Most weeks I attend at least one car get-together, usually more. On Tuesday nights you can find me at Beach Burger in Huntington Beach, Calif., for my local gathering. We started out with less than ten regulars and now average about 30 or so cars. Cool European cars, good conversation and glutton-sized portions of diner food make for a great evening. On Saturdays I attend Cars and Coffee in Irvine, the greatest informal gathering of classics, exotics, and everything else automotive in the world. I go to a few other scattered events as well, but the first two are just about religion.
I'm pretty well versed on the normal questions asked at these events: What's the coolest car you've driven lately? How can I get more power? Does your magazine have any openings?
Lately, though, I've been fielding some different questions: What's the economy going to do to the car industry? How will it affect the aftermarket?
As I write, I'm one week away from heading up to Vegas for the annual SEMA show. SEMA is the biggest automotive aftermarket trade show in the country. In recent years, it hasn't been all that relevant for European tuners. Aisles of trucks and street rods line the Las Vegas Convention Center halls and other sorts of performance tuners have gotten squeezed out. This year, a gas crunch, an economic downturn and basic fiscal unrest have all combined to take some of the wind out of SEMA's sails. The truck industry is obviously hurting the most. High gas prices have decimated the truck and SUV market. A decrease in expendable income has also really put the crunch on the huge street rod boom we saw in the past couple of years. So where does that leave us?
SEMA is usually the place you go to see new trends before the consumer. This year is different. The tuning market will be dictated by consumer demand. More fuel-efficient cars and products will be a must, and reasonably priced modifications are going to be more value-oriented than in the past. It all comes down to gas prices and disposable income.
At the end of the last gas crunch we saw the rise of Volkswagen tuners. Names like Autotech and Neuspeed showed enthusiasts that there is a replacement for displacement. We saw good mileage combined with incredible performance. Handling became just as important as straight-line speed. Lightweight vehicles with smaller engines became the cars to have, and even more importantly, the cars to tune.
Unfortunately, I think all the conspiring factors snuck up on the industry too quickly for this year's SEMA show. I expect to see several half-hearted attempts at tuning small cars from companies who only months ago had planned on filling their booths with mammoth trucks, big horsepower, and big thirst for fuel. The companies who still bring the big vehicles will likely have empty order sheets and lots of promotional materials left over on Friday. Hopefully we'll see some new names pop-up with new, innovative products. But what I'm really looking forward to is next year's SEMA.
I don't see a big improvement in any of the factors coming in the next year. Gas prices will stay high and the economy may begin to improve, but a complete turn around is unlikely. This will lead to an environment perfect for the kinds of cars and tuning I prefer-small displacement, high output, and lightweight. All the things that Europeans are good at, or at least historically have been. The second wave of GTI performance is right around the corner.