Why New U.S. Model Years Come Out Ridiculously Early

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

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)]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • Pwrwrench Pwrwrench on Nov 29, 2016

    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.

  • WildcatMatt WildcatMatt on Jan 03, 2017

    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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