At the age of 65, Richard Gillette decided it was time for him to stand out when he’s on the road. So he built himself a John Cooper Works Mini Cooper with a 228-horsepower engine, a bright red roof and — naturally — a black leather interior.
“Built” doesn’t mean he worked the assembly line in Oxford, England. Instead, Mr. Gillette planted himself in front of an online configurator and chose all the bits and pieces he wanted to add to make real his vision of a Silver White Mini. About $39,000 and two months later, his bespoke carriage arrived at his dealer in New Jersey.
“It was kind of a midlife crisis,” said Mr. Gillette, who described himself as a bit of an Anglophile. He changed the mirror caps and the wheels, upgraded the leather interior and added stripe decals for good measure.
In our made-to-order consumer society, simple is out. And in a volatile sales universe for new cars, brands like Porsche, Ford, Mini and Volkswagen are experimenting with marketing methods to make their models more attractive to buyers — and better for their bottom lines. In a recent survey of a thousand adults commissioned by Mini, nearly two out of three people said they considered personalization important in deciding on a new vehicle.
“Eventually we’ll be selling electric cars,” said George Mengisopoulos, the finance manager at Porsche Gold Coast in Westbury, N.Y. “So the motor won’t sell it — it’ll be the experience and the ability to customize. People who are about 35 to 55 years old have their own ideas of what a car should look like. The company that makes their dream car a reality is the company that’s going to get their money.”
Henry Ford supposedly told his Model T customers that they could have any color car they wanted, as long as it was black. In the 1970s, Honda bragged that the Civic, which sold for something over $3,000, about $14,000 in today’s dollars, came one way. The buyer could add an automatic transmission and a rear window wiper, and that was about all. “We make it simple,” the Honda slogan read.
Not so long ago, a man visited an Audi dealership on Long Island toting a Colorado State University football helmet, colored gold. “He said, ‘I want a car this color,’” said Mr. Mengisopoulos, who worked at the store at the time
“We sent the helmet to Germany to match the gold color,” he said. “When the car came in, we were all nauseous — that’s how ugly it was. But the guy saw it, he had a tear in his eye. He was in love.”
With electric and autonomous vehicles on the horizon, nearly all brands worry that the car will emerge as a commodity, an appliance. So the concept is to allow customers — custom is the first part of that word — to build an automobile to their exact specifications, making it almost as easy as (and in some cases easier than) ordering an Ethan Allen couch or a pair of Nike by You sneakers.
Of course, a custom automobile is generally more expensive than a pair of sneakers.
Take Ferrari. The least costly 2019 Ferrari starts at more than $200,000. One that is run through the factory’s high-end Tailor Made program costs — well, if you need to ask the price, it’s not for you.
“It really is a creative and immersive experience that allows them freedom in choosing bespoke materials, colors and finish to truly render their car unique,” Jeffrey Grossbard, a spokesman for Ferrari North America, said of the program’s buyers.
Clients are invited to the factory in Maranello, Italy, or to a Tailor Made center in Shanghai and “guided” though the options — special liveries, colors, leathers and trim — by a “personal designer,” Mr. Grossbard said. To emphasize the one-off nature of the buyer’s ultimate show-off machine, the process “also allows the clients themselves to propose new solutions and materials that we can develop specifically for them,” he said.
While Ferrari doesn’t advertise its bespoke service — Ferrari doesn’t advertise, period — the Mini brand has aggressively let its potential customers know that there are “millions” of permutations for a car.
“We had a customer who was an engineering student at M.I.T., and he had a look at just the pure number of options and told us the true number is closer to one billion,” said Ishaan Khatri, product planning manager for Mini. “But, well, that wasn’t believable.”
Of the more than 16,000 Mini two- and four-door hardtops sold in 2017, 14,000 were one-of-a-kind models, Mr. Khatri said.
The brand, owned by BMW, is also working on expanding the available add-ons with printed 3-D elements. This process “truly allows the customer to individualize the dash, LED door sills, the puddle-light projections, some trim pieces,” said a spokesman for Mini, Patrick McKenna.
“That’s new territory for us,” he added. “We’re still in the early stages of that technology.”
Just this year, Volkswagen, whose models generally have limited options, is borrowing a program from its Canadian division. It’s called Spektrum. Using an online chart, buyers of the high-end Golf R can pay $2,500 for the privilege of choosing one of 40 colors — Raspberry Red, Squirrel Gray, Prussian Blue among them.
The company estimates that up to 600 of the 4,000 Golf Rs produced for the United States market for 2019 will be ordered under the program, said Megan Closset, product manager for Golfs for Volkswagen of America. (The States are the biggest market for the Golf R.)
“The customer for the Golf R is unique, choosier about the car he buys, with more money to play with,” Ms. Closset said. “Not everybody believed in this program at the start, but we’re seeing orders in the system, and the interest from dealers and customers has been incredibly strong.”
She said that in Canada, “far and away the most popular color chosen has been Viper Green,” from a past-generation VW Scirocco. Nonmetallic grays are huge, she said, “along with bright hallucinatory colors for the customer who really wants to stand out.” There is a hitch: Once the car is ordered, the buyer must wait up to four months for delivery.
At Audi, VW’s sister brand, the wait for a special color on the carmaker’s palette can take up to 120 days and costs an extra $3,900, said Matt McKown, senior manager for Audi Sport. “We do about 500 sales a year for bespoke vehicles in the U.S.,” he said.
The Audi Exclusive program can also take a color sample and try to match it. “We can’t do Ferrari Red, but we can come close,” he said.
Over the longer term, the automotive industry is looking at customization beyond the cosmetic aspects of funky paint and yellow textiles. Among the companies developing a higher level of science focused on car performance is Derive Systems in Florida.
Using advanced software to direct the vehicle’s control systems, Derive works with enthusiasts and several carmakers to “take that one-size-fits-all vehicle and turn it into something that’s bespoke, tailored to meet your personal needs,” said David Thawley, Derive’s chief executive. “The implications are immense in terms of greater performance, or increased fuel savings, or increased safety.”
Among the potential solutions that Mr. Thawley and his team are investigating are technologies that would limit speeds based on highway data, and a seat-belt-dependent ignition system. Never mind those annoying buzzers and bells: This system would require that belts in the front be secured before the car would start.
Mr. Thawley believes that the big car manufacturers have had trouble adapting to today’s technology-driven consumers. He suggested that Tesla was the exception.
“Tesla is a tech company that chose to create cars, and all the others are automotive companies that tried to become technology companies,” Mr. Thawley said. “A Tesla is built with the same design language as a modern smartphone. It’s about that user experience.”