The Commodore 64 is the best selling computer of all time. Depending on who you ask, it sold 17 million, 20 million, or 12 million units. And the generally accepted sales figure for the Commodore 128 is 4.5 million units. Who is correct? How many Commodore 64s and Commodore 128s sold?
The commonly repeated figures of 17 million Commodore 64s and 4.5 million Commodore 128s don’t line up with Commodore’s own annual reports and other internal sales documents. The primary sources indicate Commodore sold about 12.3 million Commodore 64s and 128s between 1982 and 1993.
Commodore’s primary sources say 12.3 million units
It took a number of years, but primary sources have surfaced. Commodore historian Dave McMurtrie made a YouTube video about Commodore sales figures. He took his numbers from internal documents that he received from former Commodore executives Don Greenbaum and Michael Tomczyk.
Based on the numbers in those documents, he came up with a figure of 12,350,000 combined sales for the Commodore 64 and 128. Commodore never reported Commodore 128 sales figures separately. The 4.5 million figure that tends to get repeated a lot is impossible. McMurtrie suggested 2.5 million as a generous estimate. Truth be told, the real number of 128s sold was probably closer to 2 million.
McMurtrie did find an error in one of the annual reports, so it is possible these numbers are not spot on, but there is no way to get from the numbers in the annual reports to 17 million.
There is one year we don’t have information for. Commodore did not survive fiscal year 1994, so we don’t have any sales figures for its final year. However, sales for that year would have been a rounding error. After selling 650,000 units in fiscal 1992, sales tailed off to 200,000 units in fiscal 1993. Demand for 8-bit machines was fading in the 1993/94 time frame. Commodore survived approximately half a year, so if they had kept up the 1993 pace, the most they could have sold is 100,000 units. Given they were competing with inexpensive 386-based machines that year, managing to sell 100,000 units seems overly optimistic. We know they didn’t sell zero, because Commodore was throwing together whatever they could to try to stay afloat a little while longer. But whatever they sold was from whatever leftover parts they had on hand, and demand was low.
So somewhere between 12 and 12.5 million units would be about right, based on the numbers Commodore reported. And it’s still an astounding number of machines in a time when the majority of people wondered what they would do with a computer in their home.
Some highlights from the video: the best year, sales wise, was fiscal year 1984, with 2.5 million units. This probably won’t surprise many people. Fiscal years 1985 and 1986 followed with 2.0 million and 1.9 million, respectively. Sales tailed off to 1.1 million in fiscal year 1987, and Commodore ended the 1980s with 1 million each in fiscal 1988 and 1989. Sales in the ’90s were more modest, numbering in the hundreds of thousands per year. More units sold in 1991 than in 1990, but there was a recession in 1990, so that could explain the dip.
It’s also noteworthy that the 64 sold pretty well right out of the gate, at its introductory price of $599, selling half a million units in its first 6 months.
Where the 17 million figure came from
Jack Tramiel did not dispute the 17 million figure. Late in life he got that question a lot. And there was a good reason for that. He left Commodore in 1984, so he wasn’t there to see its entire production run. He saw the beginning, and then he spent nearly a decade competing with it when he was running Atari. So he had an idea how many units were selling after he left. Of the three most obvious people to ask, he was by far the most honest. Nobody was going to get a straight answer out of Irving Gould or Mehdi Ali.
When asked, Tramiel repeated the generally accepted answer. Under his tenure at Commodore, the machine sold 3 million units. Extrapolating that over a 10-year run, knowing that sales tailed off toward the end, 17 million probably sounded about right. Especially given at that point, it had been 10 years since he had needed to know that information.
So while Jack Tramiel was wrong, I don’t think he was being dishonest. He was repeating the best information he had available.
Better information exists today. The reasons the sales figures were so elusive were because the data in Commodore’s annual shareholder reports was incomplete. And the data in the annual reports contradicted what Commodore’s marketing department was telling the press. To a degree, you expect that. If your numbers are wrong in the annual report, there are more repercussions for that than for marketers inflating the numbers. The other difference is the marketers will probably report calendar years while the annual report covered fiscal years.
But even Mark Brown, the managing editor of INFO magazine, was saying in the 2008 to 2010 time frame that he thought the figures magazines like his were publishing were inflated.
Sometime around 1987, the Tandy 1000 overtook the Commodore 64 in annual sales to become the bestselling home computer in the United States. But its total sales figures never caught up, partly because of the huge number of units Commodore sold in 1983 and 1984.
I bought a Vic-20 about a month before they announced the C64. I’m still bitter!
The 8-bit Commodore was such an easy choice in the mid-1980s. By 1987, you had a lot of great options- C128, IIc, Laser 128, Tandy 1000, Amiga, ST- it was a bonanza in comparison to 1985. The fact that people stuck with the 64/128 into the 1990s was testament to the constant after-market innovations. Fun times!
Whatever the actual number is, I have 4 of them and they are prized possessions. My original C64 I used as a child, two others for which their origins allude me and my most recent addition to the group, an “Aldi” 64. It makes me think, towards the end of the C64 life some of the moves, like the Aldi 64 could have sold a ton but only in Europe. It’s quite possible in all the chaos that was Commodore that all the figures didn’t ever get properly compiled.