Each year I drive (sometimes fly) into Las Vegas for the aftermarket's annual trade show with a combination of excitement and dread. There is so much at the show screaming for attention, if you're not careful, you can go deaf, then blind, and then you might find yourself early one morning at a back corner blackjack table at the Hilton casino with an "older" dealer name Thelma, deep wrinkles in your clothes, looking like you're down $1200. But that's another story. As to this year's SEMA Show, once again it takes up several large convention centers and buildings throughout Las Vegas. I couldn't tell you how many aisles I walked, how many hands I shook, or how many times various vendors focused in on my badge like it was cleavage to see if I was worth talking to. At a show like this, if you don't have the label "buyer" on your badge, you may as well keep walking.
Unless you have the word "media" on your badge, then everyone wants to be your friend with the idea of free promotion. I should say it doesn't always work that way. In fact, one of the best aspects of going to "The Big Show" is that there are literally hundreds of first-time attendees, each with a new product or idea they want to show someone, anyone. I can't tell you the rush I get walking past some tiny little booth, maybe one guy or gal sitting on a stool next to their most recent invention, where they have a product I just know our Truck Trend or Motor Trend readers are going to want to know more about. Those types of discoveries don't happen very often but when they do, it's pretty cool. As it is, we try to collect information on many of the coolest new products we can find and work them into the magazine, sometimes in a big buyers guide, other times into our regular GEAR column. Also interesting, SEMA has its own New Product Awards, where new products in many different categories are judged and ribboned.
The other big part of the show, and truthfully the most fun from my angle, is the huge displays of custom trucks and SUVs, each and every one a personal expression of creativity and, in some cases, a very warped sense of imagination. From the little businesses that spend all year making one vehicle to catch the wandering show-goer's eye, to big companies like Ford, GM, and Toyota who typically have dozens of project vehicles throughout the show, there are wild and crazy cars, trucks, and customs all over. Last I heard over 1100 show vehicles were registered for SEMA 2007. Even if you just play the odds (it is ‘Vegas after all), there's bound to be some amazing vehicles. You've probably seen many of those vehicles in our photo galleries already, and if you haven't, you should.
On the OEM (original equipment manufacturer) front, it looked like GM's displays may have won the unofficial competition for best display vehicles. They had quite a few vehicles in their booth from the wild and silly to the dead-on-the-nose-to-be-offered next year vehicles—some things we hadn't ever seen before. For example, I really liked the Major League Baseball Silverado for how committed they went with the professional baseball theme: catcher's mitt leather interior, Louisville Slugger wood trim, ghosted MLB logos in the paint, and a 50-inch satellite TV in the bed for tailgating. Another vehicle that got a lot of attention was the Country Music Dually with its fold up stage, disco lighting, and mega-amp sound system. Easily dismissible, until you notice the saddle-grade leather interior specifically designed to go head-to-head with the Ford King Ranch brand, as well as the new Dodge Ram HD Resistol edition. Likewise, and missed by pretty much everyone, the axles were stronger than the normal 1-ton grade. These were 10-lug axles and the spring packs looked unique as well. Could this be the platform for GM's answer to the highly-successful Ford F-450 or commercial Dodge Ram 4500?
On the other side of the GM booth sat a nondescript two-inch lifted Suburban Z71. It's not a package they offer yet, especially when you consider it had the all-new Duramax 4.5-liter Turbodiesel V-8 under the hood. Plenty of room in the engine compartment and mated with a new 6-speed, this will be a great towing package when offered -- we're guessing next year. In another corner of the booth sat a Sierra 2500 HD Denali with two GM product people casually asking people what they thought. A tuxedo-dressed HD pickup truck seems to be where the HD market's headed, and with Ford and Dodge having strong success with high-trim models (and each bringing in top-dollar profits) this would be a natural for GM to offer for those Duramax lovers looking for luxurious and comfortable tow hauler.
In the Ford booth, there were a few vehicles that caught my eye, but not much that looked more that just wild expressions of some warped dreams. Deberti built a front-wheel drive F-450 Powerstroke which allowed him to eliminate the rear driveshaft and huge rear axle, allowing the bed floor to drop a full 22 inches, creating a gigantic well for storage. He put in a custom Harley that passer-bys could barely see from the aisle, along with a hydraulically actuated drop tailgate that doubled as a ramp. We also saw Fabtech build an F-350 with a narrowed F-450 rear axle stuffed underneath which gave it a Flintstones car look from the rear, as just about everything between the wheelwells was rubber, with a large bubble-butt diff in the middle. Some other cool customs filled out the rest of the Ford booth, including a few coming Flex crossovers (we've been seeing spy shots of these for months), but nothing else really pointed to things coming around the corner.
To their credit, Toyota showed several impressive customs, but it's clear they're still getting the hang of how to make a big splash at the show. Probably the coolest vehicle of the show, their Hino-packed Tundra Dually turbodiesel sat in their booth among a dozen other projects. Clearly, this was the vehicle they could have put at the top of their SEMA roster and should have been on some type of prominent platform. As it was, they seemed hell-bent on democratically spread the wealth among Scion, Lexus, and Toyota vehicles, choosing to reveal special custom projects all around the show for Scion, a massive number of new parts for Lexus, and a reveal of their new Matrix and Corolla cars for Toyota. It strikes me that Toyota is learning how to use the show, work with various aftermarket companies, and attempt to bring a little bit of the Scion culture (namely, treating each and every buyer as a unique customizers) and spreading it into Toyota and even Lexus. No doubt the new Tundra is opening up a whole new world for Toyota they didn't have access to before (mainly because they didn't have a fullsize pickup before) but in typical Toyota fashion, they're proceeding slowly and cautiously.
The Mopar Performance booth held quite a few Dodge and Jeep vehicles, but the biggest news was Mopar Performance now offering a separate Dodge Truck and Jeep Vehicle performance parts list, which will include, among other things, various suspension lifts and lowering packages. Giving dealers access to a deep pool of aftermarket part purchases so a buyer can personalized his truck at the exact same time he writes the check for it, just makes good sense from a corporate point of view. And they can roll all that added cost, typically somewhere in the neighborhood of $1200 depending on which vehicle we're talking about, into a financed payment package. What could simpler? Huge dealerships like Galpin Ford here in Southern California have found huge profits when they can sell a brand new Mustang on one side of the street and send that new owner to their customizing store across the street to put new wheels and tires on, a high-performance muffler, cold air intake, and custom decals right on the spot. In addition, and to prove their Mopar Performance part strength (we're guessing that means they'll be using it as a parts test-bed), Dodge is getting back into desert racing, setting up two teams for the 40th Anniversary run of the Baja 1000, happening right about now. They'll run one truck in the stock class (this year the class is the biggest its ever been) to collect info and data about parts, and the other truck they'll support and run in the unlimited Trophy Truck Class -- looking for bragging rights. Although Jeep is not going racing, they will be watching very closely how comfortable Jeep guys will be to buying their modification parts from Mopar Performance, which for many was only about go-fast applications. Expanding the marketplace is how these big companies need to make money, but I wonder if we're not looking at another example of overreaching (can you say Compass?)?
Other manufacturers like Hyundai, Honda, Subaru, and Kia were at the show but are keeping low profiles. Their market guys are much smaller in numbers but no less passionate. Big shows like this, not tied to some type of competitive activity, don't seem to resonate well with their guys. But that isn't to say there wasn't some kind of activity for those looking to vent their bottled up enthusiasm. At the risk of doing too much self-promotion, I did like the fact that there were two separate places for people to do more than just walk the aisles and look at car and truck parts. Outside, Motor Trend and Truck Trend each sponsored a separate proving ground area where people could get behind the wheel of a Lexus IS-F on a closed course track (sponsored by Motor Trend), and another more slow-speed-minded truck guy haven put you behind the wheel of a regular cab 4x4 shortbed Tundra to do some rock crawling. We liked the idea of giving all of our guys a chance to express their driving prowess. Whether they wanted to practice their drifting skills or crawl up a 30-degree slope, they got to drive.
Beyond that, my guess is the huge trade show numbers bodes well for all us who care about the auto industry. Long live creativity, and the men and women who keep it going. We'll be there next year too.
Photo by Melissa Spiering