show before he gets too old to haul around his homebuilt display cases full of plugs. He gained most of his collection visiting flea markets and car shows over the course of 45 years and he thinks they’d be pretty interesting for car enthusiasts to look at.