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Open Diff: When were car model years last identifiable by external appearance only?

Published in blog.hemmings.com

2008 Dodge Magnum SRT8. Photo courtesy FCA Media.

It’s easy for old car enthusiasts to dismiss today’s cars as bland, undifferentiated transportation modules, just as it’s easy for new car enthusiasts to dismiss old car enthusiasts as cranks who simply aren’t willing to get with the times. However, as we take stock of the current automotive cohort, at least one criticism of new cars that old car enthusiasts frequently make holds true – it’s mighty hard to identify a car’s model year by looks alone anymore.

All too often, when you hear or read a story about somebody who works with cars for a living, they establish credibility by claiming they could rattle off car names at an early age or at night just by the configuration and shape of their headlamps or taillamps. Indeed, they were able to do so because annual model year changes once went far beyond tweaks to the car’s software and options package. Almost as a rule, lighting and trim often changed from year to year, and sheetmetal occasionally went through mid-cycle revisions.

So it’s not too surprising that the regular commenters in our daily carspotting feature can get hyper-granular when identifying the cars in scenes from the Fifties through the Seventies. But when we present scenes from the Eighties and even the Nineties, the carspotting gets a little more general, relegated to make and model, sans model year or trim levels. Frequently, somebody will chime in on those carspotting posts, asking whether carspotters 50 years from now will have as much luck with photos of today’s parking lots and traffic jams.

They may have a point. Car and truck design today seems to have a longer shelf life, and that may be due to a couple significant factors. First, it’s expensive and time-consuming to develop a new vehicle, so to better amortize those costs, a vehicle needs to go longer between revisions or total redesigns. Second, and probably more significantly, a vehicle’s design impacts its fuel mileage, emissions, and safety ratings, so automakers have less incentive to wantonly change any part of the design that effects its certifiability.

Which is why annual design changes started to become less frequent as federal regulation of vehicles ramped up in the Seventies and Eighties. Which is also why automakers have gotten to the point where annual design changes today mostly consist of paint options.

That said, we’re not naive enough to believe that no car in recent history can be identified down to the individual model year based solely on external appearance. We’re just curious how recent. Without putting any research into it, our best guess is 2008, when the Dodge Magnum went to slimmer rectangular headlamps for one (unintentional) model year before the Great Recession and the Chrysler bankruptcy led to the Magnum’s cancellation.

What say you? Do you know of any more recent one-year-only vehicles that will stand out like Waldo when car enthusiasts pore over pictures of today 50 years from now?