Joe Cook, 64, stands in the basement of his home in Wantage, N.J. (pop. 10,387), pointing to walls lined with wooden display cases filled with his prized collection of 2,400 spark plugs. Every plug is different and has been meticulously cleaned and alphabetized based on the name of its manufacturer.
“People are just amazed there are this many,” says Cook, a retired mechanic.
In fact, Cook wouldn’t have believed it himself back in 1995, when his love for the ignition devices first was sparked. “It started when I removed an old spark plug from an old flywheel engine I was restoring,” he says. “It was a neat two-piece spark plug you could take apart and rebuild. I cleaned it and put it up on the shelf. It wasn’t long before I had a dozen up there. I figured I must have had them all.”
Soon after, he attended an antique engine show in Bangor, Pa. (pop. 5,319), and discovered a table with dozens of old spark plugs for sale. “I was amazed,” he says, noting that since the early 1900s, some 6,500 companies around the world—including AC, Autolite, Bosch, Champion, Mosler, Stitt, Victor and Zenith—have manufactured spark plugs.
Cook bought a few and joined the Spark Plug Collectors of America (SPCOA), a club founded in 1975 with 200 active members dedicated to preserving spark plug history. Members always are on the hunt for rare and unique plugs.
“We added 45 new names to our master list just last year,” Cook says. “At the turn of the last century, nearly every corner gas station manufactured their own brand of spark plugs. Back then people rebuilt the plugs; they didn’t throw them away like today. That’s why so many new brands of spark plugs are being found in old barns and garages each year.”
Cook goes to great lengths to grow his collection, whether he’s buying an entire engine to get a single plug, or exploring plausible or unlikely places.
“Look at this one,” he says, holding a coral-encrusted plug. “My son and I were scuba diving off the coast of the Bahamas. I saw something on the bottom and picked it up. When we got on the boat, I realized I found a spark plug. My son was laughing and said, ‘Only you could find a spark plug on the bottom of the ocean!’”
Whenever he gets the chance, Cook likes loading his custom-made, glass-covered cases into his pickup truck and sharing his hobby with other spark plug bugs at tractor club meetings, county fairs and trade shows. “I love showing them off and talking about them,” he says.
SPCOA founder Bill Bond, 65, of Ann Arbor, Mich., can attest to Cook’s passion for plugs. “Joe can certainly educate you on spark plugs,” Bond says. “He’s always been at the forefront of promoting the hobby.”
Spark plug prices range from 25 cents at flea markets to $2,000 on eBay, depending on their rarity. Cook, whose oldest plug dates to around 1900, estimates that his collection, which also includes spark plug advertisements, promotional items and patents, could fetch more than $70,000.
Yet for Cook, his love of spark plugs isn’t about the money. “The thing I love most about collecting spark plugs is the camaraderie of the people in the club,” he says. “For some reason, people who collect spark plugs aren’t selfish. When they find a plug, they can’t wait to show everybody else. If they find two, they can’t wait to tell somebody else where the other is so they go get it.
“Really, this is a labor of love.”