Both antique Coke machines with their delightful round tops and vintage Coke machines with their iconic, industry-leading designs are immensely popular among collectors. Yet, you don't have to avidly hunt down Coca Cola memorabilia to appreciate these unique fixtures of 20th century American culture.
Early Coke Machines
From its modest beginnings as a soda fountain drink in 1886, to the first bottles of Coke that a Vicksburg, Mississippi candy store owner, Joseph A. Biedenharn, bottled and sold in 1894 using common glass Hutchinson bottles, the popularity of this sweet carbonated beverage rapidly grew among the American public. By 1909, the Coca Cola Company had grown to include almost 400 bottling plants throughout the country. In those early years, the bottles filled with Coca Cola were generally kept cold in local grocery stores by being stored in coolers filled with ice and people extracted them after paying for them using the honor system.
Yet, it quickly became apparent that this system wasn't sustainable, and the company began searching for new ways to house their product. One early attempt was George Cobb's Vend-all-cooler that was created in 1910, followed shortly by the Icy-O-Company's mid-1920s cooler. However, the cooler that really started it all was the Glascock Brothers vending machine that was released in 1928. Just two years later, electric coolers hit the market, and procuring a cold beverage on the fly would never be the same.
The Vendo Company Changes the Game
Founded in 1937, the Vendo Company of Kansas City, Missouri, is generally considered the most sought after Coke machine brand. In its first few years, the company only manufactured the coin-operated tops for other cooler manufacturing companies of the period. However, it wasn't long before the Vendo Company began producing the entire coin operated bottled soda vending machine.
One of its most popular, and most collected, models manufactured between the years 1949-1957 is the V-39 with its famous rounded top. These Vendo Coke machines that were made after 1955 are iconic for their red with white tops. In comparison, the models made before 1955 are solid red and have the words "Ice Cold" written on the bottom.
Additional Antique and Vintage Coke Machine Manufacturers
Although Vendo is definitely the most popular of these vintage machines, the company doesn't account for every manufacturer that Coca Cola had a contract with. There were approximately 80 companies that manufactured antique and vintage soda machines and coolers, with more than 600 different models. Several other companies that are well known for manufacturing bottled soda vending machines include:
- Deep Freeze
- General Electric
- Quaker City Metal Products
Easy Ways to Date Your Old Coca-Cola Machines
Thanks to Coca Cola memorabilia being such a popular collectible, there are a ton of resources out there for you to use when trying to date an antique or vintage cola machine. To get you started, there're a few different temporal identifiers that you can use to help you estimate an antique or vintage Coca Cola machine's age:
Determine the Brand
One of the first ways that you can try to date a Coke machine is by determining what brand manufactured it. Different manufacturers began producing cola machines throughout the 20th century at different times, meaning that you can pinpoint a date range for these machines using their brand names. For instance, the Glascock Manufacturing Company is the oldest official Coca Cola vending machine out there.
Here are some of the most popular brands and when they first started manufacturing vending machines for Coke:
- Glascock Brothers - 1928
- Westinghouse - 1935
- Cavalier - 1936
- Vendo - 1937
- VMC - 1940s
Observe the Design
Another telling characteristic for identification and dating are these machines's designs. Certain design aspects were incorporated at different points throughout the 20th century, making some of these well-known vending machines easy to date. These are a few of the most iconic design characteristics to look for on one of these vending machines:
- Bottle compatible vs. can compatible - It wasn't until the 1960s when Coca-Cola introduced the 12-ounce can that vending machines were made to fit these smaller cylindrical containers. Thus, any Coke vending machines that you find with interior shelving that only fits cans were made after 1960, and those that only fit glass bottles were made prior to the '60s.
- Coin operated and painted prices - The earliest Coke machines weren't coin operated, but in the post-war period they quickly transitioned to be coin operated self-contained sellers. However, the higher the price that's listed on the front of the machine for each individual beverage, the newer the machine is.
- Round top vs. flat top - Round top machines (no matter their sizes) were early design styles of these drink vending machines. Created throughout the 1940s and 1950s, these machines started getting streamlined by the mid-century and began sporting flat tops and wood paneling to match the fashion trends of the time.
Identify the Serial Numbers
The most precise way to date a Coke machine is with its serial number. Depending on what era and brand of machine you have, you'll have to look for differing serial numbers. However, when you find the metal plates (often screwed somewhere on the doors) you can cross reference them against Coca Cola serial number compendiums.
Grand America Jukebox is a stellar example of a dedicated restoration company that has a huge online compilation of different Coke machine brands and their serial numbers with the dates they were issue. A few of the brands that they have information for include Vendo, Cavalier, VMC, and Westinghouse.
Tips for Purchasing Old Coca-Cola Vending Machines
Antique and vintage Coca-Cola vending machines can cost a lot of money, particularly if they've been professionally cleaned and restored. Therefore, you don't want to waste any money on a machine only to discover that it's going to be a huge investment to get it either up and running or simply to your house. That being said, there're a couple of tips you can take into consideration before you drop a thousand dollars or so on any old drink machine:
- Determine what you want the vending machine for - If you want a Coke machine that works, your best investment is finding a newer machine that has cooling systems which are still being made and are easy to replace. However, if you want a machine for collectible purposes or for decoration, then a older non-functional machine will work fine for you.
- Buying restored is a good investment - Oftentimes, these machines with their intricate mechanical innards can be money pits when it comes to restoration. Thus, it's better to shell out some extra cash in the beginning than having to spend months and a lot of money down the road getting your vending machine completely gutted and re-decorated.
- Buy from specialty shops first - While you absolutely can find these vending machines at online auction websites like eBay, they're not always the best places for you to purchase them from. Specialty sellers--like people who restore old vending machines--can give you a more confident assessment as to a machine's condition.
- Buy locally if possible - Coca Cola vending machines are expensive to ship because of how heavy they are. Even the smaller sliding machines are still hundreds of pounds. Thus, if you want to avoid paying an astronomical amount in shipping costs, you should try to see if there's anywhere you can purchase one in your area.
Quench Your Thirst for Nostalgia With Vintage Coke Vending Machines
There's something immediately striking about the Coca Cola Company's color palette and brand identity, and it's something that's made their merchandise such a popular choice for modern collectors. There's nothing quite so strikingly nostalgic for middle-aged collectors than owning the vending machines from their childhood. Painted in bright red and white, these antique and vintage Coke vending machines may cost a pretty penny, but they'll earn back their worth, one quarter at a time.