Annual model change was the result of affluence, technology, advertising
Roaring Twenties made it clear that people were buying status and novelty, not just a ride
Motorists in an increasingly affluent America craved novelty and innovation. Alfred Sloan, president of General Motors, gave it to them with the annual model change.
The process was evolutionary, but the 1923 Chevrolet is often cited as the first example of the new approach because it had a restyled body covering what essentially was 9-year-old technology. The car was well received, solidifying Sloan's belief that car buyers now demanded pizazz along with their technology.
The movement toward annual change hit full speed by the late 1920s, propelled by three key factors:
1. A new, image-driven relationship of the customer to the product, fueled by advertising.
2. The development of flexible manufacturing techniques, known as "flow technology," that allowed the rapid changeover of products.
3. The growing influence of styling and stylists — notably, Harley Earl, who was hired by GM in 1927 to head the Art & Colour Section.
Vital to the process was an advertising juggernaut that could make the new products seem desirable and different, even though the changes from year to year might be only cosmetic.
Historian Daniel Boorstin wrote that Sloan's revolution was based on making the automobile a "visible and easily understood symbol of personal progress."
That "ladder of consumption" was inherent in the divisional system upon which GM was built: The person who could afford a Buick was doing better than the one driving a lower-priced Chevrolet — and both envied their better-off neighbor who drove a Cadillac.
The annual model system took that idea one step further: The person driving a new Chevrolet obviously was doing better than the person driving one that was three or four years old.
"Sloan's annual model change, and the accompanying ladder of consumption, came closer than any earlier American institution to creating a visible and universal scheme of class distinction in the democratic United States of America," Boorstin wrote in The Americans: The Democratic Experience.
Scrapping Ford's pattern
That was accomplished by spurning many of the key tenets of Ford's Model T.
Henry Ford brought down the production cost of the Model T by designing single-function machine tools that needed no skilled setup and could be operated by anyone — but could not be adjusted to do anything other than the single function for which they were designed.
GM developed machines and assembly methods that allowed "flow technology," the rapid and relatively easy changing of a particular part or system. As a result, GM achieved much greater flexibility in modifying a portion of a vehicle without changing the entire design.
A key player was William S. Knudsen, who left Ford Motor Co. in 1921 after disagreements with Henry Ford. After he was recruited by Sloan in 1922, Knudsen rose to become president of Chevrolet in 1924.
The Chevy division became "the foundation for the company's strategy in the automobile industry," historian David Hounshell wrote in a classic work on American mass production, From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932.
The results of Knudsen's retooling system were seen dramatically in 1929, when Chevrolet replaced the standard four-cylinder engine with a six-cylinder powerplant. The changeover took just three weeks, compared with the six-month shutdown at Ford in 1927 when the company switched from the Model T to the Model A.
Knudsen had begun planning for the shift to the six-cylinder engine in 1927. To ease the transition, he lengthened the wheelbase of the 1928 model to accommodate the new, larger engine that would come the next year.
Such evolutionary change meant a company could cut changeover time by not doing everything at once. But it still could have something to promote as a new model each year.
Style was king
But it was style, not mechanical innovation, that became the driving force behind the annual fall model change. The changes involved "were overwhelmingly cosmetic," wrote historian James Flink.
"What Sloan euphemistically called 'constant upgrading of product' has become known as 'planned obsolescence.' The annual model change induced owners to trade in cars long before their useful lives were over. It came to call for major stylistic changes every three years, with minor faceliftings in between."
A key event in the movement toward GM's style-centered model change was the hiring of Earl in 1927 as head of the Art & Colour Section. Earl was responsible for such innovations as the clay model, which enabled stylists to visualize more easily the changes they imagined. It also made it easier to achieve more fluid shapes than the old process of bending metal.
The Art & Colour Section evolved into the Styling Section in the 1930s, and Earl became a GM vice president. By 1963, the section had tremendous clout.
"It is not too much to say that the laws of the Paris dressmakers have come to be a factor in the automobile industry — and woe to the company that ignores them," historian Boorstin quoted Sloan as saying.
To foster excitement about new models, GM launched its Motorama shows. The extravaganzas, staged in cities across the country from 1949 to 1961, displayed new models alongside concept cars that provided a glimpse of the ever-brighter future. Thousands attended the events, and GM won widespread publicity for new models.
As new models showed up each fall — often featuring only new sheet metal with virtually unchanged mechanical features — the hype became more and more intense. Advertising focused increasingly on the status associated with new-car ownership rather than on the merits of the product.
For example, an ad for the 1955 Cadillac featured a drawing of a couple in formal attire at an elegant party, above the headline "Maybe this will be the year!"
The ad copy continued: "The handsome couple you see in the picture above have just made a very wise decision. They have decided to get the facts about Cadillac — to see if perhaps the time has come for them to make the move to the 'car of cars.' "
To hype new-model introductions, cars were shipped to dealerships under wraps. Dealers got into the spirit, too, sometimes covering showroom windows with brown paper before the formal introduction date.
Finally, on introduction day, the wraps would be taken from the new models. That night, spotlights would sweep across the skies.
Historian Flink wrote that the preoccupation with styling "was carried to its illogical extremes in the 1950s and 1960s" with sweeping fins, acres of chrome and elephantine dimensions. "The Big 3, under GM's leadership, engaged in an orgy of nonfunctional and dysfunctional styling," he wrote.
Three factors knocked out the annual change for its own sake.
1. In the 1960s and 1970s, federal mandates for safety, emissions and fuel economy put limits on automotive design and forced an emphasis on technology rather than sheet metal.
2. The proliferation of nameplates. Before 1960, a Chevrolet was a Chevrolet, with a few Corvettes thrown in for good measure. After 1960, a Chevrolet might be a Corvair, a Nova, a Chevelle, a Malibu, an Impala, a Caprice, a Monte Carlo or a Corvette. Not even GM had enough money and resources to change every one every year.
3. After sharp oil price increases in the 1970s, U.S. buyers became interested in Japanese models — which, although generally bland in styling, offered good fuel economy and high quality.