It's plate clearance time, but what does that mean?

A phrase we tend to hear or read a lot in vehicle ads from December to about February or March is "plate clearance".

This relates to the date on the identification plate of the vehicle, and it's important because it will affect the resale value, even more than the model year each vehicle claims to be.

Hang on, are you saying those two things are different?

In a word, yes.

Model year 2021 (referred to as MY21) started back in September in most cases, possibly as early as August but at least by October, whereas the identification plate will indicate when the vehicle was actually completed and also deemed compliant with ADRs (Australian Design Rules).

In terms of explaining the early start for the model year though, it's most often attributed to the Americans.

Way back when the USA's manufacturers had the majority share of their market - as early as the 1930s to be specific - they were competing with one another by at least changing the styling every single year.

More specifically though, we can perhaps lay a decent portion of the blame for the model year starting early on the introduction of broadcast network television.

The first recognised television season for network (ie. national) TV shows in the USA started in September 1946 and ran through to the northern hemisphere spring of 1947 (their spring starts in March). It's a basic concept that remains to this day (albeit modified a little since then, and with more than just the two networks of that era), where new shows start, or shows start their new season, in September.

As a result of this new content the networks tend to get a lot of viewers tuning in at the beginning of this season, so that's a really important time for advertising.

Car makers recognised this, and started not just making TV ads ready for the new season, but also offering their next models (or at least a restyled model for the new year) well before the next calendar year. They were certainly doing this by the 1960s, but it seems most, if not all, were doing it even earlier.

1957 Plymouths claimed to be "three full years ahead" of their time. Photo: Shutterstock.

1957 Plymouths claimed to be "three full years ahead" of their time. Photo: Shutterstock.

The other side to this equation is the apparent need to create the perception of a particular product being the latest and greatest of its kind. So new in fact, that plenty of advertised items are portrayed as something from the immediate future. This mantra appeared in TV, radio and print ads with phrases along the lines of tomorrow's technology, or, the car of tomorrow is here today.

Some brands were so desperate to appear ahead of the competition that they even tried pushing that from-the-future concept into the next decade. For example, the campaign for 1957 Plymouths used the catchphrase "Suddenly, it's 1960" and closing lines such as "The car you might have expected in 1960 is at your dealer's now!".

Pretty much every manufacturer around the world now has a model year that starts before the calendar year, even if the body stampings, lights and other major visual features remain completely unchanged. It could be as simple as a revision to the inclusions and options lists, or even just the colours and the materials offered.

Even without the influence of a TV season, from a dealer's perspective this early release of each model year is advantageous because rather than having the customers who want the latest and greatest thing the moment it's released wait for it until the beginning of a Gregorian calendar year - a time when dealers are also trying to clear those examples that still have the old year on their ID plates - they instead get those customers in September and October, even before most people get started on their Christmas spending.

So, by all means dive in and get a plate clearance model. The savings are likely to be worth it even when you take a lower resale into account. That is, in cases where there is anything to actually clear this year. Factories and shipping have been impacted through 2020 to the point that some brands were already struggling to keep up with demand for their most popular models.

Sam Hollier is an ACM journalist and a motoring fanatic who builds cars in his shed in his spare time.