What could have been...

We can say this pretty definitively: the 1990s are the most nostalgic generation for millennials who came of age in the pre-digital era. Everything is cyclical, and as such, the 90s is also a decade thats become the everything-muse for Gen Z and Gen Alpha - a group that is seemingly unable to escape the allure of the analog world that they justtttttt missed.

In particular, there was something about 1992 into 1993 that created a vortex of frantic consumerism as tech-met-tactile. Pricing was all over the place. Useless digital displays were being added to everything. The vision of the future on television and in movies was starting to get intense. It was the last frontier for the incumbents. The technology curve was about to steepen dramatically, and it felt like everything was about to change, forever.

The only thing left to do was to collect the last relics of the past before we all jumped in our flying car time machines and transported to the year 2000.

The need was clear: Adapt or Die.

We dedicate this installment of Shiny Thing$, issue 124, to the collectibles that could have been. They’re the items that had every reason to turn into “assets” and live forever. But instead they simply contributed to The Collector’s Dilemma: “I still love it, but it never became what I wanted it to be.” 

Here’s 3 of the 90’s “collectibles” that encapsulate just that.

The Plymouth Prowler

The irony of this particular vehicle is that it was actually designed to be a collector's item. When it debuted in 1993 as a concept car, there was certainly enough mainstream media coverage to make it happen (albeit, much of that coverage wasn’t fantastic). But when it finally launched in 1997, the automotive tastemakers and consumers alike realized a hard truth: it was all show and no go.

The Collector’s Dilemma: In person, it felt low quality, and it kinda was. The well fitted interiors and meticulous attention to detail that made the hand-crafted restomods on which the Prowler design was based just weren’t there in this mass market version. As it turned out, the entire budget for the car was used to experiment with a new aluminum chaises and body - a cost saving initiative that Plymouth was using with the hopes of rolling it out more widely. As a result, there was barely any budget for the engine, transmission, and the interior (which is basically the whole car).

To add insult to injury, upon release, it was only available in metallic purple. The late 90’s saw a massive rise in the popularity of calming browns and sunny yellows, leaving the Prowler only available in the exact opposite of the most popular palette of the era.

All-in, Plymouth only sold around 12,000 Prowlers through its entire production run. For context, Ford sells that many F-Series trucks every 6 days.

Now, celebrating the tail end of its 30th anniversary, there’s still hope- the Prowler recently made Hagerty’s 2024 “Bull Market List” for collector cars. Maybe this is the year… 

Pinnacle Baseball Cards 

Kids who collect sports cards today have no idea what the 90s were like, and definitely don’t know how important the Pinnacle stamp was to an entire generation. 

In its prime in the early 90s, Pinnacle was one of the five major baseball card companies, and was considered to be amongst the highest-end in terms of design and quality. One of the things that differentiated them from many of the other cards on shelves was the Dufex printing process that they began using in 1993. The production method created a mesmerizing light-reflecting image on each card by printing elements of the foreground and background onto aluminium foil-lined material, then using UV activated transparent inks creating a reflective shine that couldn’t be mimicked by standard printing. Different embossing and engraving techniques were then layered on to add a range of light-reflective textures to the foil. Some sets were printed on metal and delivered in faux leather cases that made for a must-have total package. On top of the major differentiation points of the design and printing process, buyers were getting early examples from the stars of the era like Ken Griffey Jr., Bo Jackson, and Mo Vaughn.

The Collector’s Dilemma: Many of the 90s era baseball cards got lost in the final stretch of the “Junk Wax Era” - a time period marked by overhyped products from tons of different brands and printed in mass quantities. Pinnacle Baseball was part of the problem and the solution simultaneously. First there was the mass production. As one Reddit post from 2020 recalled about the metal Dufex Ken Griffey Jr. card “They have the look and feel of a $500 card. Unfortunately they are cheap as dirt because they made 200,000 of them.”

Second, the cards didn’t make a meaningful enough dent in a community that couldn’t fully justify their collectibility. The printing process was novel and high-touch, and that was reflected in a high price point at retail compared to other more established releases. As creator and writer/card historian Mario Alejandro told Rally “The Dufex was never truly embraced by collectors like Refractors were. Not only that, it was extremely expensive and only made sense if ordered in large quantities.” The process to create these mini works of art itself was one of the contributing factors. “Also, there was a 6-month process to have [Dufex printing] done in the U.K.” Mario went on to say.

And lastly, they became a victim of their early fanfare. Though esoteric and not necessarily collected en masse, the 1992 Pinnacle Baseball inaugural set was celebrated. The followup 1993 and 1994 set, including the expanded Dufex designs, was also considered collection-worthy. With each subsequent set, the interest weakened however. By 1995, Pinnacle was all-in on the “insert-mania” trend, adding 9 different unique inserts alongside the standard card checklist to get as much product out as possible. While many of the inserts and autographs were definitely the chase cards, the base designs and subsets became increasingly uninspired. The brand went bankrupt in 1998, selling their baseball card operations and properties to Donruss, who in turn folded the baseball portion of the brand. 

The Apple Newton

Announced in 1992 and launched soon after in 1993, the MessagePad on the Newton platform is one of the early Apple failures that should have worked. “Productivity” was now a buzzword, and the all-in-one tool to organize work while still being useful for recreation was about to become a major focus of new technology. 

Even though pocket computers had existed since at the 1940s, and in 1992 the Tandy Z-PDA technically launched first and included a touch screen, Apple was still considered the market maker. By the time the Newton launched, a host of tech giants were working on releasing Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) devices, but the term itself was actually coined by Apple’s then CEO John Sculley. They were in the drivers seat, and Apple was confident it could be the company to convince the general public that everyone should be carrying a pocket computing device.

The Collector’s Dilemma: As much as we all want to love Apple products today - regardless of their price point - the proposition was much harder in 1993. This particular product wasn’t even actually manufactured by Apple - the device was done in partnership with Sharp. With a $699 price tag and minimal feature set, it became a one trick pony. That “one trick” was the ability to turn handwriting into type. Initially celebrated as a major advancement by would-be consumers, upon release it was pretty obvious that the recognition software was not smart enough as it would often return garbled interpretations of the user’s written words. That turned into the focus of critics, and was so bad it actually made it into an episode of the Simpsons

In contrast, the iPhone with a $500 price tag released 20 years later turned the Newton into a feature, while packing 20 other behavior-altering products into a smaller more intuitive frame - entirely designed by Apple. Sealed 4G first generation iPhones now sell for 6-figures.

In 1998, Steve Jobs was now back as CEO of Apple, and immediately killed the product to refocus Apple on a small number of core products (from which the iPhone was born). You can buy a working first year Newton today however, with original packaging, for $650 on eBay. That is not investment advice.

Honorable Mention: Play-Doh. Born in the 50’s and peaking in the 90’s, theres a full story to be told on the semi-toxic clay that filled the air with a synthetic floral fragrance for another time. The fact is it had the chance to be what LEGO became. But alas, it fell short. More on that in a future installment…

Until Next Week...