The early years of motoring were years of choice – at least for the few who could afford to buy a car in the first place. Dozens of companies produced small numbers of one-off vehicles while specialised coach-builders provided bespoke bodywork according to taste. But soon, mass motoring demanded mass production, which meant standardising vehicles.
By the 1990s, the most popular factory-fitted options were features such as power-assisted steering, electric windows and air conditioning: expensive items that made a big difference to the comfort and convenience of drivers and passengers. German premium manufacturers in particular had a reputation for offering bare-bones cars on which even basics such as radios were extra-cost options. As the decade drew to a close, though, most of this equipment, previously the preserve of luxury models, was fitted as standard on even the cheapest runabouts.
Then the options game got a new lease of life. Instead of asking buyers to cough up extra for kit that should have been fitted to their cars in the first place, manufacturers began offering them the chance to personalise their vehicles with options such as special finishes, contrasting roof panels and fancy wheels. Even in North America, where buyers like to turn up and buy a fully loaded new car straight off the lot, the made-to-order approach is gaining ground, notably with BMW's Dream It Build It Drive It programme for the US-built X3 and X5 SAVs.
So why are manufacturers so keen on the idea? Personalisation edges up the average price of each car supplied and a car built to order is not going to sit around on a dealer's forecourt for months or need heavy discounting to get it away. This is especially attractive to mainstream car-makers. Personalisation helps them kick the discounting habit and grab some of the pricing power enjoyed by premium brands. Modern systems make it easier for manufacturers to handle the complexity involved and web and iPad-based configurators instantly show buyers how the choices they make affect the appearance of their future pride and joy.
The Mini kicked off the new trend. Ever since it was reinvented by BMW in 2001, the company has offered a high degree of personalisation. Modern Minis have been available with option packs that group combinations of popular extras at attractive prices. Add features such as bonnet stripes or alternative finishes for items such as door mirrors, and BMW's claim that no two Minis are alike may be correct.
BMW says the average Mini buyer spends a hefty £1,700 on extras but a scheme launched last November, Mini Yours, takes the upgrade game to a new level; the Mini Avenue package, the first to be launched under the programme, costs £4,880. For that, customers get seats covered in satellite grey soda lounge leather, 17-inch alloy wheels and a choice between two metallic paint options. BMW's Mini Park Lane dealership has also delivered one-off cars for customers whose specific tastes can't be accommodated even by the range of choice offered by the extensive Mini personalisation programme, including one with mirror finish paintwork.
Several other manufacturers are taking a leaf out of the Mini book. Fiat has its own cute retro baby, the 500, and is offering a wide choice of colours, wheels and accessories. The company says there are 500,000 ways to personalise its smallest car and is paying particular attention to reinforcing the identity of the characterful two-cylinder TwinAir model, which is offered with options such as black alloy wheels that aren't available on other variants.
Another model that has taken its cue from the Mini is the Citroë* DS3. I used the excellent DS3 configurator to spec up an entry-level car with Dsign trim and a base price of £12,600. Belle ile metallic blue paint and a white roof took the total to £13,330. Another £1,100 for Claudia leather trim and £650 for 17-inch Bellone alloy wheels raised that to £15,080. I liked the signature LED running lights, and added fancy carpets and interior brightwork. Together with a few more options such as a rear roof-spoiler and on-board wi-fi, the total hit £18,166.98, almost 50 per cent more than the starting price. Then I tried customising the most expensive car in the range, the Ultra Prestige, and managed to get that up to £25,316.61.
Another good configurator is Land Rover's one for the Range Rover Evoque. While the Evoque has a comparatively high base price of £27,995 with the least expensive Pure trim, you can spend more than £50,000 if you go for the top-of-the-range Dynamic version and start loading it up. The look and feel of the Evoque's interior can vary remarkably according to the choice of colours and materials. At one extreme you can achieve a modern interpretation of traditional Range Rover wood and leather themes; at the other you can have a completely different, all-black, "technical" look.
So is there such a thing as too much choice when it comes to personalising a car? Certainly, some of the wilder combinations of colours and finishes that can be specified on the configurators might not be great for resale value. And the manufacturers won't thank me for saying it, but online configurators present their cars so well that even no-frills versions still look pretty good. This is especially true of the Evoque, which looks great however you spec it up but comes closest to capturing the spirit of the LRX concept car that inspired it in basic Pure trim. Better too much choice.