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Usually, the length of a model year is approximately 12 calendar months – but it can vary. Body and trim panels may or may not change every single year, but there's a myriad of mechanical parts, interior bits, sensors, software, modules, and more that are updated regularly. Unless there's a need to quickly correct a problem, manufacturers implement changes and improvements at the beginning of a model year.
(Above: By law, vehicle identification number (VIN) tags must be displayed so they are readable outside the vehicle.)
In this article, we will review some reasons why it may be confusing to determine your car's real model year, and show you how the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) can be used to accurately determine the model year, at least for vehicles made since 1981.
DETERMINING THE CORRECT MODEL YEAR CAN BE CONFUSING
A vehicle's model year may seem like an easy fact, but not everyone has accurate information about their own car's or truck's model year for some of the following reasons:
- If you bought your car in August of 2014 it's easy to assume it's a 2014 model when it's actually a 2015. That's because most vehicle manufacturers start selling next year's models in the summer of the prior year.
- If you bought a vehicle in January 2013 you may incorrectly assume it's a 2013, when in fact, you bought a "leftover" 2012 model. Legally, the dealer must register the car as a 2012, no matter in what year it's sold.
- There is a label on the car, typically in the driver's door jamb, called the FMVSS (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard) label. By law, it states the month and year of manufacture. Your truck's label may show that it was built March 2011, and you therefore conclude that 2011 is its model year. However, your truck might be a 2012 model, because vehicle manufacturers are allowed to start selling any given model year vehicle in January of the preceding year.
Incorrectly identifying your vehicle's model year can lead to the ordering of incorrect parts and the nuisance of returns and exchanges. If you are at all uncertain about your vehicle's model year, read on for advice regarding how to make that determination.
Above: This is a sample of a U.S. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) label typically found on door jambs. Under "DATE OF MFR" is "3-04", meaning, March 2004. However, the FMVSS label should not be used to determine model year.
As mentioned before, the date of manufacture found on the FMVSS label does not always correlate to model year since the U.S. Government allows vehicles designated for a particular model year to go on sale starting January 1st of the year prior. For example, the 1990 Plymouth Laser officially went on sale on January 1, 1989. Many of these Lasers, therefore, were manufactured in late 1988 - but were still designated 1990 models.
(Above: The 1990 Plymouth Laser officially went on sale on January 1, 1989 - with period advertisements highlighting that fact. As a result, many of these were actually built in calendar year 1988 with a 1990 model designation.)
THE STANDARDIZED VIN STARTED IN THE 1981 MODEL YEAR
Before the 1980s, vehicle manufacturers created their own vehicle identification numbers (VINs) of varying alphanumeric characters as they saw fit to identify facts about their cars and trucks as there was no standard across the industry. So Ford, Toyota, VW, etc., used their own set of characters. To ease the confusion, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) created a mandate that all vehicles sold in the U.S. by model year 1980 would have standardized 17-digit VINs that conformed to a uniform set of guidelines. Because of departmental delays, the new coding system for VINs didn't go into effect until the 1981 model year. These guidelines included a requirement that "model year" be encoded as the 10th digit within the 17 digits.
For example, let's look at a 2004 Land Rover Discovery that was manufactured in 2003 and not titled for new vehicle sale until March 2005 since it was sold as a leftover. Both the FMVSS and the original registration date are misleading, so if you bought this vehicle without knowing the real model year, you'd need to refer to the VIN to accurately determine it.
VIN CHARACTER 10: SALTW1949(4)A8123456
The correct way to verify the model year of this vehicle is to look at the 10th character of the VIN as specified by the DOT to signify model year. As you see above, the 10th character is a "4", indicating a 2004 model year vehicle. Below is a chart displaying the alphanumeric characters used as the VIN's 10th digit since the current labeling system began.
(Above: This chart shows the characters used in the 10th position of the VIN to identify model year.)
Since 17-digit VIN system was supposed to take effect for the 1980 model year, "A" was the starting letter for 1980, "B" for 1981, and so on. However, due to delays it did not actually begin until the 1981 model year, yet some vehicle manufacturers voluntarily made the switch. By 1981, all vehicles were coded with a "B". Beginning with model year 2001, this character switched to a "1" for 2001, "2" for 2002...all the way through 2009. After that, the cycle began again, with "A" for 2010, "B" 2011, and so on. To avoid confusion, certain alpha characters are not used because they could be misread as numbers.
In case you are wondering about the repetition of characters: when the legislation was first written, it was believed that it would be close to impossible to mistake a 2010 vehicle for a 1980 vehicle. The DOT has since amended the VIN requirement to include other changes to help identify a vehicle's year. For our purposes, we'll stick with the above chart.
EXTRA CAUTION IS REQUIRED FOR SOME MAKES AND MODELS
It's important to note that some vehicles pose additional challenges when ordering parts even when the correct model year is known. This is due to older and newer versions of the same model being sold concurrently and designated the same model year. This doesn't happen often, but it did happen with 1999 Volkswagen Golf/Jetta models, 1999 Land Rover Discovery models, and 2007 Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups. You may be asked to further identify your car/truck as "old style" or "new style", even after stating the model year.
(Above: Although these two body styles of Volkswagen Jettas are completely different, both were sold concurrently as 1999 models in the U.S.)
Not only will knowing the correct vehicle model year help you order engine parts, body parts, wheels (OEM style or aftermarket), and other accessories that fit, it can also help you determine correct supplies and tools.