Everything old is new again -- and more costly Retro products are a hot ticket theses days, but don't expect to buy them at yesterday's prices


The first Volkswagen to land on American shores in 1949 sold for an egalitarian $800. The new 1998 VW Beetle bears a sticker price of more than $17,000, which means the cost of Adolf Hitler's car for the proletariat has been jacked up more than 2,000 percent.

In 1946, Ray and Charles Eames, the California-based furniture makers who worked to find inexpensive production methods, created a molded plywood chair. It was produced and sold by the Herman Miller furniture company for $20.

Half a century later, the chair is back, priced at $680.

Products designed in mid-century to meet the needs and the pocketbooks of the masses are being reintroduced at the end of the century at prices that are often viewed as stratospheric, with no shortage of customers.

"It has everything to do with desirability," says Mark Schurman of Herman Miller. "These designs have become so valued and recognized we can command a higher price."

As original Eames' chairs and Volkswagens fetched higher and higher prices in resale markets, it made financial sense for the original manufacturers to capitalize on reissues.

"Everyday objects are often the ones that become precious. Being everyday, they are thrown away more readily," says Donald Albrecht, adjunct curator at the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York.

That was certainly true of the original Beetle, which was considered a disposable car. Volkswagen only grudgingly considered a relaunch in 1994, when a hypothetical new Beetle shown at an auto show encountered much public enthusiasm.

Herman Miller was pressed into action for new Eames products by continual requests from the design community and the growing threat of copies. But it isn't just copyright infringements that are fueling the reissues.

"After the postmodernism of the '80s, these things look good again. There is a new generation seeing them for the first time," Albrecht says.

Some old treasures are items never out of production, like the Kitchen Aid mixer, designed in the 1930s by Egmont Arens, one of the first editors of Vanity Fair magazine. The silhouette is so ubiquitous it has been recorded as a registered trademark.

Timex's Mercury watch is another product whose popularity never waned. The very simple, round-faced, chrome watch on an expandable chrome band was introduced in 1961 and sold for $8.95. Today, a date window and the Indiglo function have been added, and the price is $32.95.

In an age of farther, faster and more ergonomically correct, Schwinn has resurrected its Black Phantom, the bicycle of choice for American paperboys circa 1950. Why remake a bike that's heavy and clunky, neither an off-road machine or a light-as-a-feather racer?

"Because it's cool," says Cache Mundy, the Boulder-based company's senior marketing manager. No matter that the original Phantom cost about $120 when it was introduced in 1949 and now sells for $3,000. "It's an example of a time when bikes were elegant toys," Mundy says.

There's another reason, beyond popularity, that retro elegance comes at a cost: The tooling to remanufacture some products either no longer exists or is limited. And this can drive up the price.

"In the case of the Phantom, very much so," says Mundy. "The rims come off the original drums. The tires come out of the original molds; it is literally done as an authentic reproduction."

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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