The most valuable examples of the Commodore 64, generally speaking, are the early variants that have silver labels across the top. The silver label Commodore 64 is the earliest, most expensive example of the venerable machine.
In all, Commodore produced about 80,000 of these machines. That compares to several million of the most common variants. That alone makes early models relatively rare. When you do find one, there’s a fairly good chance it’s not 100% original. The silver label Commodore 64 is the equivalent of the Atari 2600 heavy sixer, but more rare.
Early 64s had problems with their video, so much so that it warranted a 2½-page article in the debut issue of Compute!‘s Gazette about the problem and what Commodore was doing about it. Early revisions of the VIC-II chip would create occasional sparkle on the screen that caused it to flicker. Worse yet, the flicker could register collisions with sprites and cause a game to malfunction.
The Gazette article noted that Commodore was on its eighth revision of the VIC-II chip. This was in the summer of 1983, barely a year after Commodore introduced it.
Commodore was able to solve the glitch, but in the process, some early software stopped working. In most cases, the publisher fixed the software. Commodore’s own CP/M cartridge was one of the casualties, and Commodore never got it working again. Once it was over the growing pains, the 64 went on to have a long life, selling 25 million-plus units for the next decade.
Why silver-label mods are common
Many early silver-label owners had their machines modified to fix the glitches. That could mean replacing the VIC-II with a newer revision or even getting the whole motherboard swapped. Transactor magazine, on page 5 of its November 1984 issue, noted that dealers often just swapped boards to complete repairs more quickly. Later, they would repair the board and use that board as a replacement at a later time.
For this reason, a silver label 64 is worth more when all of the date codes on the chips indicate a date of manufacture in 1982 or early 1983. And if you find a silver-label 64 with all 1982 chips except for the VIC-II, you know you have a machine that received a replacement chip. The most interesting silver labels have one or more ceramic-encased chips in them. Most 64s have the much more common black plastic chips.
But there’s one common point of failure in later models that doesn’t frequently occur in the silver label. Early C-64s used a Signetics 82S100 chip for a PLA. Commodore made their own version that ended up being failure prone, but the Signetics chip is very reliable.
If you find a silver label Commodore 64 with a newer board revision than assy 326298 Rev. C, you know someone swapped the entire board at one point. Or someone swapped the labels. If you want to tell the difference, the serial number should also be rather low for it to be a legitimate silver-label. Commodore didn’t use all the numbers, so there can be some six-digit silver labels out there. But the serial number should be in the low six digits if it runs into that range.
The most interesting silver label machines to a modern-day collector would have an assy 326298 Rev. A or Rev. B board. Here’s a rundown of the various motherboard revisions.
Other identifying characteristics of a silver label
There are lots of visual clues that silver labels have that are visible from the outside. Take a peek inside the ports on the back of the machine. The metal plate under the motherboard is brass on a genuine silver label. On later boards, it was white metal. Silver labels also used green cartridge port connectors, and if you open them up, the power switch housing is green, rather than red or black.
There are also some telltale signs on the side of the machine. The writing above the joystick ports is bright white on a real silver label. On later breadbins, it’s gray. And the power jack opening on a true silver label is square. Later revisions had a round opening.
If you see a white metal plate on the underside, the wrong color ports, and the wrong shape, there are several possible explanations. It may have been a board swap, possibly long ago. But it could just as easily be someone taking a common breadbin and slapping repro silver labels on it trying to make an extra buck.
In the 80s it wasn’t uncommon for people to save all the paperwork associated with their computers. A silver label 64 with the wrong board in it with the invoice from a repair shop describing the work done is worth more than a random mismash of parts with no documentation. If you’re buying computer gear at an estate sale, or in a private sale, and they offer you the paperwork, always take it gladly. Then you know much more about the history of the machine.
Changes between the silver label Commodore 64 and later versions
Later 64s added separated composite output (what we now call s-video), so a rainbow-badged 64 is a better machine to actually use. But there are several million of those machines floating around, which is why those early machines have mystique with collectors.
I’ve heard that most of the swapped-out Rev.A boards had their socketed chips removed and were discarded. So the chances of finding a Rev.A board in a rainbow-badged 64 would seem low, but as soon as you say it can never happen, I’m sure someone will find one.
The silver label Commodore 64 isn’t the best example of the machine to use. In the 1980s and 1990s, people considered them junk. That’s one of the things that makes them more difficult to find today. But its relative scarcity makes it very interesting to collect. A completely unmodified silver-label, especially in perfect working order, is a prize for a collector today. But when a 64 fan just wants to play some Jumpman, they’ll reach for a rainbow label instead.
Although the silver-label was rather short-lived, Commodore reincarnated the 64 multiple times. Here are the other C-64 models. Some rare, some anything but.