Henry Ford revolutionized the auto industry with a simple idea: Make the Model T reliable and cheap and keep churning out the same product year after year. By the 1920s, though, that wasn't enough.
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.