Buying a Pinball Machine

Bernard Kamoroff, author of Pinball Machine Care and Maintenance, reveals his tips about how to buy a pinball machine. He shares advice about inspecting a machine before buying it, how much you should pay, which games are the most popular (and which ones you should definitely avoid), and much more.

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Do you need more advice about buying a pinball machine?
Read his book, Pinball Machine Care and Maintenance.

It seems like even with all the latest and greatest home video game systems, there has been a renewed interest in buying and collecting vintage pinball machines. What makes playing a pinball machine such a magical experience?

Well, I think there are two things that play here that makes pinball continuing to be popular. One is an older generation that grew up with pinball and they’re retiring and there’s a game that they just loved in high school or college and they started noticing pinballs around, wondering if they can get their hands on that particular machine. Quite often they can’t, but then they’ve discovered pinball and want one, but the kids now, the computer generation, has been playing computer video machines for years now and it’s kind of old hat to them. All of a sudden they stumble on to a pinball machine that’s physical, that’s real, it’s human skill—basically you’re playing against gravity and the laws of physics, and there’s real eye-hand coordination involved. It’s really something to see that ball banging around the bumpers, and kicking up and down, and all a little bit out of control, and understanding people that get really good at shooting billiards, they can understand that pinball has that kind of skill. People just take a shine to something that’s physical. It’s kind of rare these days in entertainment.

When you’re looking at a used pinball machine, what factors are you going to look at in order to tell if the machine is a wise investment and what tell-tale signs would tell you to pass on a particular machine?

The most important thing is the cosmetic condition. The back glass, which was a painted glass until the 80’s, and now it’s what they call plastic Translite. It’s the decorated, upright part where most of the visual is, and is that in good condition? Because if that paint is peeled or scratched or damaged, you may not be able to find a replacement for it, and they’re not cheap, either, if you can find one minimum of $200-$400, and the challenge in getting it shipped. Also, the cosmetics of the playfield that it is in nice shape, where the ball rolls around, that the paint’s not worn off, and the cabinet itself and how nice is that, so unless you’re an artist and real good at that where you’re getting a price you can’t refuse, remember that you’re going to be looking at that game for a long time. The next thing is if the machine is working or not. If it’s not working at all or its not working completely, are you capable of repairing it, or can you find someone who’s capable of repairing it? There are lots of people who fix pinball machines, but they can be pretty expensive and you don’t want to wind up paying more money to get one repaired than it would cost to buy one that’s working. I tell people, play that game, play it completely, over and over, and look for any signs of something that isn’t working, and if you know how to fix it, well that’s pretty special, because a non-working game, you could maybe pick one up for a couple hundred bucks, where a working game might cost you a thousand bucks. People can’t fix those machines, then so when you find a nonworking game, they usually go a lot less expensive. But again, who’s going to fix it? They’re all fixable, but they can get expensive. Cosmetics and how you want to deal with a game that isn’t working well, I think are two of the most important considerations.

How can you tell what a pinball machine is worth—is there some kind of pinball price guide?

There are pinball price guides. They’re not really useful as in actual cost of a machine. They may be useful in comparing some machines being usually more inexpensive than others, but asking what the machine is worth is a little bit like asking what a used car is worth. It comes down to what you want to pay for it. Some machines people have very high prices on, some machines that take them home for free. I buy a machine based on its appearance and on how much work is involved in getting it running well. Those are my two factors, but people will pay a fortune for games that they really want to have when they can pick up another game for a third or a quarter of the price, but they didn’t want it because of the thousands of pinballs made, every one was a little different. Every one had a different design, a different theme, and some of those became very popular and therefore, the value of them went way up. It doesn’t mean they were a better game, or a fun game to play, but the collectors and the people that want it drove the price up. So the value, again, basically is visual, what it looks like cosmetically and how much it’s going to cost to get it running.

So what can you expect to pay for a fully refurbished and restored pinball machine?

If someone’s actually restored it, meaning its coming out of somebody’s shop, I would say a minimum of a thousand dollars for just what I would call an every day, high quality but nothing famous pinball machine. If you’re looking for one of the collector games, they can go up into the two or three thousand, and then you get the people who’ve done immaculate restorations and repaintings, and then it can get way up there, but I’ve seen shops sell them for as little as $500, and that’s somebody’s gone through them, but generally I would say figure about a thousand bucks for a game that’s clean, working good, it’s got new rubber rings, a new ball, got all the paperwork, and hopefully if it comes from a shop, some sort of guarantee, you know, thirty days at least, to make sure it’s working right when you get it home.

There are quite a few companies that manufactured pinball machines—you have Bally, Gottlieb, Williams, Stern, just to name a few. Which machines seem to hold up the best and maintain their value?

The big three of pinball over the years was Bally, Gottlieb and Williams, all three based in Chicago, and then in more recent years Stern, which is now the only company making pinballs and they’re in Chicago. All of them, depending on the period that they were made, the technology involved, hold up and are very popular over the years, they are all a little different in how they work, how they sound, and the kind of artwork they put in them, but when it came to the old electromechanicals, the ones where the reels actually turned and the chimes actually ring, Stern never had those but Bally, Gottlieb and Williams have all held up. I have 30, 40, even 50-year-old machines, and as long as they haven’t been beaten up physically or put out in the weather or something, they all held up really well. The first of the electronic games, the digital games, which came out in the late 70’s, time hasn’t been quite so kind to, particularly the early Gottlieb games, the ones they called System 1 or System 80 has lots and lots of troubles. They were still inventing their circuit boards, they were still experimenting with electronic components, and things were rather rudimentary and problematical. But even now what’s happened in recent years is that people are now making replacement circuit boards for those old games that solved all those problems, that were better, that you could take a Gottlieb early solid state that was a disaster, pop in this new CPU board, which is just a swap out, and suddenly have a nicely playing game. Those boards run about $200-$250 each, but they’re really easy to install, you can do it yourself. The early Stern electronic games, they didn’t seem to hold up quite as well. There weren’t that many of them, but Stern in 2000 or so, started up pinball again, and their new games are just something else. They’re the new technology, they’re really a complicated systems that play really well, and they cost a lot of money. But they’re beautiful machines.

What are some of the most valuable and sought-after pinball games out there?

There was one game, the Addams Family, which I must get two calls a week for people who want to buy an Addams Family. It was designed after the TV show, it sold over 20 some thousand machines, and is perpetually in demand. It is really one of the best designed electronic games ever, but you can take another game that’s just as much fun, and you can buy four of them for the cost of an Addams family. Also, on the modern age, KISS the rock and roll band. Somehow or other, they have a huge following, and the KISS pinball machine has always been popular. It slacked off a little bit, and then when they went on tour, all of a sudden the pinball machines started selling super-hot again. Back in the electromechanical days, there was a machine called Fireball, which was made by Bally in 1972, and for 20, 30 years it was the king of pinball. Extremely in demand game, partly because in 1972, Playboy Magazine, which was very popular back then, did a pinball feature, and they said Fireball is the best pinball machine ever made in history. It isn’t, I’ve got one, it’s a great game, but all of a sudden Fireball became instantly and permanently collectible. These days, in the electromechanicals, the Gottlieb games from the 60s are very, very popular and very expensive. The top head is called a wedgehead, the sides of the head go out at an angle rather than being straight up and down, it was just a design gimmick that Gottlieb came up with, and for some reason, all those wedgeheads are very well liked and very colorful, they’re old fashioned pinball looking, they play pretty darn good. They’re 60s games, they’re not quite as fast paced as the 70s games, but they’ll sell for twice what the 70s games will sell for. It’s just a wave of popularity, so when people have got to have the game that they’ve got to have, they’re willing to pay more for it. And it becomes a supply and demand—whatever people like, we try and find a game for them.

Are there any specific pinball machine models that were particularly troublesome and prone to problems and should be avoided?

The early Gottlieb games from the late 70s are something to be very careful with because they had terrible troubles with their CPU boards, but like I said, there are replacements available, but any electronic pinball machine, and you can always tell when they’re electronic because scoring will be digital as opposed to the wheels that turn, any early one is going to have very old solid-state components, the capacitors that run the power supply start wearing out, and I guess the most important thing to look for in any electronic game is to check the batteries, the CPU boards, all had batteries to store the memory, high games and high scores and special settings when the machine was turned off. Well, a lot of people don’t even know that they have batteries in their machines, and ten years later, when you look inside of it, the old AA’s have corroded and they will leak battery acid into the circuit board, and that circuit board cannot be fixed. You can do patch work on it, it’ll hold for a little while, but that acid will work its way right through the copper, and basically it’s a goner. So the very first thing to do is find out how recent the batteries are and if the guy selling it to you says what batteries, then uh oh, but that’s a common reply. They’re easy to find on the board and you just want to look and make sure that you don’t see corrosion and that’s very visible. You usually see it on the battery holder, and if you pop the circuit board off its mounting, which is just a couple clips, and look on the back of the circuit board, if you see any corrosion on the copper that’s running around that board, you definitely know you have a dead or soon-to-be dead CPU board. The electromechanical games did not use batteries, and never had that problem, and as long as they’re taken care of, they basically last forever.

In general, which do you recommend: a solid state or an electromechanical pinball machine?

I personally like the electromechanicals better. I grew up with them. I find them more reliable in the long run, but half the people I run into love them and half the people I run into just want electronic and people want both. But people who like a very fast paced, very flashy game are going to prefer the electronic machines, particularly the ones starting to be made in the late 80s and into the 90s, which were quite different because they all had ramps and that’s something that a lot of people like, and the very first electronic games didn’t have ramps, you know, where the ball wishes up in the air, and goes ripping around and comes back down, and a lot of electronic games have this feature called multi-ball, where if you hit the right targets, you’ll get 2, 3, 4, 5 balls on the play field at the same time. I wouldn’t recommend one or the other—it’s totally a preference of the person that’s looking at the game.

Where are some of the places where you’re likely to find the best deals on a used pinball machine?

The very best deals are probably people’s home games they’re getting rid of, because usually when they’re selling a machine, the kids have gone off to college and aren’t playing it anymore, or they’re moving or they need space for a washer and a dryer, and they basically need to get rid of that machine. If the machine is playing good, that’s really helpful, because usually they take good care of their machines in their house, and the prices are usually quite low because basically they just want it out of there. People will always find their deals there, but one really excellent place, all over the country there are these pinball shows that happen in many cities and towns where they’ll rent a fairground hall or a grange hall, and maybe there will be 200 or 300 pinball machines in there, and they’re all set for free play, and you pay like 20 bucks to get in and you can play those machines all day. Most of those machines are for sale, sort of a pinball swap meet in there, so you go in there and play all the games and find one you like, and negotiate the price with whoever is wanting to sell it and take your machine home. Those to me are the two best places. And of course if you want one that you know is going to work, there are people that buy and sell pinball machines for a living or as a sideline business, and they usually have a nice selection and they can even find certain machines for you. I know a lot of people buy pinball machines on eBay. Watch those sales, every once in a while I’ll watch people bid up these machines to occasionally amazing prices, and we’ve had several eBay machines in our shop that the seller said was working fine when it was in Iowa and by the time it got to California, it wasn’t working fine at all, and but when we took the machine apart and found two missing fuses and a burned out solenoid and a broken plastic on the play field, I go how in the world could this machine have been working fine? This machine couldn’t have been playing at all! And we patch them up for them and get them working. I guess occasionally people find a good deal on eBay. The best deals on eBay is where you can drive over and look at the machine firsthand, and I think Craigslist is now supplanting eBay because its reached as many people and you don’t have to pay in advance, you can go over and look at the thing.

Where can you find schematics and manuals for pinball machines?

Schematics and manuals and just about anything, electronic parts, are readily available. There are a handful of pinball parts companies, across the united states, and in Canada, and probably overseas also, that that’s their whole business is pinball machine parts for the home market, and they’ll have rubber rings and balls and coils and they’ll have flipper replacements, and usually copies of the schematics and the game manuals. There are so many of them, in my book, I list the ones that I like a lot, who I’ve been doing business with for years. Also, these part companies, if they’re in a good mood, you can talk to them all afternoon. You can ask them a million questions and they’ll have the answers. They’re quite used to dealing with people who need something but can’t quite describe what it is that they need, you know, people that don’t know the terminology. You just tell them which game you have and they know exactly what parts you need. And without those people, this wave of popularity in pinball probably couldn’t happen. The parts are easy to come by, they’re not expensive at all, and so it’s really easy to keep your game spiffy and everything you need to keep it going.

Can you recommend any online pinball resources, any forums or websites that can helpful to someone trying to research maybe a specific machine?

There is a chat group that’s been on the internet for years and years, it’s, and there’s been a running conversation there on pinball. There is a website called Mr. Pinball, and he has a world of information. And my favorite site of all is IPDB, I, P for pinball, DB for database, dot org, and that’s a non-profit, volunteer organization that has listings and photographs and information on just about every pinball machine ever made. You’ll get photos of the back glass, the playfield, what’s on it, how it plays, what people think of it, what books you can find pictures of it in, and it’s been really helpful to me when I’m trying to figure out some part that’s missing, I can get pictures on their website and I really like those people a lot. Local clubs and local organizations, a group called Lucky Ju Ju, out of northern California has a great website, and they have a pinball museum in the Bay area. But you just stumble from one to the other until you find what you’re looking for, but those places I mentioned are a mighty good place to start.

What are the biggest mistakes you see people make when buying a pinball machine?

The biggest, I think, is that they don’t play it enough before they buy it, because when you take a pinball machine home, you’re going to have that machine maybe for several years, you’re going to play it hundreds and hundreds of times. Some games are going to get boring very quickly, and some games are going to challenge you for a long time, so I encourage people to find a game that challenges you a bit, that you can see there is some skill to the shots. And also that people would take home a machine that they really don’t like the look of it that much, because they’re going to be staring at it. Every pinball machine had a different design and a different theme. And taking home a machine that isn’t quite working right, unless you know how you’re going to get it fixed. I think those are the three.

Bernard Kamoroff is the author of Pinball Machine Care and Maintenance and presents a yearly workshop at the Pacific Pinball Expo, the world’s largest pinball show.

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