LAS VEGAS, NV --- Larry Woods did it. Did it to all of us. For the past three decades, Woods has designed some of the hottest rods, super cars and exotics ever made; his cars have arguably been the source of inspiration for generations of gear heads and race car drivers. Most little boys and girls dreamed of the day they could drive one of his creations. Such a shame that they are only one inch tall.
It would be a perfect world if Larry’s creations were allowed to roam on real highways, instead of the looping tracks and speedways in the Hot Wheels world. As it is, however, we will have to be content with the toy version of Woods’ automotive masterpieces. Known to most as “Mr. Hot Wheels”, Woods was honored at this year’s 2004 SEMA Show for his years of service. “I definitely think that Barbie is a ‘Vette kind of girl,” said Woods. “She’s a material girl. She’d very much be into sports cars – and she’s all-American.” Woods would know. He has made a career out of designing the cars that make Barbies sigh -- and that get us playing and dreaming about cars and all things automotive.
SEMA is the proof. And once a year, the automotive world – including Woods, and more than a few Barbies -- come together in the town that never stops playing, and turn it into the world's biggest automotive playground. From ultra-hot Ford Mustangs and drag race-ready Chevy Cobalts to the new Honda Ridgeline truck, the annual Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) has become more than a gear head's dream-come-true. With increased automaker involvement, it is now a complete celebration of American car culture.
That's big praise, to be sure. But consider - we Americans mess with our cars more than any one else. SEMA is the place to be, then, for every rebuilder and customizer standing outside his or her garage and dreaming of a Sunday cruise. It's our chance to show the Fords and GMs, the Hondas, Chryslers, and others what we do to their cars after we drive 'em off the lot.
And oh boy -- the things we do at times can turn cars into stars. Celebrities, after all, are cool -- as long as they like cars. And this year, the major automakers turned to famous people of differing types to sing the praises and drive the creations built to inspire the world of aftermarket businesses – the custom shops and super performance outfits that add the glitter to the real stars in the car world.
If there is a car world, SEMA is the galaxy. And the galaxy is getting bigger and brighter every year.
Ford has its own stars in its own galaxy, and trotted them out without a second thought. In fact, Ford absolutely glowed, as significant people in their history stepped out and waved to the audience: there was Parnelli Jones, who drove the newly minted Mustang racer, given the number 15 insignia in honor of Jones and pioneer Bud Moore; the brought out Steve Saleen, and made him stand by his latest work of art, the Saleen Mustang. They feted Dario Orlando and Jack Roush, who did the same, and got Carroll Shelby himself to come out and drive his own race-ready Mustang. It was all thematic – the theme being Ford’s real star, and the star of SEMA – the Mustang. There’s no doubt that Ford is concentrating hard on the Mustang’s performance pedigree. It makes sense, and the Mustang is one of the most customized cars on the road. According to Ford, nine percent of the total market of vehicles that get modified are Mustangs. They did more than show the Mustang, however, they also drove it: Ford actually got each icon from the past and present to drive their creations out to the SEMA track, where they provided rides, burnouts and donuts for the assembled media. The performance underscored the point: Ford is offering a competition program based on the Mustang and featuring the Cammer V-8 crate engine. Ford also showcased the Shelby GR-1 concept – a car they should build, and fast, as well as the Shelby Expedition, a nicely custom SUV that any soccer Mon would love to own.
General Motors Few stars are bigger than those of the late night variety, and Jay Leno is the supreme gear head of the comic set. His garage now boasts a new baby: a 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado, remade and recreated into the image that Leno had of its glory days. “ This was the hot car when I was 16,” said Leno, “The styling was outstanding. It’s as pretty a car as being produced today.”
General Motors, eager as they were to bask in the light of Leno shiny star, was more than happy to clap the comedian’s shoulder and help him lift the weighty stone of success. But Leno was not so quick to share the credit, laughing aloud and telling the assembled audience that “success has many fathers” and that, in essence, it was nice for General Motors to join in the project after the project was complete. What really matters is that the ’66 Toronado has been impeccably restored, updated and given a custom power boost into the stratosphere. Leno’s Toronado features a 1,070-horsepower twin-turbocharged V-8 GM Performance Parts prototype crate engine, and a classically restored exterior and a stock interior. Underneath, however, there’s a modified C5 Corvette chassis and suspension and a Corvette rear transaxle. Stars and their cars aside, Gary Cowger, General Motors president of North America, had other important things to talk about – all of which enjoyed the reflected glow of Leno but were more than able to stand up on their own. Cowger once again debuted the Grand Prix GXP – a high-performance sedan equipped with interior appointments, an upgraded exterior appearance, sport-tuned suspension and a new 5300 5.3L V-8 (LS4) engine, producing an estimated 290 horsepower. The Grand Prix GXP is the second recent GXP concept to reach production, following this year’s launch of the V-8-powered Bonneville GXP – which currently accounts for about 30 percent of all Bonneville sales. It is the first Grand Prix model since 1987 to offer a V-8 engine and it is the first Pontiac equipped with Displacement on Demand (DOD) technology, which can provide up to a 12 percent improvement in fuel economy. The Grand Prix GXP is expected to deliver 0-60 performance of approximately 6 seconds.
Cowger also showed the next GXP – a concept Pontiac G6 GXP. The G6 GXP features an integrated system of chassis and suspension refinements designed to complement the high-performance drivetrain, as well as delivering distinguishing exterior and interior appointments. The G6 GXP concept’s elements include a 3.6-liter HO V-6 with 275 horsepower, a six-speed manual transmission, Bilstein shocks, chromed production wheels and performance tires. Also among the 40 showcase vehicles at the General Motors area was the Chevrolet Cobalt Phase 5 drag racer. The production-based Cobalt Phase 5 race car features powertrain, chassis and safety components developed by GM Racing – including a 500-plus horsepower race-prepared Ecotec engine that inspired the Phase 5 name. The Phase 5 Cobalt has a turbocharged 2.2-liter Ecotec engine that’s been modified to produce 535 horsepower while retaining 65 percent of the production engine parts.
Chrysler is going Dub – and from all appearances, they have the cars to do it. Take a Magnum, or a 300 and give it the Dub treatment – what you’ve got is a custom job that turns heads on the road. Included in the partnership will be floormats, a lowering package, sill plates, lowering springs, a three-inch performance exhaust and a special-edition Jacob & Co. diamond-studded clock for the Chrysler 300C.Dub aside, Chrysler also had its own star at SEMA – albeit one that specializes in making vehicles look, drive and feel custom – Mopar. And Mopar, along with SRT, sits in a perfect spot with the rebirth of the HEMI engine and the debuts of new models such as the 300, Magnum and Crossfire. These models already create excitement on the street – imagine what they will do once the Mopar custom crews get in some time with a wrench and a welder. And it’s not just Mopar: Led by the self-named “SkunkWerks” crew of Mopar and SRT professionals, vehicles that at one point were stock, common Chryslers or Dodges become something else altogether, once the SkunkWerks crew is done stretching and chopping and painting and hacking the vehicles into creations of their own. Among the work by SkunkWerks is a PT Speedster, an incredibly cool custom Cruiser with a lowered suspension, 18-inch custom wheels, hood scoop and a black/red two tone paint that adds to the drama. SkunkWerks also debuted a Crossfire drifter – think Crossfire convertible with no front window and the SRT6’s 400 horsepower engine powering the fun. There was also a Jeep Grand Cherokee “Mojave” rock climber with 22- inch wheels and a modified HEMI engine.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been 30 years since the Z first came to America. Then it was the 240Z, a rear-wheel-drive two-seater with 150 horsepower that sold for a little more than $3,000. Now it’s a bit more expensive and quite a bit faster, and, in order to properly celebrate 35 years on (and, for awhile, off) the American landscape, Nissan has brought out a gussied-up anniversary edition, scheduled to go on sale in January of 2005. Changes include more power – up to 300 horsepower from the standard 287 -- 18-inch cast aluminum-alloy wheels, front and rear spoilers, Brembo® brakes and special badging. The 35th Anniversary Z is offered in Ultra Yellow, Super Black and Silverstone. Honda announced the name of their first-ever truck for the North American market: the Ridgeline. Look for details about the Ridgeline, a 4-door 4WD truck powered by a 3.5 liter V6 engine, at the 2005 North American International Auto Show in January. Honda also debuted the Acura RL A-Spec custom package, which will boost horsepower to 300, will also feature track tuned shocks and springs and a decklid spoiler. Though pricing is not final, Honda expects the RL A-Spec package to retail for around $5,500, plus installation. As with other A-Spec kits, installation can only be completed at a dealer.