“Donks” are currently having their fifteen minutes of fame, and there were several on hand. Click image to enlarge

Story and photos by Jil McIntosh

Call it heaven for gearheads: a million square feet of floor space, some 2,000 vehicles, celebrities ranging from Chip Foose to Ice T, and enough new products to stock a warehouse and then some. That’s SEMA.

The Specialty Equipment Market Association show, now going strong for 40 years, was held in Las Vegas in early November. It’s strictly a trade show, but even though the public can’t get in, there are still over 100,000 people roaming the aisles. Both exhibitors and buyers come from around the world to display the products that will eventually make their way to consumers – everything from $20,000 wheels down to fifty-cent air fresheners. If it goes in, on, around or even near a car, it’s here.

How low can you go?
How low can you go? Click image to enlarge

It was first held in Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles in 1967, when 98 vendors were on hand to present their products. This year, 10,000 booths tempted buyers, and ranged from very simple displays to massive areas with lights, music and attractive models as scantily-clad as possible without breaking the show’s rules.

It’s all about the product, and one of the coolest things about the show is that, unlike at a public exhibition, the cars are mostly there to help sell what’s on them. A car that might have won top honours at a national car show, or been a star on a television makeover show, and which would be a feature attraction anywhere else, simply sits in a booth because it’s advertising the paint or wheels or upholstery installed by that company. It’s almost like an Easter egg hunt, finding these famous cars all around the show.

Jay Leno's jet-powered Ecojet
Jay Leno’s jet-powered Ecojet. Click image to enlarge

But there are a few on full display as well, and one that drew considerable crowds was the Ecojet in GM’s huge area. Owned by Tonight Show host and car collector Jay Leno, the Ecojet is a collaboration between Leno’s Big Dog Garage and General Motors. With a carbon fibre and Kevlar body that draws its styling cues from both GM’s early Firebird concepts and the modern Cadillac XLR roadster, the Ecojet uses a Honeywell LTS-101 turbine engine, usually used in helicopters, that produces 650 hp and 583 lb-ft of torque. All that power goes through a heavily modified driveline borrowed from the Corvette Z06, down to custom wheels carved to look like turbines. Why the environmentally friendly name? It runs on biodiesel, made from vegetable oils and animal fats.

The Monkeemobile, built from a Pontiac GTO by George Barris for the 1960s television show, was outside in a display; numerous cars from the Overhaulin’ series were scattered throughout the show – while the crew filmed an episode inside a tent on the grounds – and a giant Rat Fink guarded the entrance to the Ford display.

Not only was the original Dodge Challenger concept car at the show, but the company unveiled a special Super Stock version of it.
Not only was the original Dodge Challenger concept car at the show, but the company unveiled a special Super Stock version of it. Click image to enlarge

But it wasn’t all about nostalgia; some of the wilder creations were built from a Volvo C30, Hummer H2, Hyundai Azera, Honda Fit and Mazda CX-7. There was even a customized Hyundai Entourage minivan, and a Ford Edge fitted with oversized wheels.

If you can imagine it, it’s at SEMA. There was a 32-inch tire and a wheel to fill it; barbeque grills to fit into truck hitch receivers; rhinestone-encrusted car emblems; and perhaps wildest of all, a kit to turn a Hummer H2 into something more akin to a Japanese anime cartoon. The Dodge Challenger concept car, unveiled earlier this year in Detroit, was there, but it played second fiddle to a clone of itself, done up as a Super Stock version.

The Dodge Caliber makes a perfect little surfer's woody wagon
The Dodge Caliber makes a perfect little surfer’s woody wagon. Click image to enlarge

But don’t get the impression that it was just about the crazy stuff. Instead, the vast majority of SEMA is all about the products you see on the shelves at your local stores: tire patch kits, automotive waxes, truck suspension parts, wheels and tires, stereos, spark plugs and tools, taillights and flashlights. Many are vying for awards as the show’s best new product, but all of them are striving for a spot on a buyer’s agenda, so that even something as small as an innovative light bulb or a new key chain makes it way successfully into the stores.

It’s also an event for the major auto manufacturers, who also get named for top honours at the show: Vehicle Design Awards went to the Toyota Tundra, the Ford Shelby GT500, Jeep Wrangler, and the hybrid version of the Chevrolet Silverado Classic.

Author Jil McIntosh proved she'll do anything for a free haircut
Assistant Editor Jil McIntosh proved she’ll do anything for a free haircut. Click image to enlarge

And it’s a place to keep an eye on trends; SEMA reports that the organizers noted a huge interest in car customization and personalization among mainstream car owners. There was also an increase in entries in the Performance and Racing categories, and perhaps most surprising, over a dozen new diesel performance products. Thanks to the new clean diesel fuels recently introduced in North America, as well as new diesel technologies such as Mercedes’ Bluetec clean diesel engine, you can expect that category to grow even more in the years to come.

Oh, I almost forgot – the hairdo. Well, it seems that visitors to the Dunlop booth could have their choice of a “treadhead” haircut or a permanent tattoo of a company logo. I wasn’t in the mood to get more ink, but I was just about due for a haircut, and � well, let’s just say that what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. And in my case, what stayed in Vegas was not money lost at the slot machines, but a goodly amount of my hair.

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