It’s pretty widely known that the Commodore 64 was the first 64K computer to sell for under $600. But what did a Commodore 64 cost over time?
At its introductory price of $595, the price was revolutionary. In December 1981, an Atari 800 with 32K of RAM cost $1,000.
Not only that, Commodore dropped the price very aggressively. The reason was that Commodore expected the Japanese to enter the computer market and undercut prices.
What it came with
Keep in mind that for the price, you got a bare computer: a CPU, memory, integrated video and sound, and a very rudimentary operating system in ROM, but no storage. You could run software from a cartridge, like early game systems, but the bare computer itself wasn’t very useful.
Dealers loved the 64 because few people bought just the computer. They bought a tape drive or (more likely, at least in the States) disk drive so they could store data and run software that wasn’t available on cartridge. Many also bought a small TV or monitor to avoid hijacking the family TV. Remember, in the 1980s, households only had one or two TVs–that line in Back to the Future about two televisions wasn’t a joke. It also wouldn’t be long before they wanted a printer and a fast load cartridge.
By the time you were done buying the computer, peripherals and software, you could easily spend three times the cost of the computer. Joining the computer revolution was expensive–you had to be wealthy, or you had to be willing to adjust your lifestyle in other ways to afford it.
What did a Commodore 64 cost over time?
The 64 came to market in August 1982, priced at $595 retail.
By the summer of 1983, it was possible to find it selling for as little as $389. During 1983, Commodore also offered a $100 rebate to anyone who sent in a game system or computer. Many consumers gamed the system by buying a $50 Timex computer, Odyssey or Coleco Gemini game system and sending it in. That effectively turned it into a $50 cash rebate.
By the 1983 Christmas season, the 64 was available via mail order for $229. Some dealers would cut the price to $199 with the purchase of software or additional peripherals.
The aggressive price cuts took a break in 1984. In its 1984 Christmas catalog, Montgomery Ward had the 64 priced at $219 alone, or $199 when purchased with a disk drive, tape drive, printer, monitor, or modem. At that price point, the 64 was selling as fast as Commodore could make them, and Commodore had driven several competitors from the market. The 64’s most direct competitor that year, the Coleco Adam, had serious supply and quality control issues.
In 1985, the C-64 stepped down to become Commodore’s entry-level computer. Sears had it priced at $149 in its Christmas catalog, while offering discounts of $25-$100 when adding peripherals.
It was more of the same for the rest of the decade. In 1988, Sears priced the 64C at $149, with bundle discounts of $25-$50.
Into the 1990s
Commodore and its dealers held pricing fairly steady through the end of the 64’s production run. Factory-new units typically sold for $125-$149 through 1992, with bundle discounts still sometimes available. Commodore stopped producing the chips for the 64 in 1992, but used a combination of unsold and used inventory to produce refurbished machines up until early 1994. The last of the Commodore mail-order houses sold the refurbished units for anywhere from $99 to $125. Commodore briefly offered refurbished 64s direct for $64 if you sent in a broken unit as a trade-in. And for a time in late 1993, if you shopped carefully, you could pick up a refurb for as little as $60.
Commodore introduced a few 64 variants over time, to meet certain price points or compete in different market segments.
Adjusting for inflation
Keep in mind that even though these prices seem high in a time of $40 tablets that are far more powerful, a dollar is worth more now than it was then. By modern standards, the 64 was expensive.
Today people remember the 64 for its aggressive price cuts early in its shelf life. That makes it easy to forget that for about 62% of the time it was on the market, Commodore held the price pretty steady at about $149. Due to inflation, that $149 price in 1985 was effectively less money in 1991. The problem was that its competitors were adding capability and cutting prices during that time.
The 64 was really designed to own the market from 1982-1985 and then give way to something else like Amiga. Its 12-year lifespan was an accident, if anything.
So why did it survive so long? Nothing cheaper existed, for one. For another, by the mid 1980s the 64 had a vast library of software available for it. But by and large the 64’s long term success was accidental and Commodore didn’t understand that, which is why Commodore folded in spite of selling more computers in the 1980s than anyone else. In 1985, according to Goldman Sachs estimates, Commodore had 38% of the personal computer market to itself. IBM and all of its clones combined had 49%. The 64 made Commodore a juggernaut. But by 1990, Commodore was down to five percent. In April 1994, it was out of business.
If you’d like to know more about the 64, here are a few common questions and answers.