NEWS: SEMA 2008 Highlights - SEMA Fortune Telling

December 2, 2008
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What do you think of when you thing automotive accessories? Fuzzy dice? Underbody LED lights? Aerodynamic windshield wipers? If so, then you're missing the best parts about SEMA, one of the greatest automotive events on the planet. For those not familiar with SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association), it's simply the largest aftermarket tradeshow in the world. Unfortunately, you're not invited to this annual Fall gathering. Like most trade shows and conventions, you've got to be part of the "business community" to attend. Not to worry. AutomobileMag.com was there in your stead.
Some SEMA facts; in 2008, over 2000 manufacturers, vehicle modifiers, and parts makers plied their products to an estimated crowd of 80,000 visitors walk miles of aisles that crisscross the entire Las Vegas Convention Center (nearly 2 million square feet). The 2008 show (which ended November 7) was jam packed with customized factory vehicles, tuner cars, high-performance parts, vehicle infotainment gear, clever general accessories, and more than a few surprises.
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If you know how to consume the show's aggregate impressions, you can discern the pulse of the industry. It may be a bit slower, but it's definitely not faltering.
From Detroit, with Love
Consider the significant iron Detroit manufacturers have and will soon introduce; the 2010 Chevrolet Camaro, 2009 Ford F-150, 2009 Ford Flex, 2009 Dodge Ram 1500, and the still new Dodge Challenger. Initial predictions were that Detroit would rule the show. While the Motor City's presence was felt, it did not dominate as expected.
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General Motors paid big bucks to get their 2010 Camaro to be "The Official Car of SEMA 2008." Somebody may take heat for that media buy given today's economic status because the effort fell flat. GM's presence at the show was not overwhelming. It should have been. Their corporate exhibit was lightly populated with product, and the expanses of empty carpet signaled to all just how tough things are back in Detroit. Among the too few vehicles per square foot, there were several factory-customized Camaros, three H3s, a G8 ST, and a handsome Solstice GXP Coupe. In past years, GM's title status would have meant a display overflowing with product plus dozens upon dozens of additional "partner vehicles" in other exhibitors' booths. Not in 2008.
Chrysler did a better job than GM at SEMA 2008. Their pony car made it into the hands of dozens of tuners and most of the cars looked well done. Frankly, it's hard to screw up that car. There were fewer Ram 1500s around, but Mopar fans were not disappointed.
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Ford also came on strong. Because of SEMA's overall bent toward muscle, the not-so-new-anymore Mustangs remained prevalent. There were a few 2009 F-150s around, but plenty of Flexes. That vehicle's slab-sided design proved to be a fertile canvas for customizers.
Other Countries Heard From
It wasn't many years ago that there were no factory-sponsored booths from Asian manufacturers. At SEMA 2008, Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Subaru, Kia and Hyundai were out in force. Toyota showed a full range of vehicles including two customized Venza wagons. Nissan brought a hot-rodded Altima Hybrid. Subaru showed a couple of new Foresters, including one with 16-inches of running ground clearance.
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But one import outshined both the Asians and the domestics without the benefit of any factory support; Smart. The company's ForTwo were figuratively everywhere. Customizing legend George Barris built a mini Batmobile from one, complete with scissor doors, fins and rocket launchers. Others were festooned with heavy-duty brush guards, fancy wheels, and gaudy paint wraps. The moral of this story is that the aftermarket runs like any capitalist conglomeration, and when it anticipates an opportunity, it pounces.
For the time being, green is big. And cool. And potentially profitable.
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Accessories and Such
Regarding accessories, we spotted four major trends: LEDs are finally overtaking incandescent bulbs; Bluetooth interfaces for phones and other devices are going mainstream; GPS-based navigation and tracking products are showing exponential grown; and feature-laden mobile entertainment systems are showing significant costs decreases. All of this is good news, unless you have a fear of Big Brother tracking you through your new GPS unit.
According to SEMA, customizing, accessorizing, and servicing cars and trucks is a $38 billion business. Wheels and tires are a huge portion of this, as are the products that make up the Infotainment category - what used to be classified as "car audio. It remains among the largest of the accessory categories in terms of dollars.
If you're interested in some specific accessories your author found particularly interesting, check out the following:
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What We Liked Best
The reason many enthusiasts flock to SEMA is to be inspired. The rolling stock that debuts in Vegas is often created by some of the automotive world's most creative minds and skilled hands, many of whom are complete unknowns. Discovering these gems remains one of the most important reasons to be in Nevada in November.
There were two cars that stood out. The officially licensed "Gone In 60 Seconds" 1967 Mustang (named Eleanor) built by Jason Engle was one. This resto mod exemplifies the best of the breed (retro exterior covering a fully updated interior, powertrain and chassis) while encouraging rediscovery of H.B. Halicki's 1974 all-time-great smash'em up car movie. The detailing and quality was excellent, as it should be for a Mustang that will cost you dearly. But it will run an honest 171 mph, much faster than H.B. ever dreamed of taking the original Eleanor.
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A second was the 1970 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow built by Joe Richardson from Denver, North Carolina. The Roller sports a fuel-injected 572-cubic inch Chrysler Hemi that twists its crank with the help of nitrous oxide and a 671-style supercharger. Richardson, who owns Little Joe's Street Rod Shop, dynoed the Hemi at 1,350 horsepower.
Once the sheer surprise of seeing a slammed Roller with a blower sticking out of the hood wears off, you can begin to appreciate the craftsmanship and overall design restraint exercised by Richardson and the vehicle's owners (a couple from Florida). The chassis rides on an air suspension, but beyond the requisite billet wheels and the modified hood, the exterior is as it was when it left Crewe in 1970. Stock bumpers. Stock door handles. Stock lights. Stock Spirit of Ecstasy. Very cool.
Inside, the execution is less stock, but compared to what one often sees at SEMA, it's still restrained. Leather hides that would make Connley proud cover the interior, including the integrated roll bar. The jar of Grey Poupon mustard sitting on the rear armrest between was a nice touch.
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Looking Ahead
The automotive aftermarket wins when new vehicle sales are running strong. Conversely, the aftermarket also wins if people keep their vehicles longer. Owners of older cars turn to the aftermarket to refresh older vehicles with new accessories and technologies. So regardless of what happens in 2009, the aftermarket is healthy and remains an exciting thing to track. After all, where else can you study a Roller that does wheel stands and call it work?

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