2009 Subaru Forester – Behind the Scenes of a SEMA Show Vehicle

If you watch enough cable TV, you’d think than any monkey with a flame wrench can build a killer machine in twenty minutes or less with parts scavenged from unaware neighbors. Reality lives on a different planet: one inhabited by skilled professionals working to a plan. This is the story of one such plan.

Because we’re SEMA veterans, we knew where to look during October to find dozens of teams burning the midnight oil readying their vehicular creations for SEMA. In industrial parks and corporate garages across the country, the final push was on to complete the stars of the Las Vegas extravaganza. November 3rd stood as the “drop dead” date because it was the final day of move-in. If a SEMA-bound car or truck wasn’t done by then, it would miss the following four days of show craziness. As you can imagine, over the years more than one car or truck has pulled into the Las Vegas Convention Center with tacky paint (and we mean soft to the touch, not ugly … although there is always plenty of that).

Early October 2008
In a suburb of Detroit not unlike those around Indianapolis, Fort Lauderdale, or Oxnard (that’s in California), a group of guys stand around the naked shell of a vehicle. Stripped of its identity, it’s hard (but not impossible) to tell that we’re looking at a . It will remain a Forester after this team finishes their work, but it will become a Forester like no other.

The project started when Subaru decided it could gain promotional booty from of building a “tougher” Forester with altruistic overtones. Erik Lukas, Subaru’s Accessories Marketing Manager had already commissioned an STi version of the crossover, so a Forester with a mighty off-road presence danced around in his head like sugar plumbs before Christmas. Discussions with Subaru designer Peter Tenn generated sketches and renderings. The concept of the Emergency Response was hatched.

Subaru management approved the project in August. Minus the time Subaru would need to ship the vehicle to Las Vegas, the vehicle’s constructor would have about 45 days to build the show property (that’s what these vehicles are called). The clock was running.

Lukas and Tenn turned to Specialized Vehicles, Inc. (SVI), a Troy, Mich. firm you’ve never heard of. So secret are the projects SVI normally works on that it is company policy to shoot to kill trespassers, especially when said trespassers are toting a camera. (This is a joke, SVI calls the police and they shoot the trespassers.) With Subaru’s permission, SVI president Mike Koran offered us hoist-side seats as Subaru’s SEMA Forester took shape. No shots were fired.

Scanning the SVI’s hallways leading from the front offices to multiple build garages at the rear of their building, I see photos of old projects; 1989 Corvette ZR-1 LT-5 V-8, the turbo system for the original Fox-platform Mustang SV0 (circa 1984), and the certified 198-mph PPG Pace Car used in the awful movie, The Wraith (1986). Koran went immediately mute when asked about current projects. But one can imagine that since SVI was working on cutting-edge technologies behind the scenes in the 1980s, the stuff they’re working on now should be really great. We immediately think that this Subaru transformation should be easy for these guys.

By the time we laid eyes on the , it had already been disassembled down to its unit body. Subaru drop-shipped the Forester to SVI on August 7th, so the team had already done much of the grunt work necessary to pull the project together. Koran explained that nearly everything had to come off and out of the crossover so that the team knew what they had to work with … and how to incorporate the myriad accessories that would ultimately make the Forester ready for Vegas.

Building By The Book
You could write a book on what it took to transform the stock Forester into the finished concept, and Mike Koran has. Every detail of the build is documenting in a giant binder dutifully filled with words, photos, and plastic sleeves holding paper mock-ups of hand-built parts. Koran says, “Just in case Subaru ever wants to build another one, we’ve got the recipe right here.” The details are staggering, but Koran can go right to the page with the “recipe” for bin hinges or air suspension wiring.

A staple of SEMA project vehicles are partner companies that contribute hardware in exchange for promotional exposure. Subaru’s Lukas tapped several long-time Subaru vendors for major components. For example, DeeZee supplied brush guards, rockers, side steps, and skid plates. Bushwacker designed the body cladding and tail lamp guards. If these were the only modifications, then any monkey could have handled the build. However, Lukas was looking to have his Forester run with 16-inches of sill clearance and genuinely posses the functionality of an emergency response vehicle. Additionally, other add-ons became necessary mid-way through the Forester’s build when The U.S. National Ski Patrol signed on to the project and tweaked the project’s direction.

SVI took the challenges and changes in stride. For the suspension lift, Air Lift from Lansing, Mich. modified one of its own air suspension products to provide the desired max height. However, to make the lift workable, SVI had to modify the suspension components to position larger 33-inch tires properly under the bulked-up wheel wells. SVI lengthened the Subie’s drive shafts and half shafts, modified the exhaust system to accommodate the modified suspension components, and extended the brake lines. Throughout the suspension’s range of travel, SVI maintained stock-looking wheel travel so the Forester‘s stance on a show stand wouldn’t be marred by odd camber angles. SVI even modified a set of 15-inch steel wheels to obtain the right wheel offset by reversing the wheel rim on the wheel center, an old trick used by hot rodders since the 1950s.

Tracking The Progress
Regarding the body, Tenn’s original drawing showed panel-van style rear doors and utility cubbies built in where the cargo area windows would normally be. SVI carried through on the design with slight alterations to enhance Tenn’s concept. Using another hot rodder’s trick, SVI shaved the rear door handles and fitted electric releases; definitely more custom. Additionally, the team made the utility bins more usable by fitting the hinges at the top of bin as opposed to the lower edge. With 16-inches of lift, you’d need to be tall like Charles Barkley to access Tenn’s design. SVI custom-fabricated the hinge mechanisms so the bin doors swing out and up without contacting the body. Hydraulic struts keep the lid in the lifted position. God is in the details.

To contend with the National Ski Patrol late-to-the-party partnership, design changes were required, including the ability to carry the standard-issue rescue toboggan used to whisk injured snow bunnies to safety. The concept’s original roof rack was scratched in favor of a new custom design that could carry the orange sled that measured longer than the Subi’s entire roof. Even though this news came barely a week before the transport was leaving for Sin City, Koran and company created the new hardware and even managed to incorporate the auxiliary lights that were part of the original design.

The last time we saw the SEMA Forester in Michigan, it had just returned from the paint booth, and final fitment was well underway. The next time we would see the Subaru was in Las Vegas during Subaru’s press conference on Tuesday, November 4th.

Finally it’s SEMA Time
Unlike other major auto shows (such as the L.A. or Detroit auto shows), press events at SEMA are pretty low-key. A couple of executives make a couple of announcements, a few camera flashes go off, and then whatever is under wraps gets revealed. That’s how it happened at the Subaru booth. Direct and simple. This left us more time to look at the vehicles.

The Forester we watched come to life in Michigan looked good and had enough going on to attract its fair share of eyeballs. And that’s its only purpose in life, so it was considered mission accomplished by all.

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