Page 1: Intro
It is here that sheet metal gets a personality. Here where engines and tires, previously built to behave, learn about rude manners and smoky burnouts, and here where cars learn to climb over boulders as if suspended in air.
Here, then, is SEMA. Otherwise known as the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association trade show, it is an automotive carnival stretching across 2 million square feet of convention space, celebrating the uniquely American art of creating something special out of metal, iron, combustion and paint. Thanks to the legions of shade tree mechanics that have opened stalls and inspired automakers since the early sixties, SEMA has come to represent the act of putting creative life into the industrial chill of production lines and factories.
SEMA is to take an appliance and turn it into a society icon such as the Ford Mustang. It is to take a car most Americans can afford, pretty it up and into something more. The Mustang is a perfect SEMA car, along with the pony cars of the past. Today, sadly, it stands alone, and according to Ford, fully 9 percent of the “SEMA market” is dedicated to Mustang.
Wherefore art thou, Camaro and Firebird? Only Lutz knows. And it is quite a bit late in the game for a rekindling. General Motors has other places to go, anyway: they seem focused on putting a SEMA bounce into their existing product lines, especially Pontiac and Saturn. At this year’s show, Gary Cowger, General Motors president for North America, ushered in a new GXP Grand Prix and previewed a Pontiac G6 GXP. Cowger also commented on the fact that GM is dedicated to the aftermarket business, as it is a $29 billion industry, especially when it comes to crate engines and wheels – so look for General Motors to expand its offering in both.
Page 2: Still the One
Yet still, GM lacks the romance of One. One car gear heads get excited about. One car that gets a poster in bedrooms and on shop walls; one car that is a strong blank slate with which SEMA magicians can cast a spell.Ford has it, of course, with the Mustang. And now Chrysler has theirs: the 300C. Though the Mustang was the choice of the show organizers as the car of the year, Chrysler/Mopar/SRT fans may well have been justified in demanding a recount, as custom 300Cs were sprinkled throughout the show like ballots in Ohio. One vendor went so far as to stretch a 300C six inches, and the things that Dub is doing with the 300C – in partnership with Mopar – makes one’s eyes grow wide with admiration and amazement.
This, then, is the future – and SEMA has it, with slick 300Cs, a raft of new grilles, spinner wheels (not exactly future anymore) and jeweled dash accessories. The 300C, in fact, represents the awakening of the large American sedan, and its new place in today’s automotive culture. It seems well placed to break through society’s cultural box and reach out to people of differing ages, wealth levels and ethnicity.
Page 3: What SEMA is
Which is what SEMA is, really. A big party with gorgeous girls and shiny cars, all equal and created to cruise. After all, all car guys are the same – some may drift and others drag, but they all share a common passion to make cars go fast, look cool and represent their individuality. Funny thing is that it took the automakers years to catch on. Forever shunning the SEMA as the crazy paint and chrome show, they turned up their noses and watched as one after another enterprising gear head made millions on building things that made their cars go faster and drive better than the factory version. No no, this is how you should do it….
They’re listening now. Today’s SEMA has intense automaker interest; the light switch was flipped and today, automakers use SEMA as a springboard to launch new marketing campaigns at millennials, tuners and baby boomers – the very people who are most into cars. They’re building campaigns that center around – you guessed it – making automaker cars go faster and look better, and perform a notch above the rest. Yet with this sudden interest, import automakers – the same people who brought about the tuner craze – seem to be slinking into the background more so than in the past. There was no Toyota press conference this year, compared to last year’s SEMA, when Toyota debuted the Toyota XRS and showed off a slew of custom Scions. Honda used much of its time to present the name of its new truck, to be called the Ridgeline. From an environmentalist’s point of view, it makes perfect sense – the truck can go to where there are no longer any trees. Honda did announce the offering of an Acura RL A-Spec package. Kia, which had the opening shot, did little more than show off some custom Spectra5s – no announcement of a Kia performance kit to go with the stock Spectra5, which would likely find a receptive audience. According Kia people, that is likely coming down the road, but in the meantime CEO Peter Butterfield is left with an exciting show and tell event, but without a powerful custom Kia announcement.
So instead of imports and tuners, it was largely domestics and muscle cars, thanks to baby boomers that just now learned about a place called Barrett Jackson. Like anything, it should come as no surprise that SEMA follows the money. For 2004, the path leads through Chrysler and to large and naughty American sedans.