LONG BEACH, Calif. — Soon after Scion cars arrive by ship from Japan here, many will make a pit stop.
A team of workers scurries to customize them with fancy wheels, stereos, racing pedals or other items just the way that customers ordered them. They are then shipped by truck or train to dealers. (Photo gallery: Making Scions to order)
Like hamburgers and personal computers, more cars are built to specification at the factory or the dock for buyers who ordered them in advance and are willing to wait.
Customers say they couldn't be happier. Talk show host Tony Danza wanted a black Mini S with a six-speed transmission, sun roof, navigation system and hot stereo last year. It took six weeks to arrive, but it was worth it.
"I wanted one bad," Danza says. "It was a way to be socially conscious and still cool."
For automakers, personalization is good business. The average Mini buyer adds $5,000 in extras above the $17,500 base sticker on factory- and dealer-installed accessories. Another $25,000 worth of accessories can be "pretty typical" for the purchaser of a $355,000 Rolls-Royce, President Peter Miles says.
Now, midmarket automakers are starting to take a look. Chrysler Group marketing chief Joe Eberhardt says making cars to order could help end the problem of bloated inventories — vehicles stacking up either in storage lots or dealers' showrooms.
Minis only sat on dealers' lots an average of 21 days last year, compared with 50 days for the premium compact car segment as a whole, the Power Information Network reports.
Letting you make it your way
Automakers offering made-to-order cars include:
Mini. From 75% to 90% of Minis sold are custom-ordered from the factory.
Once the customer places an order, it takes two to three months for the car to arrive at the dealer from the plant in Oxford, England. In hot markets such as California, the wait can take three to six months.
Buyers can choose from 70 factory-installed options, such as $200 glassy black-lacquer dashboard inserts or $100 racing stripes on the hood. The most expensive is a high-performance kit for the S model with a bigger engine supercharger, beefier brakes and new differential for better traction. Cost: $6,300.
Mini constantly changes the options to keep the models fresh. Out: bright yellow body paint. In: contrasting silver paint on the roof.
Scion. The youth-oriented brand limits customizing options but speeds up the time it takes to get a personalized version delivered. Most come in seven to 10 days.
Customization choices include wheels, stereos and rear spoilers. Scion plans to double the number of accessories to 100 later this year, many of them offered from outside aftermarket makers.
Porsche. About 41% of U.S. buyers order the 911 model customized to their whims, spokesman Bob Carlson says. "We have a very thick book with the options in it," 143 total, he says. "Send us a swatch, and we'll paint it the color of your house."
Although Porsche makes other models, the 911 lends itself to customization because the plant where it is built in Zuffenhausen, Germany, is more adaptable. Customized cars usually take about three months to arrive. The base price for 911 Carrera is $71,300 before the personalization items are added.
Rolls-Royce. With Rolls, almost anything goes. Your initials etched into the wood trim or embossed in the leather seats? No problem. Your own personal cigar humidor in the glove box or a cooler under the rear seat? Bring it on.
In the USA, about 15% of Rolls buyers choose to personalize their cars. About 90% of Japanese buyers want their own touches on the car.
Customizing a Rolls can add two weeks or more to delivery times. But if you want to get really fancy, trying something that hasn't been tried before, the wait can be two to three months, Miles says.
Sylvester Stallone had his name emblazoned on the tread plates that you see when you step in the car.
Ferrari. Every Ferrari is customized to some degree, whether it's adding a badge on the side of the car or lipstick-red seats. Because only about 1,400 cars are produced in Italy a year for export to the USA, it's easy to make changes, Vice President Marco Mattiacci says.
One Ferrari owner orders all his cars in maize and blue, the colors of his alma mater, the University of Michigan. One wanted lambskin instead of leather seats.
But there are limits. "If they want a set of longhorns on the hood, we can't do that out of the factory," product manager Andrew Shaffer says.
Companies that succeed at customization usually limit options to avoid long delays, says James Womack of the non-profit Lean Enterprise Institute, a management think tank, and co-author of the book Lean Solutions. They don't overpromise. "I can wait three months, but I meant three months," Womack says.
He points to Scion as an example of how most extras are cosmetics that allow buyers to make a statement and allow Scion to keep them limited.
At the Port of Long Beach, a staff of mechanics adds the extras to about 180 Scions daily. One recent day, Opal Gutierrez was putting custom pedals and wheel locks on a boxy black Scion xB. Oscar Ortiz had just finished installing the lower body panels of a "ground effects" kit to make a Scion tC sports car look racier.
"Every single one is different," says David Gadberry, a production supervisor. "We have designed a production system to accommodate variation."
Contributing: Sharon Silke Carty in Detroit