History Corner

By John Mahoney

CHAMPION SPARKPLUGS

Champion can mean a title holder, or it could be a person's name. In the case of Albert Champion, it was both. Albert was a champion bicycle racer and the developer of the Champion Spark Plug. He didn't invent the spark plug, he just made it better.

Bicycle riding, and racing, reached its greatest popularity in the late 1800's. Albert won many races in France, including the prestigious Paris-Roubaix race in 1899. He received an invitation and a contract to race in the United States in 1900. Like many bicyclists of the day, Albert was smitten with the internal combustion engine that powered motorcycles and race cars. He set a word record riding a French motorcycle on a track in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He accepted an invitation on October 3, 1903 to drive a Packard at the Brighton Beach course in Brooklyn. He crashed and snapped his femur in a compound fracture. He spent several months in a hospital, during which time he studied automotive mechanics, focusing on magnetos and ignition components.

He hobbled out of a New York hospital several months later, one leg two inches shorter than the other. In June, 1904, he returned to Paris to raise money to start a company in Boston, importing French electrical parts. France was the dominant manufacturer of spark plugs in the early 1900's.

Because of his shortened leg, he used cranks of varying lengths on his bike, and he won the Gran Prix of Paris and a 100-kilometer championship race on the Parc de Princes track. The race reopened the injury to his leg, and he had surgery to remove bone chips. That marked the end of racing for Albert.

He moved to Boston's South End with his wife in June, 1905, and incorporated the Albert Champion Company. Albert made spark plugs and sold imported magnetos. It was the first U.S. firm to make spark plugs using ceramic insulators. The company was a huge success, but his marriage was less successful. During his twenty-year marriage he cheated on his wife repeatedly.

Albert had two partners, the Stranahan brothers. The two brothers more or less ran the company. Around that time, Billy Durant was buying up everything connected with cars, including car companies. Billy convinced Albert to move to Flint, Michigan, leaving his spark plug company behind in Boston. Another reason for Albert to leave Boston was he felt the Stranahan brothers were pushing him out of his own business. Albert then started another company called the Champion Ignition Company in Flint in 1908. Meanwhile, back in Boston, the Stranhan brothers were able to take over the business because of Albert's abandonment. The brothers changed to name to the Champion Spark Plug Company. The company was on the brink of bankruptcy and the brothers were deep in debt.

In 1910, Willys-Overland Company in Toledo, Ohio, struck a deal with the Stranahans. Willys-Overland wanted Champion Spark Plugs in every car that left their factory. The stipulation was that the Stranhans had to move to Toledo-which they did. The Stranahans not only owned Champion Spark Plug, they owned the name. Plus, they received a patent on the spark plugs, which Albert failed to do.

Albert Champion's business was going along just fine in Flint, but the brothers in Toledo said there cannot be two separate spark plug companies with the name "Champion" in them. The Stranahans sued the Flint firm. However, Albert would settle out of court by changing the Flint company to AC Spark Plugs.

While Champion Spark Plugs were in every Willys-Overland and Ford automobile, AC Spark Plug was the supplier of spark plugs for all General Motors cars. The Stranahans made a fortune, as did Albert Champion. But all was not hunky-dory in Albert's factory. He had an explosive temper, and almost every day he would walk through his factory firing some poor worker at random for no good reason, and then complain when that worker didn't show up for work the next day. It got so bad that an assistant used to follow Albert around and hire back the person he just fired.

In 1914, Albert funded the Chevrolet brothers when they were forming the Frontenac Motor Company. This was after Louis Chevrolet got into an argument with Billy Durant and quit the company, essentially walking away from becoming a very rich man. Louis got into a fistfight with Albert. Now, Albert was no shrinking violet. After all, he was an athlete. But I have a friend who's a dedicated bicyclist and he's no Incredible Hulk. Louis Chevrolet was a big man, and if he didn't take any crap from Billy Durant, he certainly wasn't going to take any crap from a skinny bike rider. Louis hit Albert so hard, they had to operate on his shadow.

Colorful may best describe Albert's life, so it might be the way to describe his death. In 1927, Albert and his second wife, Edna, travelled to Paris to see an auto show. Edna was an attractive former chorus girl. The story goes that during dinner with his wife and friends Albert collapsed and died. The police said there was no foul play. But others who were there say Albert spotted a man flirting with his wife, and in a fit of rage confronted the man. The man that Albert was angry with was a former prizefighter. It seems Albert had the habit of picking fights with people larger than himself. One well-placed punch caused an embolism that ended Albert's life an hour later while he was dining. Albert Champion was 49.