BY: MORGAN KORN, ABC NEWS
(NEW YORK) — Dee Quon had a mission.
The Southern California resident and longtime MINI Cooper devotee wanted a black John Cooper Works Hardtop 2 Door equipped with every single package available and a piano black interior trim. Red stripes painted on the hood, too.
Quon searched and searched for her dream car at local dealerships. The result was always the same: No.
“A lot of dealers build what sells the most,” she told ABC News. “I was looking for certain options.”
So Quon went online, placed a custom order and waited three months for her JCW MINI to arrive from the British automaker’s plant in Oxford, U.K. The plant manager and the quality assurance manager even signed the inside of the hood, making her car a rarity.
The agonizing wait was well worth it, she said.
“It’s more personalized. Embrace the process — it’s fun,” she promised.
Quon is not alone. Customization has become a thriving business for automakers, with a solid contingent of motorists speccing their vehicles to reflect their personalities — and wallets. Luxury brands Rolls-Royce and Bentley are still at the forefront of coachbuilding and the business of bespoke, assembling special, one-off conveyances for well-heeled clients. But now mainstream brands like MINI, Volkswagen and Ford are getting into the highly lucrative game.
“Customization is hugely profitable for automakers,” Ivan Drury, a senior manager at Edmunds, told ABC News. “Trends come and go so quickly. People want to stand out more. It’s a cultural phenomenon.”
Drury also pointed out that a specialty trim or distinct feature could increase the vehicle’s future resell value.
Truck owners in particular are likely to add up to $40,000 in options, selecting every off-roading package and accessory that’s available, Drury said.
“The appetite for these options with customers is insatiable,” he noted. “Pre-ordering cars is becoming more normalized, especially for people who can play at these price points. People don’t want to compromise.”
Color, leather, stitching, wood veneers, monograms — the possibilities (and the imagination) are endless. Here’s how some automakers are helping customers stand out on the road and from each other.
The uber wealthy turn to the 115-year-old British marque for over-the-top opulence and personalization. Coachbuilding is part of the company’s DNA and specialists, carrying briefcases of samples, will fly to clients’ yachts, chateaus and penthouse apartments to design a tailor-made vehicle. Will Vetter, product and bespoke manager at Rolls-Royce, said he’s worked with customers for more than a year to finalize a concept.
“Configuring a car can be overwhelming. The levels of choices sometimes are daunting,” Vetter admitted to ABC News. “We have extensive training for dealers.”
About 80% of all Rolls-Royces are specially designed by owners, though some clients, primarily in the U.S., are happy to buy whatever’s available on hand.
“The U.S. is an instant gratification market,” Vetter said.
Rolls-Royce recently launched 80-page digital brochures to help clients get familiar with the bespoke process. Options include two-tone exteriors, personalized motifs on the C-pillar, pinstripe wheels, a solid silver or gold plated Spirit of Ecstasy, colored stitching, door embossing, contrasting lambswool floor mats, commissioned umbrellas, the list goes on. The 2021 Ghost, for example, comes with an illuminated fascia made up of 850 stars that took 10,000 hours to craft, a feature that’s only found in the newly refreshed sedan.
Of course, a Rolls-Royce customer can go an entirely different route and proffer a very distinct vision.
Enthusiast and collector Jack Boyd Smith Jr. of Ohio was determined to incorporate Koa wood, a rare species of tree that grows only in Hawaii and is protected in Hawaiian State and National parks, in his new Rolls-Royce Phantom. Smith and his wife were so committed to the design that they waited three years for Rolls-Royce to source a supply and complete the car, now nicknamed the “Koa Phantom.” The Dove Grey leather interior was also custom matched to Smith’s 1934 Packard Twelve Coupe and a bespoke starlight headliner, consisting of 1,420 fiber-optic lights, replicates the constellation of the night sky above Cleveland, Ohio, on Smith’s birth date.
Vetter said the company will accommodate nearly all requests. There are some restrictions, though.
“We have to abide by federal vehicle safety standards,” he said. The iconic Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament? “She is off limits.”
“Be brave. There is amazing stuff you can do.”
Paul Williams is speaking from experience. A 14-year veteran of Bentley Motors, Williams took over the British automaker’s Mulliner division a year ago. He and his growing team of 50 work closely with clients to perfect their Bentleys and deliver one-of-a-kind examples.
“Mulliner is well known,” he told ABC News. “We’re seeing an increase in demand for personalization, especially in the Middle East. Customers enjoy making the vehicles unique and reflect their personality.”
Williams has already received 96 commissions for Flying Spurs, the company’s ultra lux sedan that’s offered with either a W12 or twin-turbocharged V8 engine. What makes the Flying Spur especially unequaled is the 3D wood paneling inside the cabin, an option that costs $13,400.
“The wood has a diamond quilted feel,” Williams explained. “We take a solid piece of wood and machine that into a 3D surface finish. It gives a really beautiful texture. And the wood is treated to last the lifetime of the car.”
About 10% of Bentley customers spend the extra effort and money on bespoke creations. And that’s fine with Williams, who said Mulliner will always be limited in scope.
“It’s a low percentage, but from our perspective, there’s so much effort and treatment that makes a car unique,” he said. “We can’t roll this out broadly.”
Williams did acknowledge that bespoke may not appeal to all customers. But it certainly has its advantages.
“It’s a challenge when you don’t see [the car] in the flesh,” he said. “We worked very hard on these visualization tools to give high quality renderings.”
He added, “It’s an expression of yourself. Don’t be afraid.”
Aston Martin’s in-house bespoke division “Q” debuted in 2012 and now represents around 10% of annual retail build volumes across Aston’s core car range, according to Henry Cozon, head of Q sales.
Customers, many of whom are loyal to the brand, are willing to pay more for hand-made quilted leather flooring, specific colors and chrome detailing. Nearly 5% of retail orders for the DBX, Aston’s first-ever SUV, come via the Q Commission team, Cozon told ABC News.
“We have recently developed a full carbon fiber boot floor for DBX and also a bespoke jewelry pack that is machined from billet aluminum and only available on DBX,” he said.
It takes on average six months for a Q commissioned car to be complete and owners are invited to visit the factory in Gaydon, U.K., for the car’s grand reveal. Q has delivered over 2,000 customer commissions since launching.
“We constantly receive interesting and unusual requests and customers often take inspiration from the most abstract of sources and we work with them to translate this onto their car,” said Cozon. “That’s the beauty of Q – it allows customers to fully express their personality and also reflects their lifestyle and achievements.”
One of Ford’s most anticipated vehicles in more than a decade, the Bronco 4X4 has more than 200 factory-backed accessories for maximum personalization. The off-road modular design platform can be stripped to its base so that doors, fenders and grilles can be added and removed easily. No two Broncos should ever be alike, according to the Dearborn automaker.
“We’ve seen a tremendous amount of interest in our accessory offerings,” Esteban Plaza-Jennings, Bronco’s product manager, told ABC News. “We’re making Bronco as welcoming to the novice as it is to the enthusiast.”
The Bronco configurator site lets interested buyers “Pick your adventure” to help tailor the SUV to their needs. Twelve paint colors are available now, with a green arriving in 2022.
“The vehicle is flexible. It’s designed around customization,” Plaza-Jennings said. “There are so many awesome accessories unique to Bronco.”
The accessories and options — racks, lights, winches, roofs, fender flares — can quickly push up the vehicle’s MSRP. The Sasquatch Package, which includes 35-inch wheels, costs several thousand dollars.
“It’s easy to spend over $10K in options,” Plaza-Jennings acknowledged.
And the customization comes straight from the factory, similar to what Rolls-Royce and Bentley provide, he noted.
Custom orders are up 30% at MINI, according to Patrick McKenna, head of product planning at MINI USA.
Limited inventory has partly led to the surge, McKenna said. But generally about 20% of customers, like Quon, prefer to dream up their own personalized cars. And the options are almost limitless.
Exterior color is key but graphics, like the Union Jack, and contrasting colors for the roof and exterior mirror caps are some of the most popular and stylish ways to accessorize a MINI. Door bezels are also customizable, taillights can incorporate the Union Jack flag and braided welt trim and contrast stitching join the long list of interior options.
Handcrafted finishes that are found in premium brands are possible as well: Real wood that’s sliced thin, stained in dark gray and carefully arranged; aluminum plating embossed with a fine herringbone pattern that is reminiscent of English tweed.
“Every car can be custom built and consumers are using their car as a canvas,” McKenna said. “We call it ‘you-ification."”
Still, owners won’t end up with a “Frankenstein car,” he added. “We’ve taken some of those risks out. We don’t want it to be too overwhelming for customers.”
This year MINI gave owners yet another way to personalize their vehicles: A multitone roof that required MINI to develop a new painting technique. Three color shades are applied in a wet-on-wet painting process, an industry first that will be done on the factory line.
“It takes the brand’s hallmark ex works customization options to a new level,” according to Oliver Heilmer, head of MINI Design. “And because every roof looks a little bit different and is so unique, it pays to look closely more than ever.”
Megan Closset has high hopes Volkswagen’s Spektrum Program will return — and quickly.
The product manager for VW’s Golf oversaw the program in 2019, which marked the final model year for the 7th generation Golf R. The program was hailed by VW fans who longed for ways to customize their sporty, high performance hot hatch.
“The Spektrum Program was a really special opportunity,” Closset told ABC News. “It brought excitement to the cars. Color alone is increasing [in popularity] in the performance segment.”
The 199 U.S. customers who were able to snap up one of these Golf Rs were given a choice of 40 custom colors in addition to five standard colors. The custom colors ranged from Nogaro Blue Pearl and Violet Touch Metallic to Viper Green Metallic and Copper Orange Metallic and cost $2,500. The cars were hand sprayed at a small paint shop in Germany and owners had to wait an additional two to four months for delivery.
Closset even sent handwritten cards to owners, many of whom have either framed or tucked the card away for safekeeping.
“This was a challenge for VW of America and dealers. We had never done this before,” she explained. “We dipped our toes into this new custom paint adventure.”
The eighth generation Golf R is expected to arrive in the U.S. by the end of the year. The Spektrum Program, however, may be finished for good. Closset is still rooting for its comeback.
“It’s top of mind for me,” she said. “We will apply pressure to make it happen.”
Land Rover recently unveiled new Range Rover special editions that highlight the brand’s Special Vehicle Operations Technical Centre in the U.K. The 2021 Range Rover SVAutobiography Ultimate SUVs “showcase the full range of personalization touches that can be applied to the timeless Range Rover design,” according to the company.
The SUVs come with illuminated Ultimate edition treadplates, knurled infill and copper-edged metal Range Rover badging on the hood and tailgate, vintage tan leather interior trim and copper weave carbon fiber finishers. Customers can also opt for leather upholstery from the Italian artisans at Poltrona Frau for a “truly cosseting experience,” the company said.
German automaker BMW will take a customer’s favorite color — matte, metallic, pearlescent — and apply it to the vehicle as part of the company’s Individual program. An online visualizer assists in the process. Exclusive interiors, special equipment, monograms and leather upholstery are available, too.
Not every Porsche customer prefers a white, silver or black 911 or Boxster. Even with a choice of 20 “standard” colors, there are a handful of owners — the company says 1% — who demand even more customization. And they’re willing to pay up. Individual paint jobs are always on the table and the sports car maker encourages customers to explore all options as part of its Exclusive Customer Consultation programs.
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