By on November 27, 2016


Have you ever wondered why the model year and actual calendar year of production vehicles rarely coincide? Do you ever notice American-made cars have a tendency to come out almost comically early? Have you ever wondered why?

The answer is as uniquely American as the question itself, revolving around agriculture, consumer culture, and television.

Like daylight saving time, the automotive model year owes its antiquated existence to the needs of this nation’s farmers.

“The automotive model year started back in the teens. Farmers would harvest their crops and sell them every fall, and that’s when they had enough cash in their pockets to go out and buy a car. And that’s how the model year started, and eventually that’s how the fall introduction of new cars started,” John Wolkonowicz, an auto analyst and historian, told The Detroit News.

Production limitations also made those first companies product-heavy by the third-quarter and left them lean by the spring.

“In the early days, assembly plants in northern states had trouble with lighting and heating in the winter months,” says Bob Kreipke, Ford Motor Company’s Corporate Historian, “so they mostly produced in the summer months and then put the cars out for sale in the fall.”

The automotive industry eventually agreed upon October 1st as the official start of the new model year. It followed previous sales schedules and coincided with the autumn launch of new television seasons, as A.C. Nielsen dubbed it as the perfect time for advertisers. Automotive companies took notice and began building hype on-screen and off.

“The new model year in the ’50s and ‘60s was designed to bring excitement in cars. Cars were shipped to dealers covered in canvas tarps and dealer showroom windows were painted over to hide the cars until preview night. Dealers had parties in their stores on the night the new cars were shown for the first time,” Wolkonowicz told Detroit News.

Automakers know there is a level of prestige that comes from telling your less auto-savvy neighbors you’ve somehow managed to snag a car an entire year early. That’s why the first cars in the showrooms tend to arrive generously equipped; they know first-round customers will pay more for the opportunity to act smug for a few months.

While fleet has remained important to manufactures, more staggered introduction schedules have become routine with the sales model year pushed ahead even further.

Year-round new-model introductions are the norm. The NHTSA permits vehicles to be designated the next model year if manufactured by January 1st of the preceding calendar-year. For example, a car produced on January 1, 2017 can be sold by the OEM as a 2018 model. This has resulted in even larger model year gaps and the main reason so many vehicles appear in advertisements during the Super Bowl.

[Image: Faris/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)]

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51 Comments on “Why New U.S. Model Years Come Out Ridiculously Early...”

  • avatar

    Great nostalgia hit for a Boomer. I well remember the hype and excitement of New Car Night. With two older brothers I was able to tag along for a good many.

    But I would’ve sworn it was traditionally in September.

    • 0 avatar

      You would be right, the most famous or is that infamous new car introduction of the 50’s took place Sep 4th 1957. September 10th and 11th 1970 brought us the Vega and Pinto respectively.

      So usually it was the first week or first full week after labor day of that particular year.

      • 0 avatar

        Thought so. It’s immovably associated in my mind with back-to-school time.

        BTW, the ’57 reveal means Edsel, no?

        • 0 avatar
          Arthur Dailey

          The new model Chevs were always unveiled first on a Sunday night in September on Bonanza.

          Used to be heavily hyped and advertised as your first chance to see the new models.

          Remember the unveiling of the first Caprice, the first Camaro and the Corvette with pop-up headlights.

        • 0 avatar

          Yes Edsel was the most hyped new car intro of 58 they even called the reveal date E-day since it was the most revolutionary new car ever.

  • avatar

    Personally, I think they should return to that Oct 1 model year dating as the variance is becoming ridiculously irrelevant any more. We’re seeing ’17 models coming out in April for some brands which should really make them mid-’16 models instead. Such an annual cycle also tended to make car shopping an almost yearly event, if for no other reason than to look at the new cars. Problem is, today’s car companies keep a single body style on line for five to seven years, making it far less interesting to go look at new models.

    I could see one model (from each brand) getting a major makeover each year, always introducing something new and visibly different while letting the previous ‘new’ release ride its wave for another two or three years. Keep it on a schedule that lets each brand compete for new buyers rather than trying to jump the gun.

    And finally, let the people order/buy a la carte instead of smothering us with packages including features we don’t want just to get the one or two features we do.

    • 0 avatar

      Mid year models are a nightmare for parts look up. The 86/86.5 Escort always made for confusion at the parts counter because the majority of people didn’t know which they had. I’m sure there are similar problems though only related to crash repair of the 2014/2014.5 Camry.

      What is also a pain is when they introduce a car early as xx model year and then about the time they start producing the rest of the xx model year cars they make a host of changes which has happened on and off since the first big mid year intro the Mustang. 1965 models made before the start of production of the other 1965’s got a generator while those produced in the traditional 1965 model year time period got an alternator as just one of the changes.

      • 0 avatar

        I think it was 1985.5 Escort, because we had a 1985.5 3 door my parents bought new, it had the aero (not recessed sealed beam) headlights and updated tail lamps, but a carburetor instead of EFI.

      • 0 avatar
        Kyree S. Williams

        Most recently, there were the 2015.5 GM full-sized SUVs, which benefitted principally from the new 8-speed, instead of the 6-speed those cars had initially debuted with. For the Escalade, I believe the badging was changed to the new crest-less logo as well, necessitating a new front grille, rear lift-gate, driver’s airbag cover and key fob shell. It also has a slightly-revised lower fascia, different side-trim garnish, and improved mirrors with integrated indicators (which for some reason the Tahoe, Suburban and Yukon do not have).

        But automakers sometimes instantiate running changes in the middle of a model year with no designation whatsoever, and usually the VIN or a decal somewhere is the only way to differentiate by reference. I seem to recall BMW putting CIC iDrive in some of the very final 2010 E60 5-Series units, instead of the CCC iDrive that those cars had previously used.

    • 0 avatar

      A la carte would be very expensive I imagine, and would probably only appeal to those of us who care enough to want the *right* car with the *right* options/features. Most people want to start shopping and buy something and drive it home that day, so they will settle for something on the lot and pay $1300 for shit they didn’t want for the convenience of instant gratification.

      I am not as technical as some, both when it comes to car regular options as well as specific infotainment. But, I can *usually* find what I want, or close enough to it, on the “build and price” manufacturer websites.

      I did a Jeep Renegade the other day. I spec’d manual trans, 4wd, folding roof but otherwise a base “Sport” trim. I did not like either of the wheels, both were mostly black. I would prefer silver steel or alloys. But, that could be fixed later, the most annoying thing was, like you said, I was required to order a package if I wanted certain options. With the package, the price was $24k thereabouts. When I clicked “search for matching inventory” I was rewarded with several Renegade models, none even close to what I wanted. All were FWD, which is due to where I live, but even discounting that, the selection was very few and none had the manual transmission.

      It would be nice if they gave a nationwide dealer inventory search option. If my ideal Renegade was a days drive away, I’d do that.

      I’m guessing that a local dealer could do that (nationwide search), but that defeats the purpose of online shopping before/to avoid going into the lion’s den. None even had a manual I could try to see how I liked the driving experience before proceeding to the next step.

      This is/was all hypothetical, I’m not in the market for a new vehicle, and although I am a bit fond of it, I probably wouldn’t buy a Renegade if I were.

      • 0 avatar

        Ford has proven that a la carte is eminently feasible, what with having some 14-20 different trim levels and option packages on their F-150 pickup that has every part arriving on the assembly line when and where it’s needed while the line continues to move. By no means does it need to be excessively expensive or difficult to manage.

        Option packages are fine for those willing to buy whatever’s available on the lot but with the exception of my most recent new-car purchase (a Renegade) every new car I’ve purchased in the last 20 years was custom ordered. The problem in each case was that I had to order a higher package than I really wanted just to get specific features not available in lower packages as a separate option.

        • 0 avatar

          You choose Ford’s most profitable vehicle to show an example of it being effective to offer many options. That makes my point for me. If Ford tried that with the Focus or Fusion, it would be a disaster. F-Series can absorb such costs, and its part of the cost of doing business, the business of selling 100% USDA choice American trucks that cause so much nervousness down unda.

          Most people buy a FWD car for pretty much the same things: driving to work/school/gym/store etc. Commuting, street driving, maybe with passengers, maybe not. They all need to perform pretty much the same tasks, no matter if its a Mitsubishi Mirage G4 or a Lincoln MKZ. Of course there are styles and features to choose from, but in the end, they all are equipped to do pretty much the same things: take people places on relatively decent roads.

          People can/will buy a truck for a wide range of reasons and uses, some of them with very specific requirements.
          You can’t build 90% of trucks in one configuration, and count on that virtually everyone who comes to buy one will be satisfied with it, like you can a sedan.

          Toyota keeps learning this lesson, or at least they keep getting slapped in the face with it, with their attempts at a full size pickup: You don’t build and sell full size pickups the way you do Camrys and Avalons. It doesn’t work that way, and that’s why they continue to trail the American trucks by a wide margin. Truck buyers tend to demand more than just “with or without leather?”. At least that applies to the serious truck users, not the posers who would use a Camry exactly how they use their Tundra- to go to the mall and act all smug, showing everyone how super smart they (think they) are by their choice in vehicles.

          The Tacoma does so well because people buy it for the image and status, and rarely use it like a real truck. If they were loaded with tools and beaten to hell and back by employees all day, their popularity would drop instantly.

          • 0 avatar

            Or Toyota has data that shows that under any condition they aren’t going to move more than 120k* Tundras a year so they are better off trying to be as profitable as possible for the number of trucks they can sell rather than chasing every niche market. I’m fairly certain they have come out and said that they only plan on offering full size truck variations that meet the needs of 80% of half ton buyers. They have a single factory that they share with the Tacoma, so it doesn’t make sense to offer everything under the sun.

            Is there a certain part of the mall where Tundra drivers congregate to “act all smug”? My dad (who spent the last week deer hunting, making deer jerky, and putting up fence on his little farm) is unlikely to consider his Tacoma a status truck. He uses it on the construction site — he pours concrete for a living — and for hauling coon dogs back into roads that full sizers won’t fit.

            *This number is pulled out of thin air by me, but I’d imagine that is in the ballpark.

        • 0 avatar
          Carlson Fan

          Option packages are a lot easier to forecast and manage materials for than individual options. It was the Japanese that started offering “option packages” as a way to cut manufacturing costs. The domestics were smart to follow suit. Complain all you want about having to buy an “option package” but the reality is it is still cheaper than if you were to order just what you wanted “a la carte”. There’s a reason every car company manufactures this way.

          • 0 avatar

            I know there’s a reason, Carlson; my point is that the reason is no longer valid for those who want to custom order.

          • 0 avatar
            Carlson Fan

            “I know there’s a reason, Carlson; my point is that the reason is no longer valid for those who want to custom order.”

            Absolutely the reason is still valid. What makes you think it’s changed? All automobile companies use MRP for ordering parts and materials. This is why BOM accuracy is so important. A forecast is used to run MRP in an ERP system. This is how Purchasing knows what to buy, how many, and when it is needed. “Option Packages” are much easier to forecast than “individual options” as forecasting is anything but an exact science. If you don’t understand manufacturing you’ll never understand the automotive industry.

          • 0 avatar

            Again I reference the many F-150s that have very accurate delivery of components to the line. Because of this, there is no reason to PREVENT custom ordering if a customer wants it while the option packages can still give them the simplicity they want for bulk assemblies.

  • avatar

    “While fleet has remained important to manufactures…”


    the word is ‘manufacturers’

    One manufacturer.

    Two or more manufacturers.

  • avatar

    Very informative article, and interesting. Nice to see it here on a Sunday when its usually so dead around here. I realiZe Sunday Stories are back, but this type of article is far more interesting to me. Thanks!

  • avatar

    By the time of peak model year hoopla 50’s-60’s the norm was still to order your car to your specifications. At that time the dealer that had dozens of a particular model in stock was not nearly as common. There were a lot more small dealers in small towns w/o that much real estate or funding to stock a lot of vehicles. So when the new model year order sheets came out the dealer would order a few units for the intro date. A top of the line car loaded to the gills, often the convertible or maybe the 2dr hard top. A fully loaded sedan, a couple of mid range and usually one strippo. The salesmen would get a demonstrator and what you got depended a bit on what you wanted and where you sat in the pecking order. If they could they would move any and all of those units opening night. But for the most part you would come in and test drive one of the salesmen’s demos and they go sit down and order the car you wanted. That is where they made a lot of their money.

    I see you are a smoker, well then you’ll certainly want the $3 cigar lighter and the $12 lighting and convenience package which puts a light in that ashtray and some others. You got to have the back up lights. Take a look at the options list for the Edsel.

    Then the color options just for the interior, red, blue, green, white, yellow, pink, grey were all once commonly found on the order sheet alongside good old black.

    • 0 avatar

      As early as the early 1950s, car makers were trying to wean customers of what they called “special orders”. Chrysler’s President, the same guy who insisted rooflines be tall enough so he could wear his hat, vowed to eliminate special orders. Just pick from the selection on the lot. That was easy for him to think in the era, when car makers could still sell every car they made, and common options today like power steering, brakes, and windows, AC and choises of auto transmissions were available only on luxury models.

      Today, getting a representative sample of options combinations to stock the lot is a nightmare, and dealers just pack the most popular options together when they order. That’s why manufacturers put options packages together, to make it easier for their customers, the dealers, to order.

  • avatar

    I have nothing other than conjecture to back this up, the the greater the difference, the greater the impact on the value of a used car. For example, if I told you my car was a 2013, you’d think it was three years old. Reality is that it’s 4.5 years old. Quite a difference in resale value between 3 and 4.5.

    • 0 avatar

      ^Yes, same here, my car was built and sold in 1994 as a 1995. I’m sure it makes little difference in its value now, not that I care, but I can claim to have the last [model] year of that bodystyle, despite being built the calender year before the actual last year.

    • 0 avatar
      87 Morgan

      Same here. My 2008 Suburban was first sold/registered in September of 2007. So, in all reality it is a 9 year old car.

  • avatar

    Daylight Saving Time has nothing to do with agriculture, and was proposed to allow for more daylight at the end of the day in the summer by a number of folks in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was implemented on a large scale by the Central Powers to reduce coal consumption during the war.

    The most recent expansion of DST was lobbied for by the convenience store and gas station lobby, the idea being that people are out in the evening and will need to stop for gas, etc… since North America’s drive everywhere.

  • avatar

    Ford made a bit of a coup by keeping the new Ford GT project pretty much a secret until they revealed the car at the NAIAS. Perhaps an enterprising car company could take a play out of the old playbook and keep a more mass market car under wraps until they do a reveal simultaneously with the car being on sale in showrooms. Though Ford didn’t quite keep the original Mustang a secret (there was a show car based on a preproduction body shell that made the show circuit in 1963) when they introduced the car at the ’64 World’s Fair in NYC you could go to your Ford dealer and order one.

  • avatar

    A second to Deaks2: DST has little to no effect on the farmers in the community I grew up in. They get up regardless of time to start field work and go until dark – or after. What time the clock indicates is essentially meaningless for the work they do. It has more application to the “9 to 5” worker. It probably does not benefit shift workers – 2nd/3rd shifts. Since it is a “24 hour” world any more, DST could be done away with and no one but the few that do benefit would notice. There is no “energy saving” benefit like there once was either. My request would be to leave it one way or the other as our bodies have a hard time adjusting to the hour changes – more so in Spring – which may contribute to health issues and does contribute to traffic fatalities (drowsy driving) around the change.

    • 0 avatar

      Just goes to prove, once something is codified politically, it’s very hard to eliminate. And this is just a stupid time change twice a year.

      • 0 avatar

        As I understand it, each state can choose whether or not to observe DST. The only caveat being if they choose to observe, they must adopt the federal start/stop dates. Witness Arizona (or at least part of the state) which does not observe DST – there may be a few others I’m not aware of.

      • 0 avatar

        It’s more than stupid, it’s incredibly expensive. I work in banking IT and the havoc that time changes play with the carefully-choreographed data-transmission operations is epic (every big bank does thousands of batch-file operations on a daily basis). It’s even worse when you consider that the U.K. and the U.S. use different calendars for the change, resulting in semi-annual two week periods of chaos when one side is DST and the other is not. The result is countless hours of overtime, missed deadlines, pointless reprocessing of reports and operations, etc. It’s a mess.

  • avatar

    In January 2000 we had buyers waiting to purchase the new 2001 Aurora V6 and V8 models. They were built early in the month and could only be offered for sale on January 30th at the earliest. We sold eight that day.

    • 0 avatar

      And soon after that we were lucky to move 8 Auroras a month. I remember that time well. I’m pretty sure we worked together too. Browning, right? We moved a boatload of Aleros and some Silhouettes & Intrigues, Auroras and Bravadas just languished on the lot.

    • 0 avatar

      Just 10 months later GM made the “Oldsmobile over and out’ announcement.

  • avatar

    As a kid, I remember going with my father down to his dealership about mid-September to get a sneak peek at the new models once they had come in. As dad had a rather large physical dealership, he’d store the cars on the second floor, off from the repair area.

    And yes, it was a real big deal the day before when they’d paper over the windows and move the cars downstairs. I’m pretty certain that the dealership only had the service department open the day before, and customer weren’t allowed in the showroom while the new models were getting moved in.

    • 0 avatar

      It was a big deal when I was in JrHi. In our small community (1850+) we had two dealers: Ford and Chevy. During our noon hour that October we would walk downtown and visit both, gawk at the cars, eat the free donuts and grab brochures to take back to school; later perusing them in free time/study hall. When the Mustang was introduced, many of us spent the majority of our time at the Ford dealer. It’s hard to imagine the impact without being there to see this “new” car for the first time.

  • avatar

    I seem to recall the introduction of the Mustang started all this silliness. Introduced in April 1964 as a 1965 model, It was one of the first (if not THE first) to break the October starting sate for the model year.

    • 0 avatar

      The Plymouth Barracuda was introduced 2 weeks before the Mustang in 1964.

    • 0 avatar

      Ford launched the 1970 Maverick on April 17, 1969, five years to the day after the ’65 Mustang, hoping for the same sort of success. While that seems superstitious to the point of silliness, they did have success (681,000 ’65 Mustangs sold, 579,000 ’70 Mavericks in a more segmented market).

      There were plenty of cars introduced before October prior to the Mustang, though. September was probably the most common introduction month, but August was common and even June-July debuts occurred as far back as the 1940s. Ford launched the 1949 Lincoln and Mercury in April 1948, and the Ford in June of that year. But they were desperate to launch replacements for extremely outmoded products (the whole lineup of 1948 cars were still using solid axles on transverse leaf springs front and rear, when everyone else had gone to independent front suspension before the war).

      Prior to the 1930s cars were launched when they were ready, but sometimes unpreparedness caught manufacturers flat-flooted. Ford (why are all these examples I can think of from Ford?) had a rough start with the flathead V-8 in 1932 and didn’t start getting the cars out to the public until about April 1932. Henry Ford decided that he didn’t want to dilute the impact of the V-8 by putting the companion four-cylinder models (an evolution of the Model A that hung around until 1934) out beforehand, so Ford dealers had nothing but leftover 1931 Model A’s to sell for a few months in early 1932, which must have been awful for them on top of the Depression. The 1933 Fords were also a bit late out, not launching til February 1933. Ford got their act together after that and typically launched around the same time as other manufacturers.

      Another example of late introduction was Chrysler’s entire 1949 line. For some reason (labour strife in the supply chain, perhaps) they had extreme difficulty tooling up and launching the new ’49s, so they continued to make the 1948 models (which were the same slightly revised 1942 models that had been in production since the manufacturing and development hiatus during WWII) and serialed them as “first series” 1949s. It was well into calendar 1949 by the time the whole 1949 corporate lineup had been launched.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Today’s hype for the new models has to be tough on dealers, ironically. Often sales of today’s model will tank after word gets out about the new one.

    There are many recent examples of this. And when you visit the dealer to discuss the new model, they play dumb about its features and delivery date, since they want you to buy what’s on the lot.

    • 0 avatar

      Hmm, so maybe that’s why the VW sales guy seemed to “know nothing” about the 2.5 being replaced with the 1.8 in the 2014 Jetta. Although he knew I was there for service and was killing time looking at the new cars.

  • avatar

    This gets really confusing when watching programming with US commercials in Canada. Also explains how I we ended up with a 2008.5 Mazda3.

  • avatar

    My 8th grade Govt. teacher is rolling over in his grave right now. He claimed the reason the automotive model year is in the fall is due to WWII. V-J day is Sept 2. Once victory was declared, the factories got back to work turning out cars instead of planes, tanks, etc.

    Which made the start of the new model year in the fall. Other brands followed suit after the big 3 set the standard and never bucked the tradition.

  • avatar
    punkybrewstershubby aka Troy D.

    I remember when Nissan was doing their half year models like the 86.5 Hardbody truck and one of three Nissan Hardbody trucks that I had personally bought was a 93.5 Hardbody aka D21 4×4.

    No such confusion on the lot for me on Black Friday however. I walked on the lot looking for a base model 5-speed manual Nissan Versa in black and I drove it home. They had three identical base models all in 5-speed manual in Black.

    Probably the most non-car guy car there is but I wanted an inexpensive ride with a radio and AC and I like it quite a lot even though it will sit most of it’s life in the garage as I have a company car.

  • avatar

    I always wondered why model years didn’t align with the beginning of the year. So now can someone explain why monthly magazine’s are date a whole month early? I.e April’s addition is out in early March.

  • avatar

    I don’t recall any papered over windows or big parties at the local dealers in ancient times.
    One Ford dealer had a model with a retractable hard top. They had it in their showroom and 24/7 the top would go down into the trunk and then return over and over. I don’t think that made for a lot of sales as that model did not last long.
    Across the street, a few years later, the Chevy dealer had a Corvair on display.
    A common display mode was the car on a rotating platform with lots of multi colored lights pointed at it.

  • avatar

    I don’t have a source handy for this, but I remember reading that one of the factors for model year creativity was the date of the annual New York Auto Salon, precursor to today’s Auto Shows, back in the ’20s or so; the coachbuilders all wanted to show off their new stuff and what they showed became “next year’s model”.

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