Drive Price Mystery

While digging into the history of DoubleSpace and DriveSpace, I came across a handy article about the rocky relationship between Stac Electronics and Microsoft. Only I was distracted by the bold claim (certainly claimed in very bold letters) that a 40 MB drive cost $1,200 in 1989. Now, I don’t have a good sense of what cost how much in the US of A in 1989, but that just did not sound right.

Sure enough, a PC Magazine article about mail-order hard disks published in the June 1989 issue showed that in 1989, a 40 MB hard disk that cost more than $500 was an outlier, and finding one for $399 was not difficult. It also seemed odd to pick a Western Digital hard disk as representative of 1989 drive prices, because although WD was a major force in disk controllers, and did sell its own hard disks after the acquisition of Tandon’s drive division, the clear market leader at the time was Seagate. Other common mass-market drive makers were MiniScribe, Priam, or Micropolis… but not Western Digital.

So where did the outrageous $1,200 price came from? For a moment I thought perhaps that was adjusting 1989 dollars for inflation, but even in 2021, $500 (not a great price for a 40 MB drive) in 1989 dollars would be the equivalent of $1,100, not $1,200, and the article is several years old. So it’s probably something else…

Luckily, original Tedium article links to the source of the pricing information. Unluckily, that site only returns Error 500. Okay, Wayback Machine to the rescue. And there it is, “March 1989, Western Digital 40 MB, $1,199.00”, with no hint it’s an inflation-adjusted figure. But that just makes no sense! It’s far too much.

And looking at the chart, the per-megabyte price for the WD 40 MB and 20 MB drives is in fact an outlier, noticeably higher than both the following and preceding entries.

But wait—there’s another link to the real source of the pricing information. Which describes the ultimate origin thusly:

Note 56: The Technology Book 1989 (catalogue, 184 pages in colour) distributed at all Radio Shack stores in Canada in 1989.  A complete copy, in excellent condition, was generously made available to me in August 1999 by Mr. John McLeod, Money Editor of the Halifax Daily News.  (In The Daily News, 6 August 1999, Mr. McLeod wrote: “A colleague digging in a closet came up with a decade-old Radio Shack catalogue…”)  The only date information in this catalogue is: it carried a cover date “1989” and was copyrighted in 1988.  On page 178, this catalogue had two hard disk drives for sale.  One priced at $899.00, with 20 megabytes storage capacity, for the following computers: Tandy 1000, Tandy 3000 HL, IBM PC, or IBM compatible.  The other, priced at $1199.00, 40 megabytes, for Tandy 1000s/3000/4000 or IBM compatible.  These Western Digital drives were sold mounted on “user-installable” cards, which plugged into the computer’s “10-inch card slot.”  If memory serves, in 1989 purchasers in Nova Scotia paid a provincial sales tax of 11%, plus a federal sales tax of 7%.

Ooookay… this price was actually in Canadian dollars, not US dollars! That seems like a major goof.

Only that still doesn’t explain much. Checking the historical exchange rates, in mid-1989 it hovered around 1.15. So $1,200 Canadian would have been the equivalent of about $1,000 US dollars. That’s still far too much.

The note quoted above mentions a 11% provincial sales tax plus a federal 7% sales tax. I assume that was not included in the $1,199 list price, but that is only an assumption. Perhaps some readers of this blog would know? Even so, knocking another 20% off would still be too high.

The source note does helpfully mention that the price was not actually for a bare hard disk but rather for a drive “mounted on user installable card, which plugged into the computer’s 10-inch card slot”. In other words, a HardCard equivalent.

Western Digital indeed sold such things, and called them FileCard. Okay, so what we’re really looking for is WD FileCard 40 pricing.

After a quick search, all I can say is that the WD FileCard 40 clearly was not a popular product because there’s barely any mention of it. But I did find something. A summer 1989 typography magazine has an ad on page 61 which lists “Western Digital Filecard 40 (40mb, just plug it in)” at 549, presumably US dollars.

Now that is a price much more in line with expectations. A bare drive could be had for as little as $400, but that was without a controller, which the FileCard included. $549 for an integrated all-in-one product then seems quite reasonable.

So here’s the real mystery: If a Western Digital FileCard 40 was available in 1989 for $549 in the United States, how did Radio Shack manage to sell a product that was almost certainly the same WD FileCard 40 for (Canadian) $1,199 in Canada? Even after accounting for the exchange rate, it’s almost twice the US price. What gives?

This entry was posted in PC history, Storage. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Drive Price Mystery

  1. Yuhong Bao says:

    Part of the problem is that I believe hard drive prices fell fast during the 1988-1989 period.

  2. Michal Necasek says:

    Yes, but not that fast. The 1988 DISK/TREND REPORT lists the WD40ifc (FileCard 40) at $395 in OEM quantity pricing. The 1989 issue lists the WD40ifc at $299. That’s 25% lower, which is a significant change but can’t explain the huge Canadian price.

    For comparison, here are the DISK/TREND prices for the classic Seagate 40 MB drives: in 1987, $520 for ST-251-1, $450 for the slower ST-251; in 1988, same prices as 1987; in 1989, $360 for ST-251-1 (the old ST-251 no longer sold). In 1990, DISK/TREND no longer reported OEM pricing due to rapid changes.

  3. zeurkous says:

    “What gives?”

    The price the folks over at RadioShack thought the customers might be
    desperate enough to pay…?

    Either that or a pricing error of some kind, methinks.

    Hardcards *are* a bit of a speciality product, after all. Not enitrely
    uncommon but clearly a hack to extend machine life.

  4. Chris M. says:

    Radio Shack was clearly selling 40MB (19ms) hard drives sans controller for $1299 in 1989!

    See page 5. Note that there is nothing special about the drive, clearly a bare ST-506 interface unit but with a fast seek time.

    https://www.radioshackcatalogs.com/flipbook/c1989_rsc-20.html

    Whats weird is the pricing on page 9. You could get a 40MB drive with a lower seek time for much much less. Even mentions last year’s pricing for the 40MB 28ms was $1399. The hard card was $799.

  5. Michal Necasek says:

    Thanks for finding that. So the Radio Shack pricing was really just a rip-off. Still interesting that the part which was likely the WD FileCard 40 cost $799 in the US and C$1,199 in Canada. I don’t know what was typical at the time.

    Depending on exactly what was available when, $799 might not be that much out of line compared to the $549 price seen elsewhere for the FileCard 40.

    Radio Shack also offered a decently fast SCSI 40 MB drive for $999, which compared with $1,299 for a ST506 drive makes absolutely no sense.

  6. Richard Wells says:

    Radio Shack used to keep products in inventory at the same price for years so something that looked reasonable in 1985 would seem very overpriced in 1990. Radio Shack is the wrong place to do research on historical pricing.

  7. anr says:

    This reminds me nowadays 2TB USBs HDs costing less than a 512MB one …

  8. Jaybee says:

    @zeurkous

    I wouldn’t call a hardcard a hack to extend life. I’d call it a convenience upgrade.
    You would be adding a hard disk controller either way. But with a hardcard you don’t need to replace your full-height floppy drive with a half-height one to make room for a half-height hard drive, or route yet more ribbon cables across the case.
    (Or leave the drive laying bare behind the computer, with cables sticking out the back to connect it. I know some people that would’ve done it.)

  9. zeurkous says:

    The slot isn’t quite designed to hold it. That makes it a hack to me 🙂

    Me doesn’t contest that hacks _can_ be useful…

  10. Fernando says:

    I have no doubts that Radio Shack was pricey, but this was before NAFTA, probably there was a import tax in Canada for this type of things (there was for my country and the prices were very different to the U. S. of A.).

  11. Fernando says:

    import duty, not import tax

  12. Michal Necasek says:

    That’s where I was hoping some Canadian readers with sufficiently long memory could help — yes, the price could have had some taxes or duties included, but I don’t know if it was the case.

    But at minimum, misrepresenting a price in Canadian dollars as US dollars seems like a mistake that’s very hard to justify.

  13. zel says:

    Canadian here. In Canada, the prices as published never include tax. It’s enough of a ‘gotcha’ that books for tourists mention it, and it often has to be explained to American tourists bewildered by prices often being 10-20% higher than marked. As an additional bonus, in most provinces there’s a litany of weird exceptions. For example, in my province, restaurant food other than [soda] pop is exempt from the provincial sales tax, but is taxed federally. And some things deliberately have the taxes partially obfuscated – if you go to buy tobacco or liquor, you still pay the sales taxes on them, but the sticker price includes built in excise tax, called ‘sin tax’ by the locals; this is probably because those taxes are often between 30 and 100% of the cost of the goods so building it in makes people less likely to rage.

  14. Michal Necasek says:

    OK, so the hard disk price listed would be without tax, right? Which means it was even more expensive to buy. But as other posters explained, that is probably something to be primarily chalked up to Radio Shack’s pricing policy, not prices in Canada being generally vastly higher than in the US. At any rate, a very misleading data point used (perhaps unknowingly) in the referenced article.

    BTW I’d definitely expect European tourists to be confused, but Americans less so. Prices in the US are also always listed with no sales tax, because it is so wildly variable. However, 9% counts as very high sales tax, and typically it’s around 5% which is a lot easier to ignore than 20%.

    The VAT/sales/whatever tax rules tend to be similarly complex in Europe, but are typically country-wide. They’re also high enough (often around 20%) that vendors are not allowed to advertise the prices without tax. Or if an item can be sold without tax (to business customers), the price must be very clearly marked as such.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.