“Why are all the cars in the Super Bowl ads 2013s, if it’s only February of 2012?” It’s the kind of question only a 12-year-old boy like Stephen would think to ask; the rest of us long ago became accustomed to model-year creep, as the automakers knew that we would. When I was Stephen’s age, the Big Three still largely followed the convention begun by GM’s Alfred P. Sloan back in the 1920’s. In that decade dominated by fashion, Sloan saw an opportunity: While the overall structural design of automobiles changed more slowly, an added feature or two, accompanied by a change in ornamentation, could make the same basic model seem new again. During the summer months, when work, by necessity, was slow, the assembly lines were reconfigured, and come September, the new model, carrying the following year’s date, was rolling out of the factory doors. Sales began in October, to swell the bottom line in the final quarter of the fiscal year.
As all of the automakers followed GM’s lead, a tradition developed. Aided by the Don Drapers and Roger Sterlings of the 1950’s and 60’s, the Big Three introduced their new models through print and radio ads—and, later, television—in September, stoking demand among a public that enjoyed the highest standard of living America has ever seen. Come October, the dealerships were flooded with customers, and the U.S. economy hummed along not only on the sale of new cars but on the resale of late-model used ones. And every several years, each of the Big Three would introduce some entirely new models, or reboot older ones, and the cosmetic changes would be accompanied by underlying advances in automotive technology.
As long as the American auto industry was fundamentally sound, the convention of the model year worked fairly well. Think, today, of its parallel in Apple’s yearly introduction of new models of the iPhone and iPad. Some represent a major advance; others, a fairly minor one. Yet millions of people follow every rumor concerning the next model, and hundreds of thousands lined up on the first day of sales to get an iPhone 4S that, despite some important underlying advances, looks pretty much the same as the iPhone 4 they put on eBay or Craigslist later that day.
The traditions surrounding the new model year, however, began to evaporate as the domestic auto industry hit hard times in the 70’s and 80’s. By the time the Big Three got their act together in the late 80’s (aided by the Carter administration’s bailout of Chrysler and the Reagan administration’s judicious use of tariffs), the pattern had been broken. The automakers began debuting new models earlier and earlier, taking advantage of a federal law that allows any new model sold on January 2 or later to be referred to as the next year’s model. It makes no sense, of course, but neither do many of the conventions of consumer capitalism. All that matters is that they generate sales. And the proof that they do can be found in the oddest places, including full-service car washes, where one of the most popular scents that workers offer to spray in your vehicle after vacuuming it out is called “new car.”
Having paid back early the loans from its second federal bailout in 30 years, the Chrysler Group announced in February that it would invest over $600 million and add 1,800 jobs at its Belvidere assembly plant, just east of Rockford, to build the Dodge Dart. The Dart is the first major fruit of Italian automaker Fiat’s controlling interest in the Chrysler Group, which came about as part of the 2009 bailout. Billed as “all new,” the Dart is actually based on a Fiat architecture (the Alfa Romeo Giulietta), and revives the venerable Dart name, used by Chrysler between 1960 and 1976.
In its December 19, 2011, cover story, Time compared Fiat and Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne to Steve Jobs, and regarding his focus, attention to detail, and cultivation of the best and brightest in the industry, the comparison seems apt. But Marchionne and Jobs share another trait not often remarked upon: a recognition of the value of nostalgia. Jobs’ Pixar tapped into that sentiment with such movies as Toy Story and Cars, but the iPod, too, was all about putting all of the music that was important to you, rather than just the latest hits on the radio, in your pocket.
Similarly, Marchionne’s revival of the Dart recalls a time when young men, especially, might have followed the latest models with interest, but they reserved their affection for the first car they had called their own. For me, that was a 1970 Ford Maverick, which my parents bought in 1969, shortly after the brand-new model began rolling off the assembly line. Well past its prime by the time I learned to drive, that Maverick is still the car by which I measure all others, and find them wanting.
It may say something about Marchionne’s acumen, and not just my sentimentality, that the 2013 Dart is the first car that’s made me wonder what it would be like to breathe deeply that new-car smell.