Everyone over the age of 40 can tell you that “there’s always room for Jell-O,” but how many people actually put those words to the test? Bernie Kramski did in 1961. And he wasn’t the only one.
Three years before General Foods introduced the advertising slogan that famously green-lighted the guilt-free consumption of its mother-approved desserts, car-loving Canadian kids ate more than their share of pudding and fruit-flavored gelatin. The impetus? A desperate attempt to collect all 200 plastic coins in Jell-O’s 1961 “Famous Cars” promotional series.
Banking on the persuasive skills of motivated youth, General Foods included one or two coins in every box of Jell-O—depending on the serving size—and also slipped one into every 10-cent bag of another GF product, Hostess Potato Chips. Colorful and beautifully illustrated, the “picture wheels” (thin cardboard discs inserted into a plastic base) featured two centuries worth of historic vehicles, from the 1769 Cugnot steam-powered tractor to the 1961 Volvo P-1800. And they were exclusive to Canada.
A boy with a dream—and a hearty appetite
Eleven-year-old Bernie Kramski was hooked as he soon as he saw the collectible coins, and the small community of Nipigon, Ontario, was immediately placed on high alert. “I was determined to collect the full 200-coin set, and my mother was a great supporter of my efforts,” Kramski says. “I ate a lot of Jell-O in hopes of getting all the coins, and she went to all the neighbors and asked them to save them for me.”
But Bernie’s appetite and his mother’s efforts weren’t quite up to the task. “Unfortunately, I ended up with a lot of duplicates and not a complete set,” he says.
Nearly 40 years passed before the birth of the glorious online yard sale known as eBay, which allowed Kramski to fulfill his dream and finally complete the series. It didn’t end there, however. “I realized that there were a lot of collectors who didn’t finish their sets either, so I began buying all the coins I could find at a fair price.” He now owns Soulful Memories, an antique shop in Duncan, British Columbia, and has more than 10,000 of the picture wheels in stock. Kramski offers individual coins on eBay (where else?), and says their appeal isn’t limited to enthusiasts who are trying to complete a set—nor is it confined to Canadians.
“Car collectors are always looking for a coin of their car,” Kramski says. “I’ve sold dozens of one type of car to auto clubs worldwide.”
Singles and complete sets are plentiful on the internet. Among those who offer them for sale is Mike Huen, an appraiser on television’s Canadian Antiques Roadshow and owner of Mike’s General Store in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Jell-O released its Famous Cars series in 1961, on the heels of a similarly-styled 1960–61 hockey set from Shirriff Potato Chips. The coins were popular enough that other special-interest series popped up too. Jell-O/Hostess followed the car series by producing a Canada-only plastic airplane set in 1962, and Shirriff offered a second plastic hockey coin set in 1961–62 before turning to metal coins in 1962–63.
The U.S. got into the act with sports discs from Salada Tea/Junket Pudding, which produced plastic baseball coins in 1962, metal football coins the same year, and metal baseball coins in ’63. Kramski says animals, ships, and space travel were also featured in other coin series.
Details, variations, and quality control issues
The Jell-O Famous Cars series was divided into eight groups of 25 coins, beginning with 1769–1899 (purple) and continuing with six decades of cars—1900–1909 (blue), 1910–1919 (red), 1920–1929 (black), 1930–1939 (yellow), 1940–1949 (green), and 1950–1959 (white)—before ending with the “modern” cars of 1960–1961 (brown).
Not surprisingly, the Famous Cars series emphasizes North American automobiles, and one of the more popular picture wheels is the Canada-exclusive 1961 Ford Frontenac. Oddly enough, the Volkswagen Beetle is not included, despite being one of the most recognizable cars in automotive history and a Canadian import since 1952. The 1958 Edsel Citation made it, however. The 1948 Tucker was included too, years before Hollywood made it famous, although the model is listed as 1947.
For 50 cents, General Foods would mail collectors a circular plastic carrying case that looks an awful lot like a poker chip holder, along with a 76-page Jell-O Famous Cars Fact Book written in English or French. Authored by J. Ralph A. Turner, president of the Antique and Classic Car Club of Canada, the booklet measures 2.75 inches by 4 inches and includes black-and-white images identical to those on the discs, along with a brief description of each car.
The Fact Book isn’t completely factual, however. For example: “The 1953 Chevrolet Corvette prototype (it was already being mass produced in ’53) had a fiberglass body and was powered by a “Blue-Flame” six-cylinder engine. When mass production began in 1954 (wrong), the purchaser had the option of the 150 horsepower six or (nothing from this point forward is true) the newly introduced V-8 of 190 brake horsepower which produced a top speed of 119 mph.” The V-8 wasn’t available in the Corvette until a year later, in 1955, and that model indeed had a top speed of 119 mph.
General Foods covered potential (OK, actual) mistakes by including this disclaimer: “While we believe the material herein is accurate, no responsibility for inaccuracy, errors or omissions is or can be assumed by the author or General Foods Limited.”
Finding a case or Fact Book in mint condition can be difficult; the plastic handles that hold the coins in place are easily broken and are often missing altogether, and the booklets generally show a lot of wear and tear. (The accompanying photos are proof of that.)
The Holy Grail
Even collectors who own the complete series, case, and booklet can aspire for more, since there’s nothing quite as rare or treasured as an unopened box of Jell-O with a cellophane-wrapped 1961 Famous Cars coin tucked safely inside. There are actually some out there, believe it or not (generally for $100 or more). But good luck finding one.