Automobile Model Years: Are They Really Necessary Today?
Automobile Model Years: Are They Really Necessary Today?

Automobile Model Years: Are They Really Necessary Today?

The other day when I picked up the newspaper, I happened to notice that one of the local dealers was advertising 2011 and 2012 models, but this dealership also had a few unsold 2010 automobiles.  These 2010 autos may have been licensed to the dealership but it did create an interesting situation – three model years on sale at one time!

Early automakers concentrated on perfecting their products.  The Ford Motor Company greatly outpaced its competitors in reconciling state of the art design with moderate price.  Deluged with orders, Ford installed improved production equipment and after 1906 was able to make deliveries of a hundred cars a day.  In 1913, the United States produced some 485,000 of the world total of 606,124 motor vehicles.  Many of the cars remained the same for years.  By the time the Model T runabout was withdrawn from production in 1927, 15 million units had been sold since its introduction in October of 1908.

By 1927, replacement demand for new cars had slowed. Given the incomes of the day, automakers could no longer count on an expanding market.  Even with installment sales, begun in 1916, the market was reaching saturation.  To meet the challenges of market saturation and technological stagnation, General Motors, under the leadership of Alfred Sloan, established an innovated planned obsolescence of product and put a new emphasis on styling, exemplified in the largely cosmetic annual model change.  This change, by the way, was originally set to coincide with the economic life of the dies used in manufacturing.  The goal was to make consumers dissatisfied enough to trade in and presumably trade up to a more expensive new model long before the useful life of their present car had ended.

With the advent of World War II for the United States in December of 1941, vehicle production for the civilian market ceased in 1942.  Cars that had been nursed through the depression long after they were ready to be junked were patched up further, ensuring a great pent-up demand at the war’s end.  In the late 1940’s, this pent-up demand was so great after civilian automobile production resumed following World War II that Americans would purchase anything.  Many new models were warmed over prewar designed cars laden with chrome.

During the era of the post World War II cars, starting in the late 1950’s and during most of the 1960’s, various enhancements and significant improvements were introduced in automotive manufacturing as part of the new annual model change such as:  the automatic transmission, power brakes, power steering, air conditioning, power windows, power operated seats and numerous safety features such as seats belts and air bags.   These features made the annual model change something to be anticipated by the consumer and women now found that operating an automobile was well within their ability and skill.

With the energy crisis of the 1970’s, many of the annual model changes reflected a downsizing in the American auto as well as the introduction of many foreign autos never before seen on American roads.  Vehicles became smaller and more “compact” as engines became smaller, more fuel efficient and cars contained more plastic to lessen their overall weight.  This trend continued into the 1980’s and 1990’s where the automobiles tended to begin to look alike as the models shared common parts almost unheard of just a few generations before.

The automotive market of the 21st century is a mix of purchased and leased cars.  Price has become a factor and cars are now sold as “packaged” units.  An LX will contain certain features and a LXI some of the LX features but with added horsepower and possibly a multiple speed transmission.   The distinguishing features that marked one car from another have disappeared and many models from a distance appear almost identical.  It would have been almost unheard of years ago for a dealer to sell multiple model year cars on the same showroom floor.  I suspect that we may be headed back in time when new models will be introduced at the time that they distinguish themselves from their predecessors by being unique or innovative.  What advantage is there to selling multiple model years that are basically the same identical car?

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Written by
Donald Wittmer