Why the new car model year is ahead of time

Jim Mateja
Chicago Tribune

Automakers use the model year to distinguish new vehicles sporting the latest updates in technology, styling, creature comforts and options. But why are new models born in the future, with model year 2018 vehicles introduced in 2016, for example?

There are a variety of theories regarding who or what initiated the model year. While Henry Ford helped create the auto industry in the early 1900s, a tip of the hat goes to the nation’s farmers for playing a role.

“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,” says John Wolkonowicz, an independent auto analyst and historian in Boston.

Weather also contributed.

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

Following World War II, the industry settled on Oct. 1 as the start of the model year, Wolkonowicz said, and it was subsequently recognized as the time new cars and new features arrived annually.

“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 said.

The new model year conveniently coincided with the TV industry’s new fall season, giving consumers a double treat each fall, new cars replacing the old ones and new TV shows replacing summer-long reruns.

Another factor that influenced the annual model change was federal safety, emission and fuel economy mandates in the 1960s and 1970s that forced automakers to not only focus on new technology and innovation, but on the timetables set to meet them. As government regulations increased, development costs skyrocketed.

“The cost of regulations is one reason the model cycle (from introduction to a replacement version) moved from what had been three years to what has become five to six years. And it’s why there aren’t as many new cars introduced each model year today as there had been in the past,” said Joe Phillippi, president of AutoTrends, an auto research and consulting firm in New Jersey.

“There’s a saying in the industry that the first vehicle off the line costs $20 million and it takes at least three years to get that down to $20,000 so you can make some money,” said Kreipke.

Since photos of new model year vehicles appear in magazines and newspapers, as well as being seen in person at auto shows months before going on sale, the new model year has lost some thunder, but still attracts a special breed of buyers.

“There are buyers who purchase a new car at the start of the model year to be first with the newest before anyone else — like their neighbors,” said Phillippi. “This is why cars in showrooms at the start of the model run are loaded with all the options, because the industry knows the newest buyers are the type who will step up to pay to get the car first.”