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Published: Tuesday, 8/8/2000

Local collectors keep Champion's glory days alive

For 80 years, Champion Spark Plug Co. made spark plugs in Toledo, and the firm's brand name and its "bowtie" logo were known around the world.

The huge Champion plant is shut down, and the Champion brand is marketed by its third owner in just over a decade. The Champion trademark and Toledo are no longer synonymous.

But if George and Mary Green have anything to say about it, the Champion legend and the firm's glory days will never die.

The brother and sister have amassed a collection of hundreds of Champion logo items - including glass tumblers, transistor radios, key chains, blotters, jewelry, match covers, and Avon's Champion bottles. And they have written numerous articles aimed at spark-plug aficionados for such magazines as The Ignitor, published by the Spark Plug Collectors of America.

"Our collection was acquired over a period of more than 70 years," said Ms. Green, a retired secretary who lives on Alisdale Drive in Toledo. She added that she and her brother, who lives in Dearborn, Mich., continue to expand the large collection left by their father, Robert Green, who worked for Champion for 41 years before his death in 1953.

George Green and his wife, Pauline, ". . . collect about a hundred different things, and [spark-plug] memorabilia is just one of them," said Mr. Green, a retired General Motors advertising manager. "My basement, garage, and attic are filled with stuff."

His father was a purchasing agent for Champion's ceramic division in Hamtramck, Mich., and kept samples of many of the promotional items distributed by Champion to its customers and suppliers and to racing fans who became accustomed to seeing the firm's logo on race cars all over the world. At one time, Champion produced a "road race" board game that families could get free simply by buying a set of spark plugs.

Champion certainly wasn't the first spark plug, but it became the most famous brand. By 1914, Champion was the largest manufacturer of spark plugs in the world, said Mr. Green. It eventually had production facilities in 13 different countries making 450 types of plugs for cars, trucks, boats, lawn mowers, etc., and it was for 48 years the original-equipment supplier to Ford Motor Co., he said.

The firm was founded in Boston in 1907, but it quickly became a Toledo company. Brothers Robert and Frank Stranahan moved their fledgling firm to Toledo in two boxcars in 1910. At its peak, Champion - then a Fortune 500 company - and its DeVilbiss Co. subsidiary had 3,500 employees in Toledo.

And, oddly enough, the name "Champion" also showed up in the firm's biggest competitor, AC (for many years a GM subsidiary). AC was short for Albert Champion, a spark-plug pioneer who early on had a brief association with Champion Spark Plug Co. A court ruling in 1922 stripped his firm of the name "Champion" because it was already a trade name.

In 1989, Champion ceased to be a Fortune 500 firm, when it was acquired by Cooper Industries, of Houston. Two years later, Cooper closed the factory on Upton Avenue, and two years ago it sold Champion to Federal-Mogul Corp., of Southfield, Mich., which still calls Champion "the world's favorite spark plug."

"Of all the names in the industry, Champion probably emerges as the most enduring," said Mr. Green.

Indeed, "Champion has a fairly unique niche," said William Bond, of Ann Arbor, Mich., founder of the 25-year-old Spark Plug Collectors of America group.

Mr. Bond, whose organization has 300 active members out of 1,000 it has recruited over the years, added that "nearly 6,000 different brands of spark plugs were sold in the U.S. from 1895 on. Champion was unquestionably one of the largest and one of the most aggressive."

Spark plugs appeal to the collectors because many of them are by now "rare critters," said Mr. Bond, a design engineer. "Spark plugs were one of the first mass-merchandised [products]. Every manufacturer figures they had the best thing on this planet. Some were even plated in 24-karat gold. One plug recently sold for $1,100."

Another appealing thing is that collectors sometimes have to work hard to complete a collection. "All the money in the world couldn't buy a [complete] spark-plug collection," said Mr. Bond. "You have to be in the right place at the right time. With spark plugs it's all in the timing."

Homer Brickey is The Blade's senior business writer.



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