Gone But Not Forgotten

Auto theft is big business. That's what we told you in the last installment of the multi-part feature on the crime of auto theft, and we meant it. If stealing cars were a legitimate business like selling earthworms on the Internet or building bowling balls for Third World countries, it would instantly become a Fortune 500 company. Could an IPO commanding gross premiums be far behind?

Not only is auto theft big, it is also well organized. These days discriminating thieves don't just steal anything they can get their hands on. They're stealing for economic gain, so they pick and choose what they purloin. If you ask automotive journalists, today's thieves are bagging some pretty good iron, too. In fact, making the list of the most stolen cars in America might not make their manufacturers happy, but it really is a badge of honor.

According to CCC Information Services' 1999 Most-Stolen Vehicles Report, for the third straight year, Japanese imports filled the top spots as the most-stolen vehicles in the United States. In fact it was a literal runaway for the top two Japanese-based manufacturers in America. Some16 of the top 20 most-stolen vehicles were Toyotas, Hondas or Acuras.

Various models of the Toyota Camry, which also happens to be the best-selling car in the U.S., were the first, second, third, and fourth most-stolen vehicles. A collection of Honda Accords ranked sixth through 10th, separated from the Toyotas by the 1997 Ford F-150 two-wheel-drive pickup truck. The only other vehicles made by domestic manufacturers on the top 20 list were the 1994 Chevrolet C1500 pickup (11th), 1995 Ford Mustang (14th) and the 1989 Chevrolet Caprice (18th). The rankings are compiled annually by CCC based on total loss valuations for the previous 12 months.

For 1999, the study found that the 1989 Camry was stolen more frequently in the United States than any other vehicle, followed by the 1990, 1991 and 1988 Camry. The 1989 Camry was also the most-stolen vehicle for both 1997 and 1998. Although imports have taken their place as the most-stolen vehicles, 1999 proved a growth year for pickup truck theft. In 1998, pickup trucks held only 10 of the top 100 spots, equaling 1,579 vehicles. In 1999, pickup trucks held 18 of the top 100 spots, equaling 2,395 vehicles, a 52 percent increase.

As was the case in 1998, regional thieves pick regional favorites. In Texas, for example, nine of the top 10 spots were filled by pickup trucks. In the Midwest, American-made cars are top targets with the 1995 Plymouth Neon ranking number one in Michigan and the 1987 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale taking the top spot in Indiana. In contrast, imports such as Toyota, Nissan and Honda were popular targets among East and West Coast thieves.

The CCC Most-Stolen Vehicle study is based on an analysis of CCC's 1999 total loss insurance claims processed. In 1999, CCC valued, on average, more than 7,000 vehicles each business day for leading property/casualty insurers in the U.S. and Canada. These vehicles, lost through theft or collision, represent the vast majority of the nation's total loss volume. The figures reiterate the theme of this story - auto theft is big business.

But what can you as an individual do to protect yourself from the huge and ever-more-organized hazard that can strike at almost any time?

Your basic goal is to make your vehicle a tough target, one that will encourage the thief to move on to the next car. Remember, the more time the thief is forced to take to steal a car, the more likely he is to get caught, so if you make grabbing your car hard for him, it will usually pay off. Thanks to Pennsylvania's anti-auto theft task force, here are some helpful suggestions to do just that:

  1. Lock your car. Approximately 50 percent of all vehicles stolen were left unlocked.
  2. Take your keys. Nearly 13 percent of all vehicles stolen had the keys in them.
  3. Never hide a second set of keys in your car. It might seem like a good idea, but thieves know all the hiding places.
  4. Park in well-lit areas. Over half of all vehicle thefts occur at night.
  5. Park in attended lots. Auto thieves don't like witnesses.
  6. When you park in an attended lot, leave only the ignition and door key. Don't give the attendant easy access to your glove box and trunk. Upon returning, check the tires, spare, and battery to ensure they are the same as those you had when you parked. If your trunk and glove box use the same key as the door, have one of them changed.
  7. Never leave your car running unattended, not even if you'll only be gone for a minute. Vehicles are commonly stolen at convenience stores, gas stations, ATMs, etc. Many vehicles are also stolen on cold mornings when the owner leaves the vehicle running to warm it up.
  8. Completely close car windows when parked. Don't make it any easier for the thief to enter your vehicle.
  9. Don't leave valuables in plain view. Why make your car a more desirable target to thieves?
  10. Park your vehicle with wheels turned toward the curb. Many car thieves use tow trucks to steal vehicles, so make your car tough to tow away. Wheels should also be turned to the side in driveways and parking lots so the vehicle can only be towed from the front.
  11. If your vehicle is rear-wheel drive, back into your driveway. Rear wheels lock on four-wheel drive vehicles, making them difficult to tow. Front-wheel drive vehicles should be parked front-end first.
  12. Always use your emergency brake when parked. In addition to ensuring safety, using the emergency brake makes your car harder to tow.
  13. If you have a garage, use it. Parking your vehicle inside protects it from thieves as well as from Mother Nature.
  14. When parked in a garage, lock the garage door as well as your vehicle. By locking both the garage and vehicle doors, you greatly improve the chances of deterring a thief.
  15. Never leave the registration or title in your car. A car thief will use these to sell your stolen car. File the title at your home or office and carry your registration in your purse or wallet.
  16. Disable your vehicle when leaving it unattended for an extended period. Remove the electronic ignition fuse, coil wire, distributor rotor, or otherwise disable your vehicle anytime thieves may have prolonged access to it.
  17. Replace knob- or T-shaped interior door lock buttons with straight lock buttons. A thief can use various tools to gain access inside the vehicle to grab and pull the lock button up, unlocking the car.
  18. Etch your Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) on car windows and major parts. This makes tracing your stolen car or parts easier.
  19. Engrave expensive accessories with a personal identification number. This makes it easier for police to identify your stolen car stereo, cellular phone, etc. and harder for thieves to dispose of them.
  20. Drop business cards, address labels or other identification inside vehicle doors. Car thieves usually alter vehicle identification numbers. By marking your vehicle as much as possible, you assist police in identifying your car.

Car theft isn't just a major felony, it is also a personal invasion. By taking these simple steps you can go a long way to help prevent the virulent disease of auto theft, and by doing that you'll give yourself more peace of mind and save us all some money.

The 2000 Auto Show Season Crashes Over Us

An auto show. In many ways it's like looking at a fun-house mirror. Sure, it reflects your image and likeness, but at the same time it alters the reality. It's amusing, enjoyable and sometimes a little creepy, revealing at once too much and too little. That's exactly what auto show season is like for the car-buying public. Each year at the major auto shows in Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago and New York, the world's car industry holds up a giant mirror of the culture that pretends to show us what we want and even what we are. (If indeed we are what we drive.) The whole process is full of glitz and glitter barely covering the cutthroat competition that lies beneath the surface. The shows are designed to intrigue us, to titillate us and get us in a buying mood, and the 40 or so brands that show their wares are hoping against hope that their set of designers and engineers have captured the popular taste and the realities of our lifestyles better than every other set of designers and engineers.

If the goal of the auto shows is to reflect the culture and spit it back in buyable form, then one thing is certain. Vehicle designers are absolutely convinced we're getting older. In fact, not just older, but fatter, stiffer, crankier and a lot less agile, too.

How do we come to this rather unflattering conclusion? Simply because the trend of longer, lower, wider has been replaced by taller, squatter and easier to get into. Fact is, the new designs, for the most part, reflect what the demographers are telling us. The population as a whole is aging, the Baby Boom snake going through the python is well into middle age and even sports machines as exotic as Ferrari are bowing to the reality that many of us can't bend like we used to.

One huge trend that continued in this year's Los Angeles and Detroit auto shows was the boom in sport utility vehicles. They came in great numbers from domestic and import manufacturers alike. Among the most notable, Acura debuted its MD-X, a sport-utility designed to do battle with Lexus's incredibly successful RX-300, while Ford and Mazda introduced twin small SUVs called the Escape and Tribute, respectively. Pontiac launched its foray into the SUV wars with the Aztek, an original (ungainly) looking concoction that seems part GI Joe toy and part Pontiac LeMans.

Be they gorgeous or goofy, an attribute all these vehicles share is the fact that they are built on car platforms. So while they might look like a truck (and quack like a truck?) they are really more accurately "tall cars" than rugged off-road haulers. They offer the proverbial chair-like seating position; they are easy to get in and out of; pretty darn comfortable; and they carry a lot of stuff. Just the thing, it seems, for a population that is getting older, has "made it," and possesses a bunch of things to take along.

Another trend goes hand-in-hand with the first -- the civilized pickup truck. Flash back to a year or two ago when the pickup truck was the last bastion of the lonesome cowboy. Back before the turn of the century, a guy's truck was his castle. Most likely if he owned one he was single, because there was no way a family of more than two-and-a-half could find any satisfaction in owning a pickup truck. But in just a blink of an eye, the pickup truck has been tamed, domesticated and turned into a family car.

The first insidious move in that direction was the "extended cab," but that was just the tip of the cowboy boot in the door of a new breed of pickup trucks. Then came the four-door "crew cabs" with seats for six (SIX!) And this auto show season saw the tide moving still further in the taming of the pickup truck. For example, the Chevrolet Avalanche has a full-size sports-utility-style cabin with a short pickup truck bed that will allow it to haul the occasional bale of hay. Ingeniously, it also has a fold-down rear panel that allows the bed to handle longer cargo, but let's face it, how often will it be used to transport barbed wire versus the time it will be used to transport Cub Scouts on their way den meeting? Another macho bastion has fallen.

A final bow to the aging of the populace, as demonstrated at the auto shows, is the resurgence of the two-seat sports car. But, surely, you say, the re-birth of the sports car must be an anti-aging harbinger, a bow to youth. And how wrong you would be.

Today's sports cars aren't designed for twenty-something versions of Martin Milner and George Maharis ready to chuck it all and take off down Route 66. Instead, they are designed for us fogeys who are old enough to remember Martin Milner, George Maharis and Route 66. Today's twenty-somethings don't have a clue about any of the three.

There was a time when two-seaters were designed for the young with forward-looking styling that was on the cutting edge. But the common ground of the most important two-seaters that were introduced at this year's major auto shows was nostalgia.

The BMW Z8, which will be built in limited quantities, did nothing but put a beautiful new spin on some poodle-skirt and penny-loafer era themes. From its shark nose to its simple wall-to-wall dashboard this car screamed "Fifties" - both the decade and the age of its potential drivers. It even has neon taillights, for heavens sake! And you'd have to be into an advanced decade to want to pony up a hundred-grand-plus for its retro look.

The other very notable two-seater shown this year was the Jaguar F-Type. Now how big a leap is that from the classic E-Type of the Sixties? More like a well-calculated baby step, actually. Again, as with the Z8, nostalgia is the order of the day, though with a projected price tag far lower than the BMW, a forty year old might have some hope of purchasing the successor to the car that helped make Austin Powers the International Man of Mystery.

Of course, the auto show season isn't over. Chicago's show will bow in a week, and New York won't present its wares until Easter time. But one thing seems sure. The aging of America hasn't escaped the world's auto makers, and I, for one, am a little bit depressed about it. I think I'll settle back in my easy chair, stick my feet in a bucket of epsom salts, have a warm glass of milk and try to remember my youth. Pass the ginko biloba, okay?

-- Jack R. Nerad

Among his many jobs Nerad served as editor of the car dealer publication Automotive Age and director of publications for J.D. Power and Associates. He frequently comments on the auto industry for CNN.

Racing in the U.S.

As we plunge into the next millennium, the only thing clear about American racing is that NASCAR rules, while America’s other national or quasi-international series are languishing at best, falling quickly from favor at worst. While NASCAR has recently struck a huge deal with television broadcasters, the bargains Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) and the Indy Racing League (IRL) have been able to forge with broadcast entities are not nearly as sweet. So a major question hanging over American racing as we enter the 21st Century is, whither goest open-wheel racing in the United States?

Before we examine the CART/IRL dilemma, let’s first look at the phenomenal success of NASCAR. Without doubt NASCAR is as low-tech as major motor racing can be with fields consisting of overhead valve V-8-powered rear-drive cars, technology that was current about 1975. Playing down the "stock car" nomenclature these days because its cars are about as far from an everyday driver as a chariot is from a stagecoach, NASCAR nonetheless gathers huge crowds and mammoth TV audiences. Why? Because the racing is close; the cars actually pass each other; and most of the races are contested on easy-to-televise oval tracks.

Because of all this Fox, NBC and TBS recently ponied up $2.4 billion for the rights to broadcast the total NASCAR schedule for a period of eight years in Fox’s case and six years for NBC/TBS. Not only is that a whale of a lot of money, it represents about a fourfold increase in the fees paid for NASCAR broadcast rights when the NASCAR schedule was pedaled by the individual tracks to the various networks. Now NASCAR’s deal is very much like that of the NFL, with a consortium of networks holding broadcast rights to each and every race. The Daytona 500, which is essentially the World Series or Super Bowl of NASCAR, will be televised by Fox or NBC on an every other year basis.

The Daytona 500, like the Indianapolis 500, is a race that draws TV ratings far in excess of a typical race in its series, so the opportunity to televise it is one of the plums of the deal. But unlike the World Series or Super Bowl, which come at the tail end of their respective seasons and bring them to at least semi-logical conclusions, Daytona is the first NASCAR race of the year. One has to wonder what the ratings for the race would be if the Daytona 500 were designated the last race of the year, and the season championship could be decided by who won it. Maybe this is the next marketing fillip the Frances will add to their NASCAR marketing juggernaut. Or maybe it’s too good an idea to ever happen in real life.

Despite this traditional oddity of scheduling, NASCAR is sitting pretty compared to the two American open-wheel series, CART and the IRL. The Indy Racing League did recently sign a pact with ABC/ESPN, but it was not nearly as lucrative as the NASCAR deal. In fact, insiders believe the only reason ABC stepped up was the Indianapolis 500, which is the IRL’s keystone event and still the most-watched racing event in the United States.

Certainly from a scheduling point of view the Indianapolis 500 is in even a worse position in the IRL schedule than the Daytona 500 is in NASCAR’s slate. For the year 2000, the Indy 500 will be preceded by at least two races, in Phoenix and in Las Vegas, before the premier event in the series is contested. After the Memorial Day weekend classic, the rest of the summer will see the IRL cars running out the string in seven more races, all of which will be covered by ABC or ESPN but many of which will play to half-empty stands. There is no doubt that whatever power the IRL has with audiences and, thus, with networks, stems solely from the Indianapolis 500. That race, however, is a potent totem and watching it seems a traditional part of many Americans Memorial Day weekends, no matter who is driving each of the cars.

From an aesthetic point of view the IRL is somewhere between the dinosaur racing of NASCAR and the higher-tech racing of CART and Formula One. IRL chassis are virtually as advanced as CART chassis, but in the engine department its quasi-stock-block Oldsmobile and Infiniti engines are lower on the food chain than the CART purpose-built turbocharged engines. F1, of course, takes CART technology and doubles or triples it to the point that the cars are incredibly expensive and often incredibly boring to watch race. As NASCAR demonstrates, in America, at least, it’s not the technology of the cars that draws viewers; it’s how exciting the racing action is.

One of the IRL claims is that its series is pure American oval track racing, not unlike NASCAR but with open-wheel cars. But the crowds that devour NASCAR have yet to show a similar hankering for the IRL races. Meanwhile, CART seems bent on a strategy to make it a sort of American-based Formula One series. Most of its races are conducted on road courses or temporary street circuits, which makes it more difficult to televise coherently. CART has gone international, which might make some marketing sense, but it also means events from South America or Australia are likely to be broadcast at oddball times. The series is also filled with foreign drivers, a factor that might alienate some fans. Worse yet, road circuits make for limited passing opportunities, which can leave many CART telecasts woefully devoid of compelling racing action.

But CART’s biggest difficulty is the fact that, despite the fact that it is operated by well-known and substantially funded racing executives, it lacks a marquee event that comes close to the stature of the Indy or Daytona 500s. In fact, the average man-on-the-street would be hard-pressed to name any CART race or any CART driver, for that matter. Of course, because it lacks a marquee event, CART’s television deal is the worst of all. Reportedly, it usually buys its way onto either ABC or ESPN.

For the year 2000, CART is taking a gamble by covertly encouraging its teams to compete in its rival’s premier event, the Indianapolis 500. Several CART owners, who are known for their rampant chutzpah, seem to figure that waltzing into Indy and walking off with the big trophy is relatively easy pickings. But others think they might be underestimating the learning curve that goes with shifting their cars from turbocharged power to normally aspirated engines of vastly different displacement.

The IRL’s Tony George, who also happens to run the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, is rolling the dice that the CART owners will help him fill his Indy 500 field with good cars and talented drivers, and he probably figures even if a CART teams wins, he’s still running the biggest show in American racing. Meanwhile, the CART owners don’t seem to have all that much to gain by going to Indy in May. Sure, their sponsors are pressuring them to get the big Indy 500 TV exposure, and one of them might win the race, but their collective presence and the absence of a competing CART race over the Memorial Day weekend virtually guarantees big audience numbers for their chief nemesis, Tony George.

So CART is stuck between a road course and a hard place. The IRL is really just one race plus a series of placeholders, and NASCAR is a low-tech crowd-pleaser that’s a huge success despite running its season backwards. No one ever said auto racing was a rational endeavor, and in the year 2000 it’s about as irrational as a big-money sport can be. Of course, nobody asked me.

Rayceburn observes the American motor racing scene from his home in Michigan.

Should You Buy or Lease?

There is no simple correct answer to the lease/buy question, just as there is no simple answer to the question: should I wear a white sweater while eating spaghetti Bolognese? Making the right decision for yourself is a matter of your personal desires, values, current financial status and your ability to avoid making a mess of things.

Auto leasing has been around for decades and once upon a time offered small business owners significant tax advantages. Those days are long gone, but leasing has caught fire in the last few years, spurred by manufacturers who use special lease deals to promote their vehicles. Industry experts estimate that next year leasing will represent as much as 35% of the new-car market. Among the luxury brands it's often as high as 80%.

Certainly with this kind of acceptance in the marketplace, leasing must offer the consumer some advantages. Indeed it does, although you must remember that hula hoops and mood rings, among other essentially worthless items, have also enjoyed wide consumer acceptance over the years. Like chili pepper, leasing is neither inherently good nor bad; it simply depends upon how it and your system react together.

One of the key advantages of leasing is you only need a comparatively small amount of cash to initiate a lease. Let's say you don't have much money in the bank and no trade-in vehicle, but you do have reasonably good credit. You can walk into your local dealer, sign on the dotted line for a lease and drive out with a luxurious leather-lined Lithemobile 200LX with very little difficulty. If, on the other hand, you want to buy that self-same Lithemobile 200LX you will have a very difficult time.

Another advantage of leasing: you can structure the lease term to match your trading cycle. If you normally purchase a new car every two years, you might be better off with a two-year lease. (You might also ask yourself why you feel the need for a new car so often when the typical car is now under warranty for at least three years. In other words, if the manufacturer thinks it's good for at least three years, why don't you?)

Leasing also works to the advantage of those who don't know what to do with their current vehicle when the time comes to acquire a new one. You don't have to weigh the advantages of trading it in at a dealership versus selling it yourself, and you don't have to go through the selling-it-yourself hassles of running want ads and meeting with prospective buyers. You don't even have to decide when to do all this. It's spelled out in the lease contract. Most often you have two simple options: 1. you take the car back to the dealer and wave bye-bye or 2. you pay the dealer (or finance company) the amount specified in the lease agreement at the time the lease was established and you keep the car.

One of the biggest reasons for the popularity of leasing is the fact that for the same monthly payment, you can lease a significantly more expensive vehicle than you can buy. Even if you have a good credit rating, most banks and other financial institutions will expect you to put place a down payment of 10%-20% on a car. This is to protect them in case you go berserk, start keeping company with the lead singer in a grunge band and refuse to make the payments. If they are forced to repossess the car they have a 10%-20% head start on recovering their money. What this means is that to qualify for a car loan most people have to have $2,000 to $5,000 minimum in cash or in equity in their current vehicle.

That puts a lot of people out of the car-buying picture. But wait a minute! Now there's the possibility of leasing. You might not have much money to put down, but you might have a good credit history that gives the financial institutions the warm, fuzzy feeling you’ll make the monthly payments.

When you lease, you'll have the use of the car over a specified period of time, but, according to the lease terms, you must maintain the car, insure it and limit the miles you put on it. At the conclusion of the lease period, the financial institution will get back a reasonably well-maintained, late-model, low-mileage vehicle. That’s what we call a tangible asset. Meanwhile, you’ll have to initiate another lease or somehow pony up enough scratch to buy a car.

The Key Purchase Advantage

You can look at the lease experience as a positive one. After all, it allows many people to drive vehicles they otherwise could not have afforded for a period of time. What's more, they didn't have any hassles trying to sell the cars, trucks or sport-utility vehicles when the term was up. And they didn't have to go into his pocket to pay for major repairs, since, through the first three years of a lease, the vehicle was under manufacturer’s warranty.

Compared to the numerous advantages of leasing, there is only one key advantage to purchasing your next vehicle–as you make payments, you build equity in a real asset. For many people, however, this one advantage of buying far outweighs all the advantages of leasing.

Look at it this way. Would you rather lease or purchase your home? Sure, by owning the home you have to put up with all the hassles that are involved–maintenance, upkeep, repairs–but you're also building equity in a real asset for yourself and your family. When you purchase the vehicle you, not the financial institution, take the risk on the value of the vehicle at the conclusion of the financing term, and for this risk you are very often rewarded. Your payments will cease and you will have a real asset, a real asset you can continue to drive for months, if not years, payment-free. And studies show that driving your vehicle until it essentially has no re-sale value is the most cost-effective way to have auto transportation.

In most instances, you are better off purchasing a car than leasing it if you can afford to make the down payment and the higher monthly payments when compared to leasing. Of course, lease payments should be lower than the monthly payment on a purchase since in leasing you are only obtaining a part of the vehicle’s life, not the vehicle itself. The important difference that favors purchase -- you take a risk on the future worth of an asset, and you most often gain a reward for taking that risk.

That said, there are still a few instances when it's better to lease than buy. Among them are:
  • You simply can't afford to purchase your dream vehicle but you're confident you can make the lease payments through the end of the lease term. (Always plan on staying with a lease through the end of its term because it is very difficult and expensive to terminate a lease before its completion.)

  • You feel the quality and dependability of the vehicle is a bit "iffy," but you'd still love to have it. Leasing allows you to try it out for a couple of years. If you love it at the end of the term you can buy it; if you hate it you just drop it off and say good-bye.

  • You need to have a bright, shiny new vehicle every two or three years. (It's okay to admit you're shallow.)

  • The manufacturer is making a lease offer that's so financially compelling that you can't afford to pass it up. Many manufacturers now put models on sale, not by lowering the price, but by offering special lease deals.

  • You can't stand the hassle and the bargaining involved in selling your old car and buying a new one.

We wish it were simpler to decide whether to buy or lease, but a car acquisition is one of the most complicated financial deals most of us will make. Since each of our financial circumstances isn't the same, neither is the right answer to this important question. But the information we've provided should help you determine where you fit on the lease-buy continuum.

-- Jack R. Nerad

Nerad is the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Buying or Leasing a Car, which is available at retail bookstores nationwide as well as at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other online outlets.

A Candy Store for Car Nuts

It happens every November right around Election Day. In fact there are automotive aficianados who haven't voted in more than a decade because their most important week of the year comes the first week of November. The cause of this unintentional slap in the face of democracy? It's the annual Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) Show, which, combined with the International Tire Expo, draws 90,000 of the biggest names in the specialty automotive world to Las Vegas.

If it were open to the public, one could only guess at the kind of attendance total the show would rack up, but SEMA is a "trade-only" show, which means you must somehow be connected to the automotive industry or the auto repair and modification business to attend. The show has grown from a tiny collection of "hot rodders" selling speed equipment to one another in the Fifties to one of the pre-eminent auto trade shows in the world. Not only does the show draw nearly 100,000 attendees, tens of thousands of those attendees come from overseas to see what American companies have to offer the automotive enthusiast. The 1999 SEMA Show - ITE was held in conjunction with Automotive Aftermarket Industry Week, one of the largest trade events in the world.

Far from being a collection of overgrown delinquents who want to terrorize their neighborhoods by hopping up their cars, the Specialty Equipment Market Association has matured into an organization that represents a $21.2 billion industry. Despite prediction of doom at the hands of government regulators, the specialty equipment market is thriving and has experienced almost 10 percent growth over the past year, far outpacing the national average.

SEMA's 3,600 member companies employ more than three-quarters of a million workers. These companies manufacture, distribute and sell products and accessories for at least seven diverse niches within the marketplace, including light trucks (typically two-wheel-drive pickups, vans and SUVs), off-road (four-wheel-drive) vehicles, racing and street performance vehicles, street rods, restored cars and trucks and restyled vehicles.

"We are very bullish on the opportunities available for our corporate members at this year's show. Our industry's growth indicates that consumers continue to strive to personalize their vehicles to their individual tastes," said Charles R. Blum, president of SEMA.

This year's show delivered the latest innovations for specialty and custom automotive products, from custom wheels to colored tires to roof-top racks to chemical "engine treatments." If you could put it on, in or around your car, it was on display in one of the 6,000 exhibitors' booths that filled the Las Vegas Convention Center.

Many of the more than 1,400 exhibiting companies, including the domestic and many import automobile manufacturers, choose this venue to unveil their newest and hottest products and vehicles, and more than 800 new products were on display at this year's show.

Cutting Edge of Trends

In years past the domestic and import car manufacturers shunned the SEMA Show, looking down their collective nose at the performance aftermarket. But as that aftermarket grew into a multi-billion-dollar portion of the automotive business, car manufacturers changed their tunes. For one thing, they decided it was good business to capitalize on the enthusiasm the aftermarket manufacturers and their customers showed for their vehicles. After all, who is more enthusiastic about the brand of car he (or she) owns than a hot rodder? And for another, after doing business with specialty aftermarket suppliers, they found that there were profits to be made by both sides.

Out of this has grown a new cooperation between manufacturers and the specialty market, a cooperation that is so strong that at this year's show both Ford Motor Company's Jacques Nasser and General Motors Corporation's Richard Wagoner were on hand to make major announcements. Chrysler design head Tom Gale was also at the show to present design awards and unveil concept vehicles, and DaimlerChrysler used the SEMA Show as the occasion to announce the elimination of its Plymouth brand, a brand that had produced such car-enthusiast favorites as the Road Runner and the Barracuda. Ford's news was nearly as stunning. It announced an unprecedented deal to share what had previously been proprietary information with SEMA and SEMA member companies. Ford hopes the arrangement will give it a strong leg up in courting the performance enthusiast by making legal performance parts more readily available through the Ford retail network.

Meanwhile the 1999 SEMA Show provided a landmark for Honda -- the first-ever American Honda exhibit at the show. Honda Civics and Accords have become the favorites of a new generation of performance enthusiasts who have spawned a sizable industry in go-fast and appearance parts, but this year was the first time American Honda officially acknowledged that market with a display at SEMA.

The display featured Honda and Acura-brand parts and accessories and tricked-out Acura and Honda vehicles. To celebrate Honda's 1999 manufacturer's championship in the CART FedEx Championship Series, Honda displayed the Champ car driven by 1999 PPG Cup Championship Winner and Rookie of the Year Juan Montoya. Honda-powered CART driver Paul Tracy was also on hand SEMA for an autograph session.

The trio of tricked-out Honda vehicles at the show included a new Honda S2000 roadster that featured an underbody spoiler kit, aero screen, titanium shift knob and interior upgrades. A modified Acura 3.2TL carried custom wheels, performance tires, front and rear under-body spoilers and an enhanced exhaust system. Adding to the TL's already sporty appearance was a lowered suspension package, which included performance springs, stabilizer bars, shocks and struts. The interior featured the DVD-based Acura Navigation System and two additional rear seat LCD video screens linked to a video disc DVD system and a Sony PlayStation.

One of the favorite vehicles of current generation "hot-rodders," the Civic Si was modified by four magazines -- Super Street, Sport Compact Car, Popular Mechanics and Car and Driver -- as part of a competition to see which publication could best modify the Si into the ultimate conversion vehicle. All four magazine's efforts were put on display at the SEMA show, including the winning Si modified by Super Street.

Both the floor of the Convention Center and the sidewalks surrounding the Las Vegas Center were so filled with concept vehicles and modified production cars and trucks that it was impossible to count them all, lot less catalog the innovations. But the biggest trend seemed to be toward higher-grade, better-conceived vehicle personalization for both cars and trucks. And trucks drew an ever-larger share of attention as the new truck, van and sport utility market continues to boom.

Barnard follows the performance car and truck market from his home in Texas.