Camaro lent itself to all sorts of aftermarket parts and styles
Camaro lent itself to all sorts of aftermarket parts and styles. Click image to enlarge

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Article and photos by Jil McIntosh

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SEMA 2009

Las Vegas, Nevada – Every fall, the automotive world comes to Las Vegas: it’s the annual Specialty Equipment Market Association show, better known as SEMA. Dedicated to anything that can be bolted to, slathered on, poured into or done to a vehicle, the four-day show attracts manufacturers, buyers, representatives and members of the media from all over the world. This year, it ran from the 3rd to the 6th of November.

It’s also the biggest car show most people never see: since it’s a trade show, admission to SEMA is strictly limited to registered participants associated either with companies or the press. The public can see the large displays that are set up in the Las Vegas Convention Center’s parking lot out front, but can’t go inside the buildings. It’s also solely about business deals: vendors can’t sell individual items from their booths. Instead, this is where wholesalers, retailers and individual shops send reps to see what’s new and exciting, and make the deals that will bring these products into their stores. Everything imaginable for cars is available, such as wheels, off-road kits, truck boxes and racing equipment, right to floor mats, window tint, and air fresheners.

Hyundai showed several customized Genesis Coupes
The Lexus LFA made its North American debut at SEMA
This microvan was one of the first Subaru of America models sold, with 2-cylinder engine making 25 hp
Hyundai showed several customized Genesis Coupes (top); The Lexus LFA made its North American debut at SEMA (middle); This microvan was one of the first Subaru of America models sold, with 2-cylinder engine making 25 hp (bottom). Click image to enlarge

Naturally, the best way to show off your products is to display them on a car, and that’s where auto buffs have the most fun at SEMA. Some of the finest custom cars normally found on the show circuit are simply parked in booths to show off that the vendor was responsible for some of their construction. A copy of Hot Rod magazine picked up to read on the plane contained stories on several cars I’d seen at the show. Many of the major automakers are here as well, with wildly modified versions of their vehicles, including those from Ford, GM, Chrysler, Honda, Subaru, Toyota and Hyundai. Lexus took the opportunity to make the North American debut of its LFA, a supercar that will be restricted to 500 models worldwide and retail for US$375,000 – and even it was simply displayed under a tent outside the building, albeit under the constant watchful eye of a security guard. (A Lexus representative said that its matte black paint will be an available colour when the car is released.)

In more prosperous years, SEMA was stuffed to the seams, filling four halls in three massive buildings. It also included giant tents in the front parking lots, car displays right out to the street, aisles of new product display cases in a centre walkway, and even short driving tracks set up between the buildings. Then the economy tanked. Last year’s show was hit fairly late during its planning, and so it shrank mostly in the front exterior displays, and in a relatively small chunk of empty space at the back of one hall. This time around, the cuts were brutal, especially since SEMA deals almost exclusively with products purchased with disposable income. Each hall was cut down to almost half its regular size, with massive empty areas curtained off. Many large companies didn’t show up, there were far fewer giveaways than usual, and most notably, it was easy to make one’s way down aisles that were normally jam-packed with people. Still, even in a bad economy, businesses have to reach their customers, and a first-time visitor who hadn’t seen the show in good times would still have been awed by its size. With any luck, better times will bring full life back to the event. It could just have been my imagination, but I thought I saw far more Canadian badges than usual – possibly the result of buyers taking advantage of our comparably more robust economy and strong Canadian dollar to make deals with U.S. suppliers.

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