2005 SEMA
If it moves, someone will customize it. This is a 2006 Kia Sportage; the back end is filled with audio equipment. The Lamborghini-style scissor doors are a popular aftermarket accessory.

Las Vegas, Nevada – In 1967, three thousand people attended the very first Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) show, consisting of 98 booths at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, where they got their first glimpse of brand-new automotive aftermarket products.

Fast-forward to the 2005 version, held last week in Las Vegas, where the annual event has been presented since 1976. The show now covers over a million square feet of space, presents more than 1,900 exhibitors from 26 countries spread over 10,000 booths, includes over 2,000 display vehicles, showcases 14 vehicle manufacturers, and draws over 100,000 attendees from 127 countries. To call it “huge” simply isn’t enough. This is a miniature city devoted to the multi-billion-dollar automotive aftermarket industry.

It was the second time I’d attended the event, and although I wore my comfortable shoes, my feet are still sore from trying to see every booth, every car, and catch a glimpse of every celebrity. Here, you’re just a “car guy”; people like Jay Leno, Chip Foose, George Barris, Hulk Hogan and Billy Gibbons wander around looking at booths just like the rest of us.

SEMA is a trade show and isn’t open to the public. Vendors show off their product lines and introduce new items; buyers see what’s available for their stores, whether they’re multi-national corporations or corner repair shops; and media reps report on what’s new, exciting, and coming to the asphalt near you. There are also industry seminars, on-site television shows, and invitation-only cocktail parties and dinners set up by various companies.

2005 SEMA
The Dodge Caliber hasn’t even been officially launched yet, but Mopar Performance displayed some of the aftermarket items that will eventually be available for it.

2005 SEMA
Jay Leno’s “Blastolene Special” hot rod was simply sitting outside for admirers to enjoy.

2005 SEMA
A Chrysler-powered Checker, carrying the New York casino colours.

Sometimes things are so new, they’re not even available: Chrysler’s “Mopar Speedshop” display had a tricked-out version of the Dodge Caliber, featuring aftermarket accessories for a car that won’t hit the streets before 2006. Some are incredibly useful: after 52 years of taping the little red straw to the side of the can – where it always gets lost – WD-40 introduced a “Smart Straw” that’s permanently attached to the nozzle. And some, like twenty-inch wheels covered in ostrich skin, taillights that flash your phone number, and a rubber deer that mounts on the trailer hitch and flails its arms when you hit the brakes – well, you make the call.

Other than wading through the crowds of people (or muscling through, a rude but necessary procedure around the booths featuring scantily-clad models), it’s simple to find your way around; the show stretches over several buildings, each devoted to a particular aspect of the automotive aftermarket industry. One is all wheels and tires, one is all trucks, while others are set aside for hot rod and restoration items, audio systems, tools and equipment, and car care and accessories. Displays spilled out into the parking lots, where boats sat alongside a rock-crawling track, and lowrider cars squatted alongside monster trucks. In one tent, car builder Chip Foose and his gang were rebuilding a car for his Overhaulin’ television show; in another corner of the lot, Dub Magazine had at least thirty customized cars and trucks outside its fleet of tractor trailers.

The “Dub” culture – slang for twenty-inch wheels, and now for the urban lifestyle – drives much of SEMA. Started some seven years ago on a shoestring budget as a magazine for rap and hip-hop artists, and the cars they drive, Dub is now a multi-million-dollar corporation, branching into wheels, car parts, custom cars and audio equipment. If you took away all the cars with anything Dub-related on them – from wheels to window stickers – you’d probably eliminate a quarter of the event.

SEMA is also a showcase for the new-car industry. This year’s official vehicle manufacturer was Honda, and the company premiered its new Civic Si at the event. Ford had customized Fusions and Five Hundreds, General Motors had Jay Leno’s 1932 Chevrolet, and Hyundai had a Tucson tricked out with big wheels and flames.

2005 SEMA
International unveiled its new RXT, the two-wheel-drive version of the CXT pickup truck it premiered at last year’s event. This was taken in a nearby parking lot, where International let me take it for a test-drive.

But the biggest of all was International, where I was invited to have a look at the new RXT, the mate to last year’s new CXT which the company bills as the “world’s largest pickup truck”. Built on a five-ton medium-duty truck chassis, the RXT features a diesel-powered V8 engine that makes up to 300 hp, two-wheel-drive, an eight-foot bed, a gross vehicle weight of 11,566 kg (25,500 lbs), and a towing capacity up to 7,030 kg (15,500 lbs). They asked if I wanted to ride in it. Of course not; I wanted to drive it.

So off we went to a parking lot, where I climbed up the steps to the air suspension seat. Surprisingly enough, for all its bulk, the RXT is very easy to drive, with a tight turning radius, very good visibility – mostly because you’re looking over the roofs of SUVs – anti-lock brakes, and light steering. International sold about 250 copies of its CXT last year, over twice as much as the company expected to move, partly because basketball and football players took a shine to them (the booth contained two tricked-out versions by West Coat Customs). But quite a few went to companies that use them for promotional vehicles, to the outdoorsy type for hauling big campers, or to racing stables for pulling horse trailers. The new RXT is expected to hit the streets next March, with an MSRP in the “high $70’s” (U.S.).

2005 SEMA
A Toyota Avalon, customized by famed car builder Troy Trepannier

2005 SEMA
From humble beginnings as a hip-hop culture magazine, Dub has grown into a huge conglomerate offering custom parts, huge wheels and accessories. This Cadillac was part of the company’s outside display.

2005 SEMA
You see just about anything at SEMA. This was part of a wheel and tire display.

Nothing is actually for sale at SEMA, in the sense of buying a single product to take home; it’s all on display only, for buyers to negotiate mass purchases. Some products will be a hit, some will be a miss, and some, like a set of diamond-encrusted wheels (yes, really) are one-offs intended to do nothing more than draw media and buyers to the booth. Some of them will be available in your local auto parts store next week while others, like tire shredders, waste oil systems and touchless alignment systems will stay “behind the scenes” but generate just as much profit.

Of course, SEMA is more than just a big show in the craziest city in North America; the association oversees a US$31 billion industry and has 5,727 member companies. It provides information and technology so the aftermarket can work together with vehicle manufacturers; it maintains offices in Germany, Japan and Mexico to help with import and export; it lobbies governments for legislation and regulatory issues; it provides market studies; and it maintains a Web site, www.enjoythedrive.com, to help consumers with vehicle accessories. It’s a long, long way from 98 booths in 1967; expect next year’s event to be even bigger than the 2005 edition – and my feet to be just as sore.

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