Thursday, August 18, 2011

Cars: Annual Model Change, RIP

When I was growing up, the cars changed every year. Even if it was a new grille and taillights, you could tell one year from the next. This was all part of the marketing scheme known, somewhat cynically, as "planned obsolescence." What this meant was, if your neighbor drove up in the new model, your car would look old and you'd go out and buy a new one. I thought it was great fun to see the new models and to find them in traffic. I still do.

Harley Earl of General Motors is credited with coming up with the annual model change, but it was a successful way of competing with Ford. Henry Ford saw no purpose in change for change's sake, and the Model T sputtered along from 1908 to 1927 essentially the same.

Volkswagen is another example of staying the design course. Ironically, the Beetle may have looked the same, but every year there was some update, including a larger displacement engine, larger windows or new features. The "New Beetle," introduced in 1998, is finally being replaced this fall with a new 2012 model. In its long run, the New Beetle had only one modest mid-cycle update, and looked essentially the same.

The annual model change was in its heyday in the 1950's and 1960's, when post-war prosperity kept the money flowing and aspiration was in the air. Compare the popular 1949 Chevy with the 1959 (see above) and you'll see the result of new models in 1949, 1951, 1953, 1955, 1958, and 1959, with noticeable styling changes on each of the off years.

Two things happened to kill the annual model change. In the 1960's it was still going on, but models proliferated. Where in the 1950's there was one "Chevy" that came in different trim designations and configurations, the 1960's brought about segmentation into large, midsize and compact sedans, for example. There was only so much money to go around. In the 1970's attention turned to meeting U.S. Government smog and crash standards,and there was no money for frivolous changes.

Compare the old Chevys with the 2008 Malibu. This seventh-generation design will run through the 2012s with virtually no change at all, and be replaced with a new 2013 model. That's the way things are done today. But with a range of cars, SUVs, crossovers, minivans, and so on, Chevrolet will have plenty to talk about.

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