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AutoLite Spark Plug Plant

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The History of the
Autolite Spark Plug Plant in
Fostoria, Ohio

 The Author
Duane “Dick” Richardson

Autolite web site


Duane E. Richardson, a native of Toledo, Ohio, is a Graduate of the University of Toledo with a degree in engineering. He attended special management courses at Toledo University, University of Michigan, and Bowling Green State University. During World War II, he taught night classes at Heidelberg College, Tiffin Ohio.

Mr. Richardson is the retired President and General Manager of the Bendix Autolite Company, of Fostoria, Ohio. He has the rare privilege and distinction of heading, during the years of 1936-1976, "from the same chair", the manufacturing team at the plant, under three separate corporate owners, Electric Autolite Company, Ford Motor company, and Bendix Autolite Corporation.

The author is church and civic minded, and over the years has been extremely active as a volunteer in many organizations in outside areas and in the city. He maintains a great intereest in any progress for the betterment of Fostoria.

Mr. Richardson is married to the former Jennie M. Linson. They have two daughters and husbands,Carol and Joseph Taris, Suzanne and James Blaser, and three grandchildren, Kristin, Karen, and David Blaser.



Autolite: (1) Preface

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To decide to write a book about manufacturing a small object approximately 3/4"round and 2" TO 4" long would seem as if the subject matter could be very limited for the author.

However, this object, a spark plug, is a device greatly underrated by the unknowledgeable, and yet no internal combustion engine can operate without it.

The Physical properties of the component parts, which make up the spark plug, must have specific properties to operate in diversified environments.

It is not the intent of the author to deal with the technical aspects of the spark plug, but rather to "spin the tale" of the entrance of the Electric Autolite Company Toledo, Ohio, into the market. Also, it is the writer's desire to relay some of the trials and tribulations of a major manufacturing Corporation entering a highly competitive field in an area when capital risk money was scarce.

Included in this narrative will be the establishment and fate of the Electric Autolite Company's Plant in Fostoria, Ohio.


Dedicated to Robert G. Twells, the man who proposed the Fostoria Ohio, Spark Plug Plant, and through his commitment and untiring efforts, successfully guided it to the fulfillment of his idea.



Robert G. Twells

Autolite: (3) An Idea

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In 1935, Robert (Bob) Twells, a ceramic engineer , approached by letter Mr, Walter P Chrysler of New York, suggesting that the Chrysler Corporation enter the spark plug business. Bob was aware of the fact that Chrysler did not relish purchasing componet parts from competitors. Mr. Chrysler then wrote to Mr. Royce G Martin, President of the Electric Autolite company, Toledo, Ohio, the largest independent producer of electrical parts for the automotive industry, suggesting that Electric Autolite enter the spark plug business. Mr Martin was skeptical about the company’s ability to enter this field, inasmuch as there has been several previous unmsuccessful attempts made to do so.

The author had frequently heard Mr. Martin make the following statement: “the streets of Brooklyn are paved with insulators that had failed to meet requirements.”

However, Royce Martin was a man willing to take chances, and with the credentials presented by Bob Twells, the former decided to take one more chance to make spark plugs, Bob’s references were sound and appealing, as he had worked for General Electric-Insulator Division, Champion Spark Plug Company, and AC Spark Plug Company, this experience afforded him an excellent background in ceramics.

Electric Autolite company decided to set up a research and development lavoratory at the Champlain Street factory in Toledo. This , in a sense, challenged Bob Twells to make a spark plug, the major problem being the ceramic insulator, For the first six months, Bob did patent research and found that Champion and AC Companies had pretty well covered with protection the spark plug insulators’ manufacturing techniques and composition. Hence, he had to work around these restrictions, Those familiar with spark plug insulator manufacturing realized only certain materials and compositions would give the properties necessary for a successful insulator.

Mr. Twells Plunged forward and hired Edwin (Ed) Mosthaf from AC Spark Plug Company, secured Renalto (Robbie) Robbins as a draftsman, George Schaffer as a draftsman, and Henry (Hank) Taylor as the secretary, thelatter three being “loaned” from the Electric Autolite Engineering Department. At this time, Robert (Bob) Swartzbaugh, Ernest (Ernie) Lyons, Roy Hummel, and the author, Duane (Dick) Richardson filled out the staff to “man” the laboratory of two small rooms, one being the office and the other the workshop area.

The management of Electric Autolite was apprehensive of this endeavor, because there might be a conflict of interest, due to the former connection of Mr. tells with Champion and AC and Mr, Mosthaf with AC. Consequently, this nucleus of staff men worked under tight security, Locked doors, coded orders for materials, etc. In spite of these precautions, rumors became prevalent the Electric Autolite was ready toenter the spark plug business. However, these rumors were temporarily stopped by ChryslerCorporation’s purchase of three million spark plugs from Champion. An announcement by Mr. R.A. Stranahan, Champion’s President, was supposed to have quieted a rumor that the Electric Autolite Company was to establish a spark plug plant, with Chrysler as one of its largest customers.

In the meantime, work proceeded in the laboratories of Autolite, and in order to keep this secret, all components, including the firebrick for the tunnel kilns, were manufactured in the laboratory and fired in a make-shift furnace in the one-room workshop. Subsequently, a satisfactory spark plug was made and it was tested in the engine laboratory of the main factory under the supervision of Eugene (Gene) Lowery, along with the other electrical component parts made then for Chrysler. The reaults of the first tests were such that Autolite decided to work toward the manufacturing stage.

Autolite: (2) Prologue

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An internal combustion engine would be worthless unless explosive gases inside a cylinder could be ignited with and electric spark. The pioneer engine makers had to be concerned with how this could be done.

In 1860, a patented gas engine by a man named Lenoir was probably the first to utilize a spark plug similar to those used today. However, many early engines did not employ this device, but rather a pair of metal contact points located inside the combustion chamber. These were opened and closed mechanically, and the spark was created when the contacts opened.

This systen had many limitations, and a version of today’s spark plug soon was adopted.

Most early spark plug were bulky and formed with large flanges, and were held against the cylinder head with stud and nuts

Around 1900, the threaded spark plug mounting appeared, some using a pipe thread, as in the old Ford Model “T”,and others using standard threads, sealed with gaskets against the engine head. As the engine became more pretentious, the techniques for doing this became more and more demanding. someone figured out that wire should pass into the engine cylinder through an insulating medium, such as a ceramic tube, and the spark could then “jump” from the wire to the cylinder head or “ground.”

The early spark plug insulators were made from low grade ceramic (probably a porcelain from which dishes were made at that time), even though this material had a relative low melting point, low mechanical strength, and an inability to be a good electrical insulator at high temperatures. Also, these early plugs were very susceptible to thermal shock, and often would break or shatter inside the cylinder with very disastrous results.

Other materials, including wood, rubber, glass, quartz, and mica, were used as insulators. Mica had a distinct advantage over the early ceramic material because it had a higher mechanical strength, better heat conductivity, and better insulating qualities at temperatures and pressures at which the engine operated at that time, but a disadvantage was that mica would dehydrate and disintegrate when operated at a high temperature. The mica plug was made by punching out mica washers and compressing them on a metal rod. Then these were shaped as desired on a lathe.

A great deal of effort was made to improve the life of spark plugs by having them made of pyrex glass and other insulating materials; allowing them to be dismantled for cleaning and replacement of various parts in the plug; developing many configurations; arranging for adjustable electrodes; and using all sorts of materials for electrodes; to give the latter more useful life.

Ingenious designs developed from these efforts such as: multiple electrode shells, ball-shaped center electrodes, disc-center electrodes,adjustable electrodes, and a (Cont.) fan-cooled center electrode, which was designed to turn and cool the insulator as the piston would operate up and down in the cylinder. A great deal of research was done on the nickel alloy electrode materials, and the use of platinum and its alloys. The wire had to be able to withstand electrical, and chemical erosion, as well as be a good heat and electrical conductor. Suppplies had to be plentiful and costs relatively low.It seemed that the engine development and the development of the spark plug had to go hand-in hand, as one would deter the progress of the other. This was brought to the attention of the spark plug industry very forcibly at a meeting called in Dayton, Ohio, by the United States Air Force at the beginning of World War II. At that time, most of the U.S. military aircraft were equipped with mica plugs, made by the BG Corporation of New York. The United States Air Force had engines that could not be run, due to the lack of a satisfactory spark plug. The Air Force pointed out the fact that our fleet of planes was practically grounded, and showed examples of good ceramic insulated plugs that were captured from “downed” German Planes during the Battle of Britain.

Our United States Military Air Corp “limped along” with ceramic plugs (which were made in lilmited supply in England) and the BG Corporation obtained a license from England to manufacture the “Lodge Ceramic Aircraft” plug to keep our Air Corp going. The other major spark plug companmies, such as chjampion, AC, and Electric Autolite, were requested to intensify their research and development, in order to produce a satisfactory plug for planes in the war effort, since a greater supply was needed from more than one source. Needless to say, the spark plug makers came through, and the planes were equipped with satisfactory plugs made in the United States.

Just before World War II, another major development in fuel required a change in the ceramic member of the spark plug. The introduction of “tetraethyl lead” into gasoline to improve its octane (anti-knock) properties, provided the industries with additional problems, because of the detrimental effects of the leaded gasoline on the insulator and the electrodes of the spark plug, so that much research was required on ceramic and electrode materials. The solution for the problem of the insulator was to make it out of high percentage aluminum oxide mixes which were resistant to lead attack, and had other satisfactory qualities.

The first manufacturer of spark plugs in the United States was the Champion Ignition Company (“Champion”), Boston Maassachusetts. This company was then the sole supplier of plugs to virtually all engine manufacturers in this country.

In 1909. General Motors acquired the assets, except for the trade name “Champion”, leaving the latter still in the manufacturing field. The principal owner of the Champion Ignition Company was Albert Champion and General Motors saw fit to use the initials of Albert Champion as its name--AC Spark Plug. The Stranahans bought the rights to make spark plugs from Champion Ignition Company and manufactured plugs under the “ Champion” label.

From 1909 - 1936, General Motors and Champion were the only significant spark plug producers in the United States, and they accounted for all spark plugs installed as original equipment in vehicles, and for more than 90 per cent of all plugs made and sold in the United States.

During this period, there were many small companies which entered the field to produce brand spark plugs. They would purchase their insulators from Frenchtown Porcelain Products, Frenchtown, New Jersey, the shells and wires from other suppliers, and would assemble them in small “garage or basement” plants. Their merchandising was done from the backs of autos or trucks.

Every supplier of parts for the automotive industry felt its name would carry enough prestige to enable its plugs to be sold in the after-market. Some even started plants and assembled plugs with their trade names.Such giants as Firestone, Goodyear, Edison Battery, Sears Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, J.C. Penney, Western Auto Supply, Bill’s Auto Stores, W.T. Grant, and Standard Oil, to name a few, few are still merchandising plugs with their own trade names, but long ago stopped putting them together. At the time Electric Autolite Company entered the spark plug manufacturing business, there were over 140 producers of plugs in the United States. The principal supplier of trade name brand plugs is now Prestolite, with Autolite, Champion, and AC still manufacturing some. Electric Autolite bought the assets of Firesstone Spark Plug Division and, for a period of time, made plugs with the Firestone name and Firestone color,”pink”.

The design of a spark plugis not an exact science. There is no particular formula that fits this product, to decide which plug will perform satisfactorily in any given engine. Constant increase in horxsepower, compression raatios, location of the spark pllut within the cylinder, fuel inprovements, changes in economy, characteristics of the driver (fast or slow), distances traveled, climate--all have a bearing on which plug is used in any given engine. Hence, a spark plug furnished to the motor manufacturers is the one determined to be closest to meeting all of the above requirements. The “Big Three” spark plug manufacturers, as Champion, AC, and Electric Autolite are refered to, must work closely with the engine producers to determine the proper plug with the correct heat range. This term “heat range” refers to a spark plug’s thermal characteristics in its ability to transfer heat from the firing end to the engine cooling system. Heat range is detirmined by the length of the plug’s insulator tip, wire stick-out, diameters of the insulator tip and wire, the internal chamber of the spark plug shell, thermo conductivity of the ceramic body, and the seal between the wire and the insulator, among others. “Hot” plugs are usally manufactured with long insulator tips, and “cold” plugs with short ones.

The “Big Three” manufacturers have large investments in equipment to enable them to test their plugs under most driving conditions, and comparisons are made with the findings of the engine manufacturers and verified by actual ”fleet” testing (a number of cars equipped with recommended plugs and driven under field conditions). It is obvious that the spark plug supplier who furnishes his product for the new engine has the advantage of the testing knowledge of the proper plug to use before it goes on the market. In order to be able to sell plugs for all engines, it is mandatory to be able to test one’s brand plug against another’s brand, so as to enable the supplier to cover all of the applications in the after-market. It is usually the wish of the independents to carry the top 10 percent of the current volume plugs, so that they would not need to handle plugs that are slow movers in the market place.

A “rule of thumb” indicates in volume that 90 percent of the total plugs made are usually in about 10 percent of the numbers of types, and 90 percent of the types produced are only approximately 10 percent of the production volume of the maker. An independent spark plug seller without ties to an engine manufacturer only wishes to make spark plugs which are considered high volume for the current market, Plugs for engines no longer made, but which are still in use, are being produced and sold in the market place by the “Big Three”.

Just the problems of the automotive industry have been covered, but when these are multiplied by the perplexities that are incountered by furnishing plugs for applications for marine usage, farming, recreation vehicles, outboardmotors,snowmobiles, stationary engines, household tools (such as lawnmowers, weed cutters, etc,) all types of aircraft with internal combustion engines, construction machinery, etc., one can realize the magnitude of this type of business. The selection of the proper design for all these applications requires a company with diversified skills to satisfy these need and to compete in the market place.

Autolite: (4) Parent Firm

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In 1911 Clement O. Miniger,a native of Fostoria,Ohio, and pharmaceutical salesman, heard of two South Bend, Indiana men who had invented a device to replace gas-fired head lamps with electric lamps for automobiles. He was impressed with the potential of lighting autos electrically, and brought the men and their invention to Toledo, Ohio. Here he began to manufacture a product called “Auto-liter.” This item became poplular instantly. His first company was set up in a Michigan Street storeroom in Toledo, and then moved to a location near the old Cherry Street bridge. Approximately 1,000 people were employed.

It now became evident that the automobile had a great future, and Mr. Miniger urged his engineering staff to develop an electric starting device to replace the hand crank. This was accomplished and the company “Auto-liter” was on its way.

About the same time, John Willys brought to Toledo the Willys Overland Company and manufactured the Willy automobiles.

Mr. Miniger sold the Auto-liter plant to John Willys and the former being an ambitious man, regained control of the company in 1918. Immediately he undertook a series of expansion, which included the antecedents of the corporation which stretched back to two small companies making buggy lamps. In 1934, with manufacturing of automobile lights being big business, Electric Autolite merged these two companies and another to establish its corcoran Brown Lamp Division in Cincinnati.

In 1898, the National Lead Battery Company was formed. Almost 30 years later, in 1927, Electric Autolite gained controlling interest in this company. It enlarged and operated under the name U.S.L.Battery Company. The same year Electrlic Autolite also purchased the Prest-O-Lite Battery Company and Prest_O-Lite, Ltd, in Toronto. Other battery plants were located at Niagara Falls, New York; Owosso, Michigan; Atlanta, Geogia; Vincennes, Indiana; Oklahoma City,Oklahoma; Oakland, California; Toronto, Canada; and a new plant at Los Angeles, California. Foreign companies were situated in Sao Paulo, Brazil; Paris, France; Brussels, Belgium; Barcelona, Spain; Christchurch, New Zealand; and Johannesbvurg, South Africa.

In addition to the battery plants acquired, Electric Autolite brought the Starting and Lighting Division of the American Bosch Magneto Company, and purchased a wire and cable plant at Muskegon, Michigan, which later was moved to Port Huron, Michigan.

In 1934, during the depression, Electric Autolite merged with the Moto-Meter Gauge and Equipment Company of LaCrosse Wisconsin. Moto-Meter made precision industrial gauges and thermometers, molded plastic parts, and complete instrument panels containing speedometers, oil pressure gauges, gasoline guages, heat indicators and ammeters. Its lithographing, etching, and plastic division at Bay City Michigan made dials, name plates, and decorative units for automobile manufacturers and industry.

Electric Autolite continued to grow. In 1935, the Alemite Die Casting company, Woodstock, Illinois, was acquired and, in addition the component parts for Autolite, it manufactued such items as radiator grilles, door handles, and other automotive hardware.

In 1936, a bumper plant in Springfield, Ohio was purchased and then moved to a new plant at Sharonville, Ohio, while Springfield made hub caps and spring covers.


Foundry operations ran in Fostoria, Ohio; Toledo, Ohio; and Mt Vernon, Illinois, for the production of gray iron castings, which were used largely by other Autolite divisions.

In Sarnia, Ontario, Canada, practically all of the electrical units which were manufactured by United States Electric Autolite were produced for the Canadian market. A production line for the asembly of spark plugs was also set up in the plant.

After the merger of Electric Autolite and Moto-Meter Gauge and Equipment Company, Champlain Street, Toledo, became the site of the new corporate headquarters. About the same time, the company experienced a most devastating strike, when the United Auto Workers demanded recognition.

In 1954, Royce G Martin, who was then chairman of the Board and President of the Electric Autolite, died, and the company entered a period of uncertainty, as Mr. Martin had not designated a trained heir to succeed him Several unsuccessful attempts were made to revitalize the company and return it to its former status in the automotive industry. Also at that time, a change was made in the name, removing the hyphen from “Auto-lite” to Autolite.

Around 1959, the financier and industrialist, Gordon W Wattles of New York, began acquring stock through Mergenthaler-Linotype Company of New York. Mr. Wattles dominated the latter which, in turn, controlled the Electric Autolite.

“The winds of change” were noticeable in the automotive industry, and in 1961, the Ford Motor company of Dearborn, Michigan purchased the trade name “Autolite”, along with the Spark Plug Division at Fostoria, Ohio and the Owosso Battery Plant at Owosso, Michigan. The remaing portion of the Electric Autolite was renamed “Eltra Corporation.” The main Eltra Plant was located on Champlain Street in Toledo, and in 1962, after continuous labor troubles and the deterioration of manufacturing equipment, the plant was dismenbered and reorganized with its subsidiary, Prestolite, whose headquarters of four divisions was in Toledo. Jobs were transferred to Bay City Michigan; Woodstock, Illinois; East Point, Georgia; Oakland, California, and a new plant was built in Decatur, Alabama.

Eltra’s Prestolite set up engineering, accounting, and research departments at the new Hamilton Street headquarters in Toledo.

In July, 1979, Allied Chemical acquired the Eltra stock and became sole owner of Eltra Corporation and Prestolite.

In the early daysof theautomotive industry, theindependent parts suppliers were able to sell their products directly to the car manufacturers. The strength of Electric Autolite was the fact that it produced a great variety of automotive parts and accessories, which were sold to everyone and anyone. In these days, Willys Overland of Toledo was a prime customer, and Electric Autolite furnished the majority of parts for the ignition, as well as other accessories for the autos.

When the Electric Autolite merged with Moto-Meter Guage and Equipment Company, Mr, Martin, along with Harold E. Talbott, brought to Electric Autolite the Chrysler business. It was management’s opinion that a strong independent manufacturing company catering to all was the way to maintain an effective and healthy organization and, thereby, expanded its manufacturing line to over 400 procucts. Everything was done to promote the name of Electric Autolite and bring it to the public’s attention. The company had, among other things, thr chief promotional ideas to carry this out:

(a) Three years in a row, the company promoted in New York, automobile shows on television, which were known as the “The Praade of Stars”, the idea being to expose Autolite products to potential original equipment and national accounts;
(b) To tie in original equipment customers by exhibiting new cars on television, and in every Autolite location; and
(c) To build pride of workmanship in its employees.

(a) To produce the live television mystery show, “suspense”, to Promote Electric Autolite Procucts. This show had an outstanding commercial of the company’s products marching in various formations.

(a) During World War II, a Radio show was sponsored by the company called “Everything For The Boys”, starring Dick Haymes and Helen Forest, which was slanted primarily to entertain the armed forces.

After Mr. Martin’s death, Electric Autolite was faced with the loss of Chrysler’s business, inasmuch as a trend had developed in the entire automotive industry to manufacture its own componet parts and to require competitive bidding on all purchased parts. Electric Autolite needed volume in order to compete withthis trend. Manufacture of some parts was based on the volume generated by Chrysler volune, meant large losses. Also, Electrid Autolite’s advertising and marketing patterns were wrong. Original equipment sales were emphasized, by advertising the Autolite trade name on the parts. Plagued with high labor costs in obsolete plants and a history ofbitter labor labordisputes, Electric Autolite closed Toledo manufacturing operations, and moved the manufacturing of certain products to existing plants within its oranization and also started operations at Decatur, Alabama.

An interesting sidelight: A situation developed when Electric Autolite closed the Toledo-Champlain Street Plant. Aproximately 40 persons exercised ther corporate seniority rights, transferred, and commuted to the Fostoria Spark Plug Plant until their retirement.

Electric Autolite embarked on a divestiture program, selling part of its manufacturing, such as starting motors, generators,regulators, and distributors, to Chrysler, and the Spark Plug Plant Battery Plant,and the tradename, “Autolite” , to Ford Motor Company. This could be attributed to Chrysler and Ford wanting to sell their commodies as original equipmnt replacement parts with a name on them they controlled, and not encounter identical articles, with the same name, sold by chain stores, marketing associations, and auto parts replacement companies.

The former owner, Electric Autolite, became known as the Eltra Corporation and now sells the same parts under the name “Prestolite”, Which are as satisfactory as the ones promoted as orginal equipment.


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