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? Finding the answer is like finding Waldo.
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," says John Wolkonowicz, an independent auto analyst and historian in Boston. "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."
Also contributing was weather.
"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."
After 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.
Thus the end of the year felt like a new year for cars.
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 summerlong reruns.
Chevrolet took advantage of the new cars/new TV shows timing by introducing its new model cars to the public on the 1965 fall season opening episode of Bonanza, the highest-rated TV show at the time, the night before the cars were seen in showrooms.
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 Joe Phillippi, president of AutoTrends, an automotive research and consulting firm in New Jersey. "This is why cars in showrooms at the start of the model run are loaded with all the options."
Another group of consumers concentrate on money spent or saved.