Three questions for: Stefan Weninger, IMCO
Fire gives warmth and light. Already for the early humans it served as a means of cooking food and having a place to gather safely. While in some parts of the world, more efficient sources of heat and light have rendered the ability to make fire superfluous, it still holds a special fascination – as is evident from our love of campfires, barbecues, and open fires. During human history various tools and methods have been developed to help us make fire in a safe and controlled way.
Until 2012 the Austrian company IMCO was one of the world’s oldest manufacturers of lighters alongside Ronson of the US. In 2013 the Japanese manufacturer Windmill purchased the complete IMCO brand including all technical drawings and continued producing the IMCO Triplex Super 6700, probably the most famous lighter of IMCO. We spoke to former IMCO CEO Stefan Weninger about the development of this lighter and the history of the brand.
1. Mr. Weninger, please tell us about the background to the design of the IMCO Triplex lighter and explain why it was not altered over the subsequent decades?
The IMCO 4700 Triplex lighter was first developed back in 1937. In the 1960s its inner workings were changed with the aim of improving automated manufacturing processes, and it was renamed the 6700 Triplex Super. From that point it remained unchanged. The lighter proved very popular during the Second World War and the post-war period, and soldiers took it all over the world with them when they were deployed, and then when they travelled after the war. This led to wider interest and the establishment of trade relationships all over the world. By the 1950s, 90 per cent of the lighters produced were exported worldwide. As you can probably imagine, there were no design departments back in the 1930s – the design was determined by technical developers and toolmakers. The cylindrical shape was due to the shortage of materials after the First World War, so spent bullet casings were used as fuel receptacles. As is often the case with such items, this design continued to be used even when it was no longer necessary to use these materials. Ultimately, the design could not be changed because the lighters were much better known than the brand itself, and customers were nervous about buying fakes, so they would have avoided our lighters had the shape been altered. Over the years, at least 20 companies produced fake versions of the lighters. In the 20 years that I worked for IMCO we made slight updates to the packaging twice, and that alone caused massive problems.
2. Why did the company cease production and close?
From the very outset, IMCO produced long-lasting and – for the time – very affordable lighters. It was able to do this by having in-house machinery and a high level of automation. Up until the late 1960s we were renowned for our high quality, allowing us to live off our good reputation for decades. However, due to the factory’s location in the middle of a residential area of Vienna we could not change to gas lighter manufacturing in time and ended up losing our advantage by the mid-1960s. From the 1980s cheap Chinese-manufactured lighters flooded the market and made further investment unprofitable. Today Chinese companies produce piezo lighters at wholesale prices, while manufacturers in Europe can barely produce the friction wheel for the same amount. As a result, existing products can only make money if they are manufactured in high numbers. The time came when orders fell so low that we could only expect further losses in the future.
This is related to the fact that 95 per cent of the market for disposable lighters is covered by products from the Far East. All of the famous brands are fighting over the remaining 5 per cent. By the late 1990s manufacturers began to buy up or lease old brands, and sell better-quality lighters from the Far East under their brand names, in order to differentiate the brand from the crowd. I suppose that is what happened with Windmill. They didn’t just buy a trademark; they bought a history, too.
3. How do you see the future of the lighter market?
There will be lighters as long as there are cigarettes, camping stoves and candles. Consumers expect a lighter to be affordable and work well when they need it. These days Chinese disposable lighters are much better than they were back in the early days, and they serve this purpose well. Why would anyone pay more than a couple of cents for that? There will also be a small market for higher quality lighters as gifts. But the era when a lighter was a status symbol and people paid crazy sums for special editions are long gone. Smoking is too frowned upon for that. No one could make a living from lighters produced in those sorts of quantities. In the future, manufacturers in Europe, if they still exist, will no longer be able to survive. As in many other sectors, such as the textile industry, it has become normal for everything to be imported.