Hot Wheels Twin Mill built as real car
Hot Wheels Twin Mill built as real car. Click image to enlarge

Story and photos by Jil McIntosh

Photo Gallery:
2007 SEMA show

Las Vegas, Nevada – On paper, the Specialty Equipment Market Association show – SEMA for short – has to be the strangest idea anyone ever invented. It features the hottest cars and trucks in the public eye, but the public can’t get in. Every booth contains items for sale, but you can’t buy a single one. And in a city that never sleeps, it closes its doors promptly at five p.m. each day.

And yet, this is where it all comes together. It’s Mecca for gearheads, the heart of the industry, and the jumping-off point for anything you can imagine for your car, from engines and transmissions to floor mats and air fresheners. It’s almost two million square feet of everything even remotely connected to the automobile.

SEMA is a trade show, and as such is only open to exhibitors, buyers and media, although the massive displays that spill into the parking lots are not fenced in and the public comes to see the customized cars and trucks there. Held at the Convention Center just off the Las Vegas strip, it’s divided into buildings and areas, each with a specific focus, including wheels and tires, audio equipment, racing and performance, and niche areas such as hot rods, restoration and accessories. Its purpose is to introduce products to the wholesale market: when you see a new product at your local auto parts chain, chances are good that the store’s representative noticed it in someone’s booth at SEMA. While everything at the show is available for buyers to order, it’s not a market: nothing can be purchased directly and taken home from the event.

Kat Von D of Miami Ink and LA Ink TV shows appeared at Dunlop Tire booth
Kat Von D of Miami Ink and LA Ink TV shows appeared at Dunlop Tire booth. Click image to enlarge

What makes it irresistible to gearheads, besides the thrill of discovering a hot new product not yet on the shelves, is that competition is fierce, and companies work hard to draw attention to their booths. As a result, cars that would be the primary focus of a regular car show – including hot rods that have won such prestigious awards as ‘America’s Most Beautiful Roadster’ or the Ridler Award, the automotive equivalent of a best-picture Oscar – are tucked into booths because the company made their window rubbers or designed their wheels.

Celebrity sightings are commonplace – for the second year in a row, I turned a corner to find Mopar enthusiast Hulk Hogan towering over me – whether they’re in attendance at a company’s request, or are just checking things out like the rest of us. Dunlop brought in Kat Von D, of Miami Ink and L.A. Ink television fame, to sign autographs; Chip Foose was in the parking lot building a car for his Overhaulin’ show; and hot rod builder Boyd Coddington and motorcycle fabricator Arlen Ness were both on hand.

SEMA is also international, with companies and buyers coming from around the globe, including our little corner of it. Last year I’d noticed Spiderlite, a folding LED taillight made by a company in Mississauga, Ontario; this year, the booth contained a package written in Japanese. “People ask if we have the distribution rights in Canada from Japan,” said company co-owner Ron Liao. “I tell them no, Japan got the rights from us. That’s our biggest market now, and every one we sell there is made by us in Mississauga.”

Three-wheeled Cirbin is built in Montreal
Three-wheeled Cirbin is built in Montreal. Click image to enlarge

In another building, I spotted the Cirbin, a three-wheeled sports car that uses a Harley V-Rod engine and sequential shifter with clutch. “Way cool”, said I. “Way Canadian”, said they, and that’s when I discovered the Fiberglas-bodied cars are built in Montreal. They’re about $50,000 and are sold in Canada as a custom-built motorcycle, but in the U.S. they’re sold with a VIN for street-legal use.

From points even further away was the IMC, which developer Ivan Clencie had brought all the way from Australia and was showing for the first time at SEMA. He sells his fiberglass and aluminum sports car as a kit, and says it’s street legal, even though it’ll do zero to 96 km/h in 3.8 seconds, with a top speed of 259 km/h. It’s set up to take a Lexus 4.0- or 4.3-litre V8, mated to a Porsche transaxle, with the engine, fuel tank and radiators mounted mid-ship for optimum weight distribution. Available in left- or right-hand drive, it starts at $32,900.

A walk down the aisles, especially in the accessories area, is a glimpse into the marvels of human ideas. One young man has come up with a tire cover made of sneaker material, imprinted with one’s choice of design and dubbed Shuez, to be slipped on the car at shows; another has a stainless steel “fin” that fits over a license plate to confuse photo radar cameras (“It’s up to you to find out if it’s legal in your state,” the inventor told a prospective buyer). Inspired by the Build-A-Bear teddy bear shops in malls, Ridemakerz allows children the chance to design their own toy cars, both online and in mall stores, and had partnered with Toyota’s Scion division to build a full-size one for its display; nearby, a young couple introduced their new Tree-Tow, a Christmas tree stand that hooks onto a trailer hitch and allows one to come home from the tree farm with the tree standing straight up behind the car and ready to be taken inside for decorating. (Their flyer insists it will “impress your friends” and “create fun for the whole family”, so “buy your Tree-Tow today!”)

Paul Boyum invented Reach EZ to access cargo in pickup trucks
Paul Boyum invented Reach EZ to access cargo in pickup trucks. Click image to enlarge

Along with the goofy, there’s also the useful. I found the Extender, a lightweight handle that fits over wrenches and Allen keys and has little fingers to prevent it from slipping, which can happen when you use a bar or another wrench; a demonstration with an electronic meter showed I was able to increase my bolt-cracking strength from 11 to 33 lb-ft of torque. Mobileye, made by a company that supplies GM, BMW and Volvo with warning systems, contains a display that warns how far away pedestrians and other vehicles are – that sounds overly simple, but the demonstration proved its efficiency in fog and rain – and can record data such as speed, tailgating and braking too late. That information can be downloaded or even transmitted in real time, so parents can know exactly what their teenage drivers are doing.

I’m also going to be buying a couple of products for my own use – EZ Down, a truck tailgate damping strut that eliminates the gate banging when you open it with one hand, and Reach E-Z, a hook that reaches items deep in a pickup truck’s box, without having to remove the tonneau cover. Of course, like everything else at SEMA, I’ll have to order it or find a retailer that sells it: the items on display were just for demonstration purposes, as this is a trade show only.

Tango two-seater electric car
Tango two-seater electric car. Click image to enlarge

I’d also love to have a Tango, which drew more than its fair share of stares. Sold as a kit car that allows it to be registered as street legal in Canada, it’s an electric car that inventor and company president Rick Woodbury says is the world’s fastest urban car – it offers 1,000 lb-ft of torque, will do zero to 96 km/hr in about four seconds, and does a standing quarter-mile in about 12 seconds. Admittedly, the tall and narrow beast is odd-looking, and the two seats are one in front of the other, but due to 907 kg of batteries under the floor, Woodbury says it’s been tested and has the same rollover threshold as a stock Porsche 911. Depending on whether you order lead acid or lithium batteries, it’ll charge on regular household current in one to eight hours, and has a range of 80 km on lead acid and 321 km on lithium. It was offered by a high-end U.S. catalogue last Christmas, but had no takers, and there are only two copies right now: the one at SEMA, and one owned by actor George Clooney. It might be its starting price of $108,000 – add $40,000 for lithium cells – but you’ll definitely stand out in a crowd.

Ford design will become a Hot Wheels toy in 2008
Ford design will become a Hot Wheels toy in 2008. Click image to enlarge

The show also featured the world’s largest automaker – one whose output exceeds that of all the other carmakers combined. The company is Mattel and the brand is Hot Wheels, which celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2008. To mark the occasion, the company asked car designers from Ford, Honda, General Motors, Chrysler, Lotus and Mitsubishi to create models; these will be turned into production Hot Wheels toys in 2008, along with an original 40th Anniversary model from the Hot Wheels designers. The toys will mark the first time the company has ever used an original design from outside its studio.

Of course, not everything at SEMA is flash; there are aisles and aisles of tools, tires, stereos, fluids and parts that you probably only notice in the stores when you absolutely need them. But need them you will, and both exhibitors and buyers know it. This is the place where they all come together, en route to your local store and from there to your garage.

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