Chasing The Bang

Roughly the following was published June 2019, in Blaze, the magazine of the Lighter Club of Great Britain:

It’s about a year since I started trying to really understand and appreciate the magic of the lighting machine, starting with forking out £25 for a nice old Thorens Single Claw, which had been lying around the shop so long nobody could say if it would light.

It did, but the wick was breaking up. And when I fixed it I ruined something and set out on the long road I have since travelled, trying to get its mojo back.

We got to the point where it could light but simply preferred not to, far as I could see. I played with wicks and flints and packing to the edge of madness. By the end of my DIY efforts, I reckoned that machine was rigged to perfection – with a Dunhill Red flint (a little fatter than a Zippo standard), an old-style Imco wick (without the Zippo-style wire wrapping, which might inhibit evaporation) and a natural wool packing (because stuffing cotton wool through the fuel aperture seemed to compress it too hard).

She burned lovely when lit with a bloody Bic. She would sometimes bang to her own spark on a nice sunny day. She would even do it a few times in a row after a refit, when everything was tuned and primed and the wick was perfectly up and perfectly frayed. But I stopped taking her out because I could not rely on her not to sulk.

(Thorens pix here)

The Thorens led on to other ventures which have taught me what, I suppose, any engineer could have told me before I started. Some machines are naturally sweet and some are not. If my Thorens was a carburettor and I was a garage hand, it would be on a scrap heap by now.

I’ve got a 15-year-old Zippo which works every time. Actually, there was a time even that went inexplicably wrong and I called in the lifetime guarantee – but Zippo just put a new innards in the old case and threw away the mystery.

I’ve got another old reliable in the form of a classic Imco, the bomb-proof Austrian lighter which was the Zippo of its time until Zippo took over the world. Can’t lay my hands on it right now but it looks more or less like this one …

(Imco pic here)

Both the original Imco and the genuine Zippo will run happily on standard wicks and flints and fuel you can buy by the gallon. Currently I am running them and other easy customers on a big bottle of lawnmower fuel called Aspen 4, although I keep a couple of cans of British-blended Newport Fluid on standby for display purposes – because I thought it gave me a small advantage with the Thorens sometimes and the chaps at Newport were very nice when I was asking stupid beginners’ questions.

However, the design of a classic is only half the secret. Manufacturing consistency is the other half. I know from experience that cheap Zippo copies can give you a bruised thumb from repeated failures, in defiance of apparently perfect conditions.

And lately I have had the same experience with one or two from a batch of Imco imitations I bought new, for about £8 each.

picture here – Imco imitation – looks good but beware.

Second-hand Imcos are surprisingly hard to find, considering literally billions were made. These were billed as new Imcos and I had a faint hope that they were left-over stock. In fact they are near copies, of similar weight, marked Atomic. I didn’t send them back because they are not bad copies, with a couple of extra engineering twiddles like a screwfix on the flint tube and a little didger that fits in the end of the spring that meets the flint, to help stop it getting distorted, and a locking mechanism on the fuel canister – necessary, it turns out, because otherwise it might fall out. Anyway, somebody was clearly trying.

I bought seven, in case I was really getting a bargain, and one of them is beside me now and … lights second time, with a little thumb pressure on the snuffer, to take slack out of the spring for the spark wheel. But another one, downstairs, exactly the same rig, is just a pig.

The wicks and the flints both seem to wear quite quickly, so are presumably as cheap in composition as they can reasonably be. It might be they can all be improved with standard Zippo or Ronson parts. Meanwhile, some will do their best with the world as they find it. And some are just b****lighters from the start.

On the face of it, there is nothing mechanically different between my original Imco, which would probably work on garden twine and diesel, and these nice shiny copies, except the copy does not have the choke mechanism – the sliding sleeve which covers up the air holes in the ignition chamber when the lighter is not needed. You would open it anyway for first light, surely, and the only obvious reason to worry about it at all is fuel conservation. The copy machines do dry out noticeably quicker. I tried making a choke out of a piece of old copper pipe but I attached it to the blighter lighter, which was set aside for experimental purposes, and it hasn’t lit since anyway.

This column was going to end with a dramatic flourish. What is an old lighter worth when you are sure it doesn’t work properly? Quite a lot less than it was when you just didn’t know, I guess. I was going to give the Thorens away to anyone who could come up with a likely-sounding explanation of why some lighters just won’t – and what they might try.

But then, a glimmer of hope. In the course of another project, I started talking to Jim Hassett, advertiser in this magazine and favoured mechanic of many in the Lighter Club.

He sent me an old Dupont flint from a stock he bought up more than 20 years ago. Same diameter as the Dunhill Red but much longer, and soft enough to cut and file a bit. I tried a bit in the Thorens and had a glorious half-hour of it working as it should. Then it all faded away again. However, hope is rekindled and there is clearly a new avenue to explore here.

Dupont still sells flints under its brand name – but in small pieces in small packs marked Dupont Black, Dupont Grey, Dupont Blue, Dupont Red, etcetera, for various lines of Dupont lighters. Presumably they are all either different diameters or different compositions or a mixture of the two. But what exactly? Can you get the same alternatives elsewhere? And what is the current equivalent of the mighty old flint Jim prefers?

Inquiries are in progress. Meanwhile, my understanding is that Jim’s flints are the original Auermetall, invented in 1903, and most of those on the market today are a slightly harder compound. Jim’s son, Peter, sells the old stock through Ebay at £10 a dozen – http://tinyurl.com/y5anp729/

They are too fat for my Imco imitations but will fit a lot of older lighters. And the Hassetts reckon each one is long enough to make three of the kind you buy in cellophane packets nowadays.

As for the Thorens … well, hope to report back here next edition.

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