Chevrolet Camaro
Chevrolet Camaro. Click image to enlarge

Review and photos by Jil McIntosh

Photo Gallery:
SEMA 2008

Las Vegas, Nevada – The next time you’re out shopping for accessories for your car or truck, take a look around the store. There’s a good chance that many of the items there, from wheels and wash mitts, to air filters and air fresheners, have one thing in common: they were all introduced at SEMA.

The Specialty Equipment Market Association, or SEMA, held its first official trade show in Los Angeles in 1967, offering 98 booths to some 3,000 attendees. Ten years later, the show moved to Las Vegas; this year, despite a difficult economy and some noticeably emptier areas, SEMA still drew 1,900 exhibitors and some 100,000 people through the doors of the Las Vegas Convention Center.

Those numbers become even more impressive when you realize that SEMA is strictly a trade show, and is not open to the public. Admission is limited to exhibitors, company buyers and the press, and participants come from around the world to attend. And despite millions of square feet of products, none of it is for sale on a cash-and-carry basis; this is where stores and companies, from small speed shops and repair garages, to huge corporations, come to see what’s available and order it for their inventory.

The Ford Flex was a common sight at the show
Customized 2010 Hyundai Genesis Coupe
In case you need to take your Smart off-road
The Ford Flex was a common sight at the show (top); Customized 2010 Hyundai Genesis Coupe (middle); In case you need to take your Smart off-road. Click image to enlarge

Despite that cut-and-dried aspect, the show is gearhead heaven. Not only is it a chance to see what’s coming down the pipes, but it’s possibly one of the largest car shows ever, and certainly not in the way you’d expect. Vehicles with such honours to their name as the Ridler Award and America’s Most Beautiful Roadster are often tucked into booths, simply because the company supplied its paint or created its wheels.

Even the parking lot is an event, with hundreds of cars on display, including sections dedicated to custom shops such as Dub and West Coast Customs. This area, which is open to the public, can get so busy throughout the day that it’s often impossible to move.

Each year the show selects a “feature vehicle”, and this year it was the new Chevrolet Camaro, although it seemed like an odd choice; since the model isn’t on sale yet, the only ones at the show were a half-dozen in GM’s booth. Among muscle cars, the new Dodge Challenger was everywhere, outfitted with everything from turbochargers and fender flares to a taste-questionable modification kit that turned it into a Cuda. The Ford Flex ruled the van and SUV segment, while several customizers went for the Hyundai Genesis, including its yet-to-be-released coupe configuration. But the darling of the show was the Smart, which is just into its first year in the U.S. market. Tattoo-themed body panels, big wheels, cargo carrying racks, new taillights, and even an off-road-style brush guard were offered, and the diminutive cars seemed to be around every corner.

Navigating the huge event takes days if you want to see everything, and it’s neatly divided into specific segments: areas for tires and wheels, for trucks, racing, hot rod and antique car restoration, tools, stereos and a “miscellaneous” area that can span just about everything from floor mats to window tint. Most of the major automakers have displays, both domestic and imported, with more customized vehicles than stock.

But while the event was still huge, the effect of the economy was evident, especially to those who have seen it in peak years; the outdoor display was easily a third its usual size, and a large back section of one building, normally packed with vendors right to the rear wall, was filled with a food seating area and a “green” display that looked more like an afterthought. Many people commented that next year would be the real indication of the weak auto sector; it was also somewhat surreal to be in Las Vegas at the show over the course of the historic U.S. presidential election.

Now this is a chopped car
Anything is fair game for customization
Now this is a chopped car (top); Anything is fair game for customization.Click image to enlarge

SEMA is generally more geared toward horsepower, and in spite of the space-filling “green” display – which consisted mainly of a George Barris-customized Prius, a plug-in hybrid, and several huge biodiesel-powered Hummers – that really didn’t change much. I fully expected environmental products to make a stronger showing this year, but it was tough to track them down. Just as food manufacturers are falling over themselves to put the “no fat” label predominantly on products that never contained it anyway, many of the items loudly touted as “green” were always here in past years, but without the heavy environmental emphasis: nitrogen tire filling machines, tire pressure monitoring systems, synthetic lubricants and lightweight aluminum body panels. I did notice a number of electronic fuel economy gauges, both for clipping onto the console or installing directly into the dash, that hadn’t been around before. And there were a few that I considered somewhat questionable, including a “tumbling air” fuel-saving device that its inventor tried to explain by drawing comparisons with the movie Twister.

Overall, though, it was business as usual, and a chance to see a lot of trends before they make their way to the stores and to the streets. Some will probably never find their way here, such as the myriad trailer-hitch-mounted barbeques, a popular item in a country drawn to the idea of the tailgate party. But many should eventually find their way north: primered and pinstriped wheels for lowrider customs (and they’re really sweet), compact lithium batteries to replace the lead-acid variety, and from Ontario-based company InventzWorld, an attachment to turn a cordless drill into a torque wrench for removing wheel nuts. In a city built on gambling, all were betting on their products to be the “next big thing” in the automotive world.

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