Waypoints: A colorful life

Plug sparks a search through history

April 1, 2013

Tom Haines

Assisting with the annual inspection on my Bonanza (OK, mostly getting in the way), I was busy gapping and then cleaning the spark plugs when I began to wonder how this small electrode—that over its lifetime will spark perhaps millions of times, resulting in the burning of thousands of gallons of avgas—came about. The spark plug I was holding was made by Champion Aerospace, which makes more aviation spark plugs than any company and was the first to introduce a line of spark plugs manufactured especially for aviation. In the early days, automotive spark plugs were used.

The device has a complicated, intriguing history that includes bad partnerships, international relations, fast cars and boats, woman problems, and possibly even murder. If this was happening now, rather than in the early 1900s, we’d be seeing it on Dateline.

Like many iconic companies, especially in aviation, this one is named after an entrepreneur looking to improve on something that already existed. The invention of the spark plug is attributed to several individuals, but a Frenchman named Albert C. Champion gets the credit for first mass-producing the product that most resembles today’s spark plugs. Like the Wright brothers, Champion was into bicycles. But rather than building them, he raced them in France and ultimately the United States. Liking fast things, he soon was racing boats and cars. Injured in a New York boat accident, he returned to France to convalesce and while there immersed himself in the study of magnetos and electrical components for cars.

He returned to the United States in 1905 and opened a factory in Boston to manufacture spark plugs and sell imported magnetos. Numerous sources attribute his success to the clay insulators he perfected that improved the performance of his plugs—the insulators made from clay he imported from France. Today’s spark plugs similarly use ceramic insulators to protect the center electrode from grounding.

Champion became friends and a business partner with William C. Durant, the founder of General Motors, and soon was making all the spark plugs for the burgeoning automotive manufacturer in a Flint, Michigan, business funded by Durant called Champion Ignition Company. By 1922, the name had been changed to AC Spark Plug Company (using the founder’s initials) to avoid confusion with Champion Spark Plug Company of Toledo, Ohio. As with many other entrepreneurs (such as Bill Lear and William T. Piper), Champion had lost control of his own name thanks to a series of early mergers, acquisitions, and business dealings.

Before partnering with Durant, Champion had partnered with three brothers named Stranahan. The Stranahans had underwritten much of Champion’s early work. When he moved his allegiance to Durant, the Stranahans kept his original company—with his name on it—going strong. Ultimately the Stranahans sued GM over the name, forcing the name change in 1922.

The GM division of AC Spark Plug, again through numerous mergers, eventually morphed into AC Delco, which today has evolved further into a separate company called Delphi, supplying electrical and other components to automotive manufacturers. Champion Spark Plug was bought and sold numerous times and ultimately moved from Toledo to South Carolina. More mergers and acquisitions later, the company became known as Champion Aerospace, which today makes all sorts of aviation electrical components, including Slick magnetos, spark plugs, igniters and exciters for turbine engines, ignition harnesses, tools, and oil filters.

Again, like so many industrial entrepreneurs, Albert Champion’s colorful life was not confined to the board- room or manufacturing floor.

Charles Lindbergh chose Champion spark plugs for the Spirit of St. Louis. A few months after Lindbergh’s nonstop solo Atlantic crossing to Paris, Champion and his wife were vacationing in Paris and basking in the afterglow of Lindbergh’s success. While there, Champion died at age 49. Some reports say it was from a pulmonary embolism. Others suggest Champion’s death was no accident. Instead, they attribute the embolism to Champion being punched in the face by an ex-prize fighter who was romantically involved with the spark-plug developer’s wife.

So think of that the next time you are tooling along at 8,000 feet with a dozen Champion spark plugs firing rhythmically out in front of you. All those sparks evolved from the fertile mind of Albert Champion, who led a life curious enough that it might make a good prime-time mini-series. For me, it’s back to more cleaning and gapping of plugs. Only five more to go.

E-mail the author at thomas.haines@aopa.org; follow on Twitter: tomhaines29.

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines | Editor in Chief, AOPA

AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.