Ron Cross - Coca Cola

Ron Cross has a bit of a thing for Coca Cola. It started with a few gifts. Now his hobby has evolved into collecting vintage vending machines. Below, a machine belonging to Cross. When it was made Coca Colas cost 5 cents. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric Howald)

By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

As a teen, Ron Cross would joke with a friend about the age-old question: Coke or Pepsi? Coke was Cross’ unfailing reply.

Somehow the running joke turned into receiving Coke-related memorabilia during the holidays.

“But you can only get so many shirts and coasters before you get bored with them or run out of room,” Cross said. “So I moved onto the [vending] machines.”

And he ran out of room.

So he decided to do Coca-Cola signs.

And he ran out of room.

So he decided to do Coca-Cola clocks, because they’re a bit smaller.

And he ran out of room.

“Finally, I got back to machines and started reselling the older items to get the ones I really wanted,” Cross said.

Kicking back in “the Coke room” and sporting a red Coca-Cola T-shirt, Cross is surrounded by enough red and white that candy cane camouflage would make anyone disappear into the shadows. He’s even got a foosball table with a Coca-Cola logo.

“I started about 7 or 8 years ago with one machine, and then I took a trip to Mexico and realized they had the right size bottles to fill it. They were typically pretty hard to find in the states, but once I could import the bottled Coke, it took off from there,” Cross said.

Soon after stocking his first vending machine, the Keizer man bought another. Cross was an avid golfer at the time, but he’d gradually watched his golfing buddies get pulled away from the sport as they married or started families of their own. Confronted with more than one lazy afternoon he decided to try his hand at restoring a machine to the glory of its heyday. He bought a machine that needed some work and another one to scavenge for parts. For better or worse, he sold the machine he’d picked over for parts and broke even on the whole deal launching him into the world of Coke vending machine collecting and restoration.

He has about a dozen models as part of his permanent collection and another 10 or so undergoing restoration or sale at any one time.

“I’m not overly mechanical, but it wasn’t as though I could take one of the vending machines to a mechanic and ask him to restore it, he’s not necessarily going to know what to do,” Cross said. “There’s a few websites that offer tips, but the best one I got was take hundreds of photos, because when you’re taking it apart it might make perfect sense that one piece fits with another, but the chances of you remembering once it’s all apart are pretty slim.”

He also put every individual piece in its own labeled baggie.

“Now, I don’t need any of that,” Cross said.

It also helped that the two primary producers of vintage Coke vending machines, Vendo and Vendolator, merged early on. It means that most parts can be swapped between models and makers, and many of the most expensive parts on early models were built to last from the get-go.

“The compressors on 90 percent of the machines from the 50s still work, but if you get a machine from the 70s or 80s, the compressor is usually trashed,” Cross said.

The catch, Cross discovered, is that once he restored a machine to pristine condition, he felt guilty every time he used it.

“I’ve got one with a paint job better than when it came off the line, it’s as nice as it’s going to be and I’m afraid to use. I’m at the point where I prefer the machines that have a little wear and tear,” he said.

Since starting the pursuit, Cross, a restaurant manager, has also expanded the horizons of his side business and passion. He recently sold a machine to a Florida buyer and purchased one from someone in Ohio.

For all the things he’s learned as a vintage vending machine specialist, there’s still one one thing Cross hasn’t figured out: he still can’t pinpoint exactly what attracts him to the hobby. He simply knows that he’s always loved the original Coke bottles and the sense of time and place they represent.

“Being part of preserving the machines that doled them out is something kinda cool,” he said.