Ford's assembly lines cranked out thousands of all-black cars simply and cheaply, but anything else was too expensive to produce.
Now, with advanced manufacturing technology, highly customized products are within reach of consumers for a few dollars more than standard, off-the-shelf versions.
Waterloo-based Trek Bicycle Corp., for example, has a Project One program that lets cyclists pick colors and parts for the company's most expensive road and mountain bikes. For about $7,000, anyone can get almost the same bike models that Lance Armstrong rode in his seven Tour de France victories.
"People want the bike that Lance rode. It's a huge thing with them," said Tom Kuefler, Project One director.
A customer could spend even more on a Project One bike, up to $10,000 for a bicycle that has the most expensive components that Trek offers such as carbon fiber wheels.
The trend of ordering standard products with a different twist has been called mass customization. Nike, for example, allows consumers to choose colors for various parts of a running shoe, including the laces using color charts and a shoe customizing program on its Web site.
Dell Computer was founded on mass customization, allowing Internet shoppers to pick and choose among dozens of parts and accessories and to see the price change as they design their own system.
Trek, the largest U.S. bicycle manufacturer, has built its marketing campaign almost exclusively around Armstrong, who gained instant fame in 1999 after winning the Tour de France after a comeback from cancer.
Armstrong has signed a lifetime deal with Trek to help develop the company's road bike line.
"There's one guy in the equation. If he never came along, if he didn't ride the bike, none of us would be here today," Trek President John Burke was quoted by the company as saying at a recent bicycle dealer convention in Madison.
Trek created Project One about five years ago to compete with boutique bicycle companies that were nibbling away at Trek's high-end product sales. Through custom paint schemes and unique parts, Project One bicycles stand out from other Treks, as well as the competition.
"If you go on club rides, you will see that a lot of the bikes are the same," Kuefler said. "We hope that Project One turns the tide a little bit."
Trek sold about 3,000 Project One bikes last year, which is barely a link in the chain compared with sales of less expensive street and mountain bikes. But it's more than Trek originally envisioned, and the long-term goal is to sell about 9,000 Project One bicycles a year.
Build your own bike
Going through the virtual build process at the Project One Web site is easy. Shoppers start by selecting a bike frame, such as the carbon fiber model that Armstrong rides, and jazzing it up with one of about 20 color schemes including a black-and-white "spotted cow" option.
Next, they can choose from various type fonts to have their name or a short message painted on the frame.
Step three: Select from a wide range of bike wheels, shifters, handlebars, seats and other components to complete the customization. Take the completed order to a Trek dealer for pricing and wait about six weeks while the bike is made.
Passion for cycling
All Project One bikes are built and painted by hand, one at a time. The work is delegated to a small group of Trek employees who also build the company's show bikes, which are used for advertising photo sessions.
"They are bike enthusiasts themselves and are very persnickety about their work," Kuefler said.
Some buyers of Project One bikes are hard-core cyclists who already own a garage full of off-the-shelf "stock" bikes and are looking for the Holy Grail. To them, the bike is not just something to ride. It's part of their identity.
"If I were down to my last dollar, I could probably sell my bike to buy food for my kids. But they might go hungry for two or three nights while I thought about it," said Bob Dignan, a Project One bike owner from East Troy.
Dignan is an avid cyclist who once worked for Trek. His bike was a 10th anniversary present from his wife, and two years ago it cost them about $4,300.
"This bike is one of the frivolities in life I enjoy," Dignan said. "It certainly goes far beyond the need' category and is way out there in the want' category. But cycling isn't just something I do. It's part of who I am."
Companies that have highly customized products in their lineup clearly love consumers like Dignan.
"The niche for these types of products is very narrow, but it's very profitable," said Evan Zeppos, president of Zeppos & Associates, a Milwaukee public relations firm.
"It's like selling a high-end bottle of wine," he said. "Not everyone is going to buy it, but those who do are going to help you turn a pretty profit."
Customized products help build customer loyalty in markets saturated with look-alike items all clamoring for attention. Once you sell someone a $6,000 bicycle, the logic goes, that buyer will come back to the dealer again and again for the most expensive accessories.
"Now the customer is bonding with you in a different way," Zeppos said.
Too many to be unique?
Companies that use mass customization run a risk of cranking out too many "custom" products. After a while, some of the products aren't exclusive enough, especially as copycat designers follow the original company's lead.
There was a time when owning a Harley-Davidson motorcycle was enough to be part of the exclusive product ranks. But the bar has been raised, given Harley's success and the proliferation of custom motorcycles, said John Melamed, executive vice president of Cramer-Krasselt Co., a Milwaukee advertising agency.
"After a while, an Orange County chopper isn't exclusive enough," he said.
Toyota's clever customized marketing of the Scion made the small cars a hot product. The base-model Scion sells for only about $14,000, but the tab quickly goes up when features and accessories are added through the "Build your Scion" Web site.
Scion offers colored foot pedals and shifter knobs, a special dash trim, and a carbon fiber gas tank cap in its kettle of custom options. After customization, the price of a $14,000 economy car can jump to more than $20,000.
Trek has sold Project One bikes to rock stars and Formula One race car drivers. It also sold a bike to Susan Dell, the wife of Dell Computer founder Michael Dell.
But even with the Project One Web site, Trek insists that customers buy the completed bikes through bicycle dealers, giving them a piece of the action.
"We see the value of having our dealers involved," Kuefler said.
Dignan said he might never buy another bike, given that he has become so attached to his Project One.
"I have had bikes that I could separate myself from emotionally, but not this one," he said.
Five steps to a new bike
Step 1: Go to http://projectone.trekbikes.com/load_flash.html and pick a model you want.
Step 2: Pick the color scheme you want from a variety of options.
Step 3: Pick the typeface for your name and paint it on your bike virtually.
Step 4: You can now customize items such as handlebars, tires and bar tape, at additional charge, of course.
Step 5: Print out your choices and take them to a Trek dealer.
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