While it was almost a quarter century ago, I can vividly recall the highlights of my first SEMA Show in 1991. I was still in high school and managed to bluff my way into the annual aftermarket industry show in Las Vegas. To a teenage car fanatic barely old enough to have a license, it was really too much to take in and may have contributed to the automotive delinquency I now exhibit. It was a much different show then, but some of that magic is still there for me.
There was a point when SEMA vehicles represented what the average enthusiast was building. Companies like Neuspeed and CEC were once kings of the show. Today, it is rare for tuners to even have their own booths. They usually choose to display with a manufacturer whose pockets are deeper. It isn’t uncommon to see the best cars sitting alongside (or even underneath) everything from batteries to hose clamps.
The days of pure performance are also gone. It is now about making a splash and being showier than the next guy. At one time, a well-built GTI or M5 could have stood out among the muscle cars and classic street rods. Now they have to compete with Ken Block’s Gymkhana Mustang and green chrome machine-gun-toting monster trucks.
The need for a wow factor helps explain why just about everything at the show had bolt-on fender flares. The bolted-on flare of today is the Altezza taillamp and 6-inch exhaust tip of yesterday. Everyone at the show had them; only a few were able to pull it off gracefully. It was shocking how many of these cars not only had custom flares and custom-built multi-piece wheels, but still required equally custom wheel spacers.
If it wasn’t flared, it was on air suspension. Dozens upon dozens of vehicles stacked deep and piled high demonstrating just how unique and obviously difficult it is to build a bagged car that sits on the ground. All in all, the takeaway from the show is that form trumps function.
Besides my clear dislike of the car as art movement, there are several positive trends for the performance fan. One is the democratization of carbon ceramic brake rotors. It wasn’t that long ago that everyone except for top-level racing teams was relegated to good old-fashioned iron. In the last few years, they have become factory options on higher-end Porsche, Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz cars.
Brembo has led the charge in composite brake rotors in recent years, but newcomer Fusion, a small company based in Anaheim, California, is also looking to make inroads. Fusion’s kits still aren’t cheap, about $11,000 even with a pre-order discount, but competition always helps consumer value in the long run. If carbon isn’t quite your bag, the sheer volume of applications on offer from Wilwood Brakes is mind-blowing. Expect to see some hard-core testing of this company’s products on future projects.
If it weren’t for aftermarket wheels, SEMA would be roughly the size of a veterinary orthodontics convention. From the cars around the show, you might be forgiven for thinking that Rotiform and HRE are the only wheel manufacturers in existence. A long walk through the wheel hall actually reveals that 70 percent of the industry is made up of Rotiform, HRE, and companies making Rotiform and HRE knock-offs.
A conversation with Alan Peltier of HRE revealed two things. First, Peltier is still the most dedicated wheel nerd on the planet. I mean that in the most respectfully jealous way possible. Second, what I’m even happier to report is that reverse drop-center wheels (the ones with the big, flat deep chrome barrel) are dead. Thankfully, the industry is swinging back to either the stepped lip or the concave monoblock design with the spokes reaching to (or nearly to) the outer rim.
There were a few other standouts in the wheel hall. Forgeline seems to be doing a great job offering road wheels similar in design and construction to the wheels it builds for IMSA competitors. I was also happy to see Fondmetal making a comeback to the U.S. market with a large selection of understated designs and a variety of finishes. The company has a long history in top-level motorsports, including F1, DTM, and endurance racing. All the wheels are made in Italy and carry both TÜV approval and that elusive Euro-snob cachet.
Luckily, our Euro-snobbery is usually justified when looking at the level of advancement our cars have straight from the factory. Adaptive systems are now becoming the norm on everything from suspensions to exhausts. While it may seem tough to improve on features that already have optimized modes for comfort and performance, the industry is responding. There were several suspension options on display that will interface with factory adaptive systems, offering plug-and-play dampers that integrate into your car, or—in the case of KW—a kit that converts BMW active dampers into threaded body coilovers. Exhaust systems from manufacturers like Remus and Akrapovic feature valved systems that function just like the factory item.
Speaking of factory, BMW, MINI, Mercedes-Benz, and Fiat all had a presence at the show. Mercedes-Benz gave out four Metris vans to try and create a little buzz about this upcoming product for the North American market. BMW and MINI were there to show off some tuning products available through OE channels, and Fiat seems to be looking for feedback on the possibilities of performance tuning. We like seeing OE manufacturers represented at SEMA, but it is a bit strange given the sometimes adversarial relationship that owners of tuned cars have with dealerships.
While it is easy to complain about the miles of walking, the crowds, and the obscene prices for horrendously bad food, I still get excited walking in every morning. I found several products you will be seeing in upcoming projects. Some will be seen in print, but others you will likely need to check out on our website, where we have unlimited space for photography and video. While I did not love every car at the show, the industry still produces plenty for the performance enthusiast. Maybe next year we’ll need to build a car to fly the European Car flag.