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.
by Billy Bob Barnard