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As Memorabilia, Coca-Cola Is Still It

Times Staff Writer

With the news of a change in formula of Coca-Cola comes the question: Is Coke still it ?

If you are a collector of Coca-Cola memorabilia, the answer is yes.

If you’re a consumer still pondering the controversial new Coke formula, the answer is maybe.

But the answer is definitely yes if you’re a speculator trying to scoop up as much of the old product as you can in anticipation of a strong collectible market for what critics say used to be (and which the company maintains still is) the “real thing.”

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In a telephone interview, Rob Martin, public relations manager for the Atlanta-based cola company, said, “Old stock is disappearing very rapidly” off grocery shelves.

“From the West Coast, we’ve heard of (collector) boutiques advertising the old product at inflated rates.”

Skeptical About Inflation

Prices of more than $10 a six-pack are being reported around Southern California. But some Coca-Cola aficionados are skeptical about whether the market will take off like it did for Billy Beer a few years ago (a market that later took a substantial nose dive).

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“I have heard of a lot of people buying it (the old Coca-Cola) and putting it aside,” said John Fullam, a Van Nuys airline employee who is president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Cola Clan, a national collectors organization.

“But I don’t think it’s going to get real expensive. It’s kind of a gut feeling,” he said.

One problem Coke-bottle collectors will encounter is that the traditional and highly collectible 6 1/2-ounce bottle hasn’t changed even though the drink has. That also goes for other collectible “glass returnables"--including the 10-, 12- and 16-ounce bottles. So, unwary collectors might have to take the word of a seller that the contents are, indeed, the old formula.

But eagle-eyed collectors should take note of the pop-top cap on new-product, glass bottles because they are different and are the only practical way (short of popping the cap and drinking the stuff--something that might give a flea-market seller fits) for a collector to spot the difference, according to Coca-Cola official Martin. The old cap’s ingredients list mentions the word sugar, whereas the new cap talks about “high-fructose corn syrup and/or sucrose,” he said.

To be sure, however, there is a Catch-22 for collectors, Martin cautioned. Until local Coke bottlers exhaust their inventory, they may use old-product caps on new-product bottles; it isn’t clear how long it’ll take to wipe out the old supply of caps, he added.

Undoubtedly, then, spotting the “real thing” (old bottles, that is) will be difficult for months to come, Martin said.

(Easier to discern are new-product, non-glass bottles and cans--not as popular among most collectors--that have labels whose color is different from the old ones.)

Did Coca-Cola’s powers-that-be attempt to defuse what could have been a hot collectors’ item by hardly changing the traditional 6 1/2-ounce size? No, public relations chief Martin said.

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“There was nothing deliberate in it” in terms of making it easy or difficult for Coca-Cola memorabilia collectors to differentiate old from new, Martin said.

The jury appears to still be out on the taste of the new product. Cola Clan members don’t want to be quoted by name on this touchy subject, lest their words cast a cloud over perhaps the No. 1 Americana collectible, which includes bottles, trays and coolers. But it’s clear that many of these collectors who feel a nostalgic tug at the heart every time they see a Coke-related item are less than enthusiastic over the new formula.

“I think they made a big mistake,” one Cola Clan member said.

“It doesn’t have the zing of the old drink. I think they’ll come back out with the original flavor,” he said, while still keeping the new product on the market.

But Coca-Cola spokesman Martin denied that any such plans were in the works.

“We never say ‘never,’ ” Martin said. But, he added that for now “the old formula has been put away.”

Cottage Industries

For collectors, such words are a boon in terms of stockpiling something that is perceived to be going the way of the dodo bird.

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Moreover, cottage industries also have sprung up, in California at least, with contrary bumper stickers and T-shirts that, for example, proclaim: “Coke Was It"--items which no doubt also will find their way into Coca-Cola-related collections.

Spawned too by the change in product, according to a recent news account, is a new Coca-Cola club with national ambitions, whose members appropriately call themselves the Old Cola Drinkers of America (but we haven’t discovered its headquarters yet).

All of this controversy comes on the eve of Coca-Cola’s 100th anniversary, which will be celebrated next year. Appropriately too, the Cola Clan’s annual national convention in 1986 is planned for Atlanta (this year’s will be held in Dallas, Aug. 6-9).

As collectors and devotees know, it was on May 8, 1886, when an Atlanta pharmacist, John Styth Pemberton, first poured his concoction into a three-legged brass pot. He then carried it a few blocks away to Jacob’s Pharmacy, in what is now downtown Atlanta, where it sold for 5 cents a glass. (Pre-World War II Coca-Cola glasses are hot collectors’ items.)

The Coca-Cola logo was fashioned by Frank Robinson, a bookkeeper who also was a talented calligrapher in Pemberton’s day.

Since then, until distribution of the new formula began nationally April 23, Pemberton’s flavor hadn’t been tampered with. And, indeed, the ubiquitous Coca-Cola bottle hasn’t had a design change since 1916.

Historical questions from aficionados and/or collectors may be sent to Philip Mooney, archivist, Coca-Cola Co., P. O. Drawer 1734, Atlanta, Ga. 30301.

The Los Angeles chapter of the Cola Clan meets the second Saturday of each month in Los Angeles in the California Savings & Loan, 8750 W. Pico Blvd. The annual membership fee is $6, which includes the Captain’s Log, a newsletter.

Ronald L. Soble cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about collectibles. Do not telephone. Write to Your Collectibles, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.


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