How To Get Those Cars Off The Lot Quick: An Immodest Proposal

Bertel Schmitt
by Bertel Schmitt
how to get those cars off the lot quick an immodest proposal

The U.S. auto industry went to the brink. It was rescued by massive amounts of taxpayer money. Brands, factories and dealers shuttered. The business went through traumatic changes. But one thing has not changed: The antiquated way of selling cars. No, I’m not talking about selling cars via the Internet or Costco. I’m talking about build-to-order. A.k.a. “mass customization.” It’s not a pipe dream. It’s done every day. Just not in America.

The story about the supposedly short in supply cars reminded me: Most, if not all European brands already build-to-order. You buy your car like a Dell computer. You go to your dealer. You pick a car, maybe test-drive it. Then you sit down with your sales guy and build your car a la carte. Color, engine, trim level, extras. You have the choice of a dizzying (and often overwhelming) array of choices. The salesguy has a dizzying arsenal of ways to up-sell you. The result is a car that is as individualistic as you are. Volkswagen has done it as long as I can remember – and that’s long. We once figured at Volkswagen that on the average, 1.5 identical VWs are on Germany’s streets. And that was a few years back.

If the dizzying array of choices is not dizzying enough, then many carmakers have in-house shops that fulfill any wish. Volkswagen Individual GmbH will probably give you a Golf in leopard skin, if it’s deemed ecologically responsible.

Once the order is placed, it goes to the factory, and the car is made for you. Takes a few weeks. When I left Volkswagen the bulk of the cars sold in Europe were built-to-order. Instead of cars being built willy-nilly and dumped on dealers’ lots, only the cars people want get built. In Germany, more than 30 percent of the buyers actually make a trip to Wolfsburg and pick up their own car themselves. In the Autostadt, a Disneyworld for carbuyers. Not with a schlocky Disneyworld Hotel. With a Ritz Carlton.

The upshot for the dealer is that they don’t need a huge inventory of cars. One of each suffices. And the more esoteric ones can be sold out of the catalog, or via fancy multimedia setups (that never really work.) If you insist on an oddball car, the dealer doesn’t have to call around and try to locate it. He just writes the order for the oddball car, and it will show up. What about instant gratification? If you want to drive away immediately, the dealer has a limited stock. It is understood that you need to take what’s there, and it’s only the most common configurations that usually work as build-to-order showpieces. If you want your wishes fulfilled, you go the build-to-order route. If you are in a hurry to get wheels. the dealer will give you a rental at a very reasonable price for while you wait.

One of the reasons why imports don’t make huge inroads in Europe is that they can’t do the build-to-order for imported cars. Your choices are limited to what rolls off the boat.

The U.S. auto industry went through so many gutwrenching changes, why not change to the build-to-order model while we are at it? It’s not that Ford and GM don’t know how. Their cars in Europe use the same system. (Hit the “Konfigurator” button). Want a “bespoke Fiesta?” Build it here.

Build-to-order would also be a better weapon against the imports than witch hunts. Customers love choices. The imports couldn’t keep up with it – unless they build in America. And in America, foreigners are already making the first steps. BMW is pushing the build-to-order model for the X3. Books have been written about the topic. Even China is going to build-to-order.

Want Americans to buy American? Build-to-order is the key. Yeah, sure, it’s never gonna work here. Add it to the rest of the stuff that ain’t working.

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  • Wallstreet Wallstreet on Nov 25, 2010

    Hey folks, happy Thanksgiving ! I'm very thankful that I'm able to experience BTO first hand during this past summer. BTO is well and alive for BMW. I order my 2011 335d in mid May for pick up in Munich on July 8th (less than 2 months' wait). It’s an amazing car with 425 lb/ft. BMW allows me to customized all bells & whistles. They even load up the European map on my idrive’s navigation system while traveling in Europe. I drop off the vehicle on July 21st in Vienna, and re-kindle with it on September 17th at BMW performance center in Greenville/Spartanburg, SC. BMW has even provide a special 800# for vehicle status update. The German plate is on the car when I pick-up on this side of the pond. I always wonder why BTO is not offered by more manufacturers. It is indeed the quickest way to build brand loyalty. For those who are interested, my European Delivery thread is located at

  • Stingray Stingray on Nov 26, 2010

    Here in Venezuela, we don't even have options. You buy the car the stealership has and that's it. Each model has some color choices, but when the customer gets to the dealer, it's the one in the showroom that it gets. Equipment? LOL, only what's included from the factory. If they decide that a model doesn't have power windows, you have to go aftermarket to get that. Still, the cars have big markups and high prices because of demand. I have configured some cars in some sites: A Challenger, a Commodore and a 9-3. It's refreshing to see you can buy a car as you like it. If all the Lean, TPS and stuff of the world doesn't allow a customer to order a car with the options he wants, I will be forced to call BS on the advances they represent. I think those production systems should in fact favor customization.

  • 28-Cars-Later "Honda and Acura haven’t yet released an EV in the United States"Ok..."The 2024 ZDX rides on GM’s Ultium Platform and will feature Google built-in services. "Waht?
  • Theflyersfan I was just at the Mazda dealer getting one of the free scheduled maintenances taken care of and saw a couple of these on the lot (inventory...I know!!! No Mazda3s or MX-5s, but had some CX-5s and CX-50s). They are even nicer in person - the paint especially stands out. Plus the terracotta interior treatment isn't something done by Honda, Toyota, or Nissan so you can get something different. The slight price hike is worth it and it's worth it just to have something that isn't white, black, or a million shades of gray. Or get the Soul Red. You can never go wrong with that color. I just with the terracotta interior was offered with that.
  • VoGhost This new SLX looks to be quite a trooper.
  • Wolfwagen I would rather have an annual inspection that may catch something early or at least the driver can be informed of an impending issue. Government vs private is another issue and unscrupulous mechanics is another.On a slightly different topic is the inspection of salvage or rebuilt cars. In NYS it is strictly to ensure that stolen parts were not used to rebuild the vehicle. I would rather see an inspection to ensure that the vehicle has been properly put back together.
  • PeterPuck For years, Ford has simply reworked existing designs originating from Europe and Japanese manufacturers, not being capable of designing a decent car in the USA.What’s the last clean sheet design from the USA? The 1986 Taurus?And they still can’t manage to get things right.why is this? Are they putting all of the competent engineers and designers on the F150? Is woke diversification affecting them, as some rumours suggest? Are they rewarding incompetence?