It may never be known with certainty who first invented the spark plug. The earliest reference dates to 1839 and a series of newspaper articles about Edmond Berger who had created, and was experimenting, with a sparking plug. Another early reference was made when in 1859, Jean Joseph Etienne Lenoir, a Belgian-born French inventor built a single cylinder engine that used an electric spark to fire a mixture of kerosene and air. Detailed information about the endeavor is lacking.
Sir Oliver Lodge, a British scientist, developed an electric sparking plug in the mid-1880s and had the first financial success with the technology. A decade later his sons established the Lodge Sparking Plug Company. And in about 1900 the eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla developed an electric igniter for use in gasoline engines. But it was Albert Campion that is best known for perfecting the device, and in the process played a pivotal role in the development of the auto industry.
Born in 1878 in Paris, France, Champion’s first employment was as a courier for a bicycle manufacturing facility. Seeing a promotional opportunity in his speed, the factory sponsored his entry in several competitions. Champion became a champion and soon, as an award-winning competitive cyclist, he came to the United States.
The bicycle craze of the 1890s overlapped with the development of a practical horseless carriage, and many a bicyclist, including Champion, Barney Oldfield, and Louis Chevrolet were enamored with the new transportation option and the quest for speed. And so, Champion added auto racing to his resume.
But in 1903 he was seriously injured in the crash of the Packard Grey Wolf he was driving during an event at the track in Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, New York. He sustained a compound fracture that left one of his legs two inches shorter than the other and ended his career as a bicycle racer.
Champion made the best of the incident and while recovering in France initiated the study of mechanics and automotive engineering. In 1905 he secured financing from investors, returned to the United States, and opened a small factory in Boston, Massachusetts, to manufacture a spark plug of his design. What made his spark plugs unique was the use of insulators made from a special clay imported from France and kiln firing. His protection of the center electrode from grounding, from engine heat, and from moisture with ceramics was an industry first.
The spark plugs soon became a favorite of auto owners and sales soared. To meet the exponentially growing demand, he established a second Champion Ignition Company factory in Toledo, Ohio.
Champions success was meteoritic. Shortly after establishment of General Motors in 1908, that company’s founder, William C. Durant, met with Champion and negotiated an agreement that led to Champion Ignition Company relocating to Flint, Michigan. With Durant as an investor, the company was reorganized as AC Spark Plug. As part of the arrangement, Champion was contracted as the sole provider of spark plugs and ignition components for Buick. The following year the contract was rewritten to have Champion supply these items for the entire GM line.
In late 1909, Durant initiated an ambitious plan to acquire all parts suppliers and fold them into the General Motors conglomerate. This included AC Spark Plug. Then in 1916 when Alfred P. Sloan launched an ambitious restructuring of the company, AC Spark Plugs was again reorganized as the AC Division, an independent division of GM just as was Chevrolet, Buick, Oakland, and Oldsmobile.
Sloan also expanded the scope of manufacturing at the AC Division. In addition to spark plugs and ignition components, the company began producing speedometers, ignition coils, magnetos, and automotive light bulbs.
Through all these iterations, Albert Champion had deftly ensured he was retained as the president. From that position Champion negotiated acquisition of Sphinx Sparking Plug Company, the largest spark plug manufacturer in the British Empire, and Oleo Company, another spark plug manufacturer in France. He also positioned the company to supply ignition components to leading aircraft manufacturers. When Charles A. Lindbergh used AC spark plugs during his historic solo flight across the Atlantic in May 1927, and as per arrangement, praised their reliability in company promotion, sales again soared.
Five months later, Champion and his wife sailed to Europe on their annual vacation. It was to be a business and pleasure trip as Champion was to inspect the new AC factory opened by General Motors in Paris, France. However, the day after his arrival, during dinner with his wife, friends, and business associates at a Paris hotel, Champion collapsed and died almost instantly. An autopsy revealed the cause of death as a pulmonary embolism.
The Champion story didn’t end with his death. In 1916, Remy Electric was merged with Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company of Dayton, Ohio, to form Delco-Remy Corporation, another division of General Motors. Manufacturing at AC Division was later expanded to include Rochester carburetors. In 1971, Delco-Remy was reorganized as the United Delco Division. Three years later GM streamlined the manufacture and distribution of parts operations and the two divisions were merged into ACDelco. Then in 1986, GM established Service Parts Operations as the umbrella for several divisions including ACDelco. Champion itself became a division of Federal-Mogul Corporation.
Champion never acquired the dubious immortality that is having a name transformed into a brand. Still, his work is at the foundation of empires that were built by Dodge, Ford, Chrysler, and Chevrolet.
Written by Jim Hinckley of jimhinckleysamerica.com