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Story and photos by Jil McIntosh

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SEMA 2010

Las Vegas, Nevada – A kitchen made out of tool cabinets, a customized Mercedes-Benz Sprinter and a computer that looks like a Chevrolet Camaro? There’s no question: you’ve got to be at SEMA.

The Specialty Equipment Market Association’s annual trade show, believed to be the largest aftermarket event of its kind of the world, ran from November 2nd to 5th at the Las Vegas Convention Centre. Even though it took a hit from the recession, it’s still enough to wear out your shoes: some 19,000 vendors offering just about anything you’d ever need for a car, from tires and wheels, through trailer hitches and washer fluid, to air fresheners and floor mats.

DUB will customize anything, even a Sprinter
DUB will customize anything, even a Sprinter . Click image to enlarge

It’s the place where vendors and buyers get together to see what’s new, what’s available, and how much the stores are going to order. If you’ve ever bought an auto-related tool, put oil into your car, screwed or stuck anything on to it, or even took it in for a paint job, chances are that the product you bought originally debuted here. Both those selling and those buying come from around the world to this central location to see everything automotive. Although the aisles are so crowded that it can be tough to walk through, SEMA is not open to the public. It’s strictly a trade show, restricted to vendors, buyers and media.

Famed custom car builder George Barris
Famed custom car builder George Barris. Click image to enlarge

Even so, the show is a candy store for gearheads. It’s all about getting people to visit your booth, and to that, companies bring in wildly customized cars, set up eye-catching displays, or run demonstrations of their products. Auto celebrities such as Chip Foose, Richard Petty, George Barris, Stacey David, John Force and even Neil Young – he’s crazy about alternative fuels – set up in booths to meet fans and sign autographs. And when a car is featured in a booth, it’s not just your average sedan off the street. Well-known magazine and show cars that would be the prime draw at most car events are nonchalantly tucked into the display, because that vendor might have supplied its windshield or sewn its upholstery.

Believe it or not, this is a computer tower
Believe it or not, this is a computer tower. Click image to enlarge

The show is divided into halls, which are further designated into areas catering specifically to certain products. Tires and wheels have their own hall; accessories for trucks have another. Hot rod parts and antique car restoration shops display their wares on one side of a hall, while racing and performance parts fill the other. Tools, stereo equipment, paint and accessories all have their spots. And if you’ve never been to something like this, it’s hard to imagine just how specialized the automotive business really is – did you realize, for example, that there are magazines dedicated solely to window tint? Indeed there are, and there are two long aisles of nothing but tint products, vinyl wraps and applicators.

Hyundai Equus done DUB style with ostrich-skin interior
Hyundai Equus done DUB style with ostrich-skin interior. Click image to enlarge

Many of the auto manufacturers are here also, but while there are some stock products in their booths, the majority of their offerings have been customized by various shops and designers. Two versions of Hyundai’s flagship Equus luxury sedan were shown, one of them stuffed with ostrich skin upholstery; Chevrolet showed the Volt, a custom version of the upcoming Spark, and several Corvette and Cruze models that had been touched up by custom shops. Chrysler showed the all-new Durango and Charger, while Ford had customized Super Duty trucks, Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX models, and several Fiestas. Honda had a circle of tricked-out CR-Z hybrids; Toyota had a wildly done Prius; and Audi was on board for the first time, with several special vehicles including a flat-black Q5. You could also find Kia and Mazda with some tricked-out models as well.

Truck air bags turned into a pneumatic jack
Truck air bags turned into a pneumatic jack. Click image to enlarge

Oh, and the gadgets – more than you can possibly imagine. There are handy tools, such as a pneumatic floor jack made of tractor-trailer suspension airbags, and new wrenches that unlock seized bolts, and a fluid that eats rust but leaves the metal behind. There are the cool items, such as belts and dog collars made out of seatbelts, and an office chair made out of a racing seat, and knives and forks that look like auto tools. And then … well, there’s a little plastic bikini-clad doll that sits on your dashboard and spins around a pole like a miniature stripper whenever your car moves. Dancing hula girls are so yesterday, it seems – but after all, this show is just a short walk from the famous Las Vegas strip, and that somehow makes her seem appropriate in all of this.

Ruff-n-tough Chrysler wagon carries a new SRT V8
Ruff-n-tough Chrysler wagon carries a new SRT V8. Click image to enlarge

Outside, there was a course where competition drifters took participants for adrenaline-laced rides, and an off-road track for those who like to go a little slower. Top Gear had outfitted several cars as taxicabs, including a Rolls-Royce, Mercedes-Benz SLS and Lamborghini, and took people to their hotels – very quickly. There were rows and rows of cars and trucks baking in the Nevada sun, showing off pricey wheels, meticulous body modifications and hand-sewn leather interiors – and in the evening, many of them cruised up and down the strip, neon lights bouncing off their perfect paint. SEMA is too crowded, it’s too much walking, the food is mediocre and overpriced, it’s too loud and it’s exhausting … and none of us, including me, would miss it for the world.

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