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A Custom Car Can Mean Financial Gratification


In the days when Dwight Eisenhower was president, buying a car often meant going to a local dealership and ordering a custom-made vehicle from Detroit.

An order pasted to the front of the car would tell assembly line workers exactly what options and colors somebody in Los Angeles wanted. Although consumers can still buy a car that way, almost nobody does any more.

A savvy car consumer can usually get the best price on a made-to-order car, but it means giving up the instant gratification of buying a car off the dealership lot.

Custom-made cars are the least expensive cars that manufacturers make and theoretically those savings can be passed on to consumers, according to Maryann Keller, an auto expert at the Wall Street firm Furman Selz.

Keller estimates that 30% of a car's cost is tied up in marketing and distribution, including the dealership costs, transportation and advertising. Moreover, in building millions of cars, auto makers inevitably make mistakes--such as sending convertibles to Alaska in the middle of the winter. And cars can cost the dealer up to $100 per month to finance while they go unsold.

But it's harder to make a mistake with a made-to-order car, because it's sold before it is built and delivered the day after it arrives at the dealer.

Ironically, everything from computers to blue jeans are sold these days on a made-to-order basis. Cars have always been sold that way and now nobody seems to care. Consumers abandoned ordering cars back in the 1970s when the Japanese perfected the system of selling cars loaded with a standard package of options. Fewer than 10% of new cars are custom built, but if dealers would openly discount them it could easily be one-third, according to John Ready, editor at J.D. Power, the auto consulting firm.

While dealers and manufacturers do not advertise discounts for made-to-order cars, there are smaller dealers willing to put in an order for a car for less than they will sell one off the lot. Try to deal with the dealership's fleet sales manager.

The day is coming when consumers might order cars off the Internet and get delivery in less than a week, some experts believe. The current sales system has two problems: in general, consumers don't like it, and it adds a lot of cost to an already high price product.

* Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but will attempt to respond in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, 1875 I St. N.W. #1100, Washington, D.C., 20006 or E-Mail to Ralph.Vartabedian@LATIMES.COM.

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