THE WILD, THE INNOCENT
And the Road to SEMA 2011
This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!
Published on Sat, Dec 3, 2011
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
By John Grafman The show opens for business, and Andy Rooney is still riding shotgun in my brain. Tuesday starts a whirlwind of activity. Both inside and outside are heavily congested with cars, displays, and attendees. I meander wherever my heart takes me, keeping an eye out for a clear aisle. In my mind I can hear Andy fearfully state that there is no way he is risking life and limb in the trenches of the South Hall. Of course, being the red blooded American that he is, err was, he would find the gals modeling by the wheel and tire exhibits enough to coerce him. I too can find a compelling argument to explore. Indeed, along the way I find some exceptional wheels by respected companies.
Clearly, even without Andy and his old school ways, we sarcastically question the obvious. Don’t cars come with wheels and tires that are perfectly good?” Well, in the world of wheels and tires there is good, and there is better. While not every wheel is appropriate for every car, a little imagination goes a long way in finding the perfect match for any car, crossover, SUV, or truck. Hundreds of wild cars feature almost every conceivable combination known to man (or so it seems), taking the guesswork out of the equation. The sprawling booth of WTW Corp with its Giovanna, Gianelle Designs, GFG, and Koko Kuture brands are just inside the entry to the hall. The company brands itself as an upscale manufacturer with the cars and attractive female models to prove it. The featured Lamborghinis and Rolls do complete the image nicely. One of the other standout displays comes from CEC Wheels. The owner, Claus Ettensberger, knows exactly what discerning clients are looking for. Besides the dazzling variety of rims from several quality companies, CEC also provides accessories that range from Recaro seats to the finest imported body styling components. The epicenter of the well-designed exhibit space showcases the breadth of CEC’s capabilities on the brand new Fisker Karma. The styling accessories produced from Fisker, titled Reserve by CEC, are available only from Claus.
Aside from CEC and WTW, there are countless other rims being presented by companies like Forgiato Wheels, and TSW. These companies have a sizable presence at SEMA. As attendees tread deeper into the massive convention center, they are finding small, first-timers with minimal presence trying to break out and gain a fractional market share. What is interesting is how many variations on the same basic wheel design are offered. But, buyers need to consider many factors that range from style, to price, along with quality, and brand recognition. All of this can make or break a sale when it comes to the consumers’ point of purchase. Why have a nice set of wheels if you can’t provide the rubber to match? The tire companies are well aware of this. Most of the players are all here to battle for retail owners and buyers attention at this trade only event. Perhaps nothing is more frequently replaced on a car aside from spark plugs and air cleaners. Hence, this is a big money business. Thankfully Andy isn’t here to quip, “What’s the difference between one tire and another? They’re round, black rubber with some numbers and letters on the side, right”? Spend ten or fifteen minutes with any of the reps on the show floor and I can assure you they would be happy to point out the nuances of each. Suffice to say the consumers can find out plenty on each company’s website or at their local tire dealer. Continental has a variety of cars showcasing street and race technology, and a couple of shapely models to provide some added emphasis to the display. Hard to argue with the company’s track record and ongoing selection by several of the most respected performance oriented OEMs.
Pirelli has a similar tactic, but in addition it’s flashing a red hot Ferrari 458 with the Mansory carbon fiber kit provided by RTW Motoring. The Pirelli tires on this provide owners the performance equal to the car’s abilities and aggressive looks, or so we’re told. I will need to find out myself at some upcoming opportunity, all in the name of journalistic integrity of course. A little less noticeable, but pretty damn cool is the Jeep Cherokee with a custom hood and styling accessories. Obviously, this is to demonstrate the range of tires offered. It has us convinced. Nitto Tires is stoked to have a Galpin modified Mustang and a Lamborghini Gallardo fitted with the company’s best tires to emphasis the performance prowess. Even though the Nitto booth is a little off the beaten path, it still is a nice draw. Falken is tempting us with a tag line of “We get you going”,and to drive the point home the tire company also has several very attractive models around to help support this. So that we don’t forget what we are doing here at the Falken booth, one of the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) GT Porsche is here to remind us that Falken does indeed have the right stuff.
SEMA attendees again see a wide range of companies and presentations, from Cooper Tires large show booth to smaller, but no less interesting companies, like Kenda Tires, which have everything from your bike to your car covered! Judging by the gawking I would have to say that Hankook tires has one of the most impressive displays at the show, hands down. Okay, maybe some didn’t even notice some of the tires, as the jumbo booth has a multitude of cool cars and outstanding models. But, Hankook does have tires. On a white Maserati the company is displaying its Ventus V12 evo tires, and on a CRZ are a set of enfren eco tires. In the far, often overlooked end of the convention hall we see a growing number of tire companies from China and other far-flung countries. These companies have anything you can imagine, including incredible earth moving vehicle tires. The trick is finding out which has products that are competitive in quality to many of the household names. The benefit many retailers are excited to see is pricing that will allow them to offer a product that is recession friendly. I do believe that is how Hyundai got a solid foothold in the USA in the early 90s. Timing is almost everything. Nonetheless, quality is of utmost importance in order to stay in the game over the long haul.
While it’s easy to confuse the purpose of the SEMA Show, as many of the companies here relate to consumer products, looking around we can spot exhibitors that clearly have no direct relationship to consumers. A perfect example of this is Hunter Engineering Company. Joe Public most likely wouldn’t recognize the name. However, Hunter does produce many of the best tools used for mounting tires and balancing wheels, among other things. Hard to imagine all of the other companies here without these products, in much the same way we couldn’t imagine a doctor without a stethoscope and illegible handwriting. There are literally hundreds of companies and thousands of products in which the 50,000 plus SEMA attendees have a chance to gaze upon. Most are intriguing and have a back story, but it’s impossible to even scratch the surface in just 31 hours of operation. However, meandering about allows an occasional glimpse into some. Katzkin has been a key part of hundreds of SEMA project cars for years. The leathers allow of distinct interiors that are up to OEM standards for durability, yet wild enough to add punch and class to any car. Katzkin was overdue in having its own homegrown project. This is the year for change. In keeping with that, Katzkin has dressed up what would otherwise be a lumpy Fiat 500. After Katzkin’s people grabbed hold of this we can see that this can look inviting both from the outside and the inside. This is living up to the company’s slogan of Express, Transform, Drive™. The OEMs do have the bucks and the displays to match. It is easy to get lost in any one of these and spend half a day poking around each and every car and offering. Again, the clock is running. Mr. Andy Rooney would insist that we hit the domestic manufacturers, whatever that means these days, first. As someone that made his mark with a show called 60 Minutes, he should know better than most the value of time. I think Andy and many others need to understand that almost all of the car companies are multinational corporations. So, I’m forging ahead taking this under advisement and exploring the traditional big three and the others as time allows. Right from the get-go we are heavily influenced by what could best be called Ford Out Front 2.0. The parking lot is awash in Fords tearing up the Las Vegas Convention Center blacktop. Inside the Center Hall on the mezzanine is Ford’s massive display. We can see that this year there is a heavy emphasis on both the Mustangs and the Fiestas. Still, we can find numerous projects that exemplify the range of Ford past and present. How about a life-size Matchbox 4X4 truck, or a flat painted Explorer that would give a Range Rover a run for its money? Also, catching our attention is a pair Shelby Mustangs that one lucky show goer will win as part of the Mustang Dream Giveaway, one of which is new, and the other one is a perfect 1967 Shelby GT500! On display are an Edelbrock Special, and a So Cal Speedshop salt flat racer. One could argue that Ford has something for any consumer.
GM is in its usual location further into the same hall. The company does have four divisions, but the Chevy products overwhelm the floor space. The night before the show opened. Chevrolet took the opportunity to debut the project Sonics that are now at the SEMA Show. While at the unveiling we did get to hear Dale Earnhardt Jr. discussing these along with Ricky Carmichael, who is showing off his flat black all-activity Sonic. Also, we get to see a few other Sonics at SEMA, including one that’s all show, with massive custom speaker displays that effectively take up all the room aft of the front seats. Well, with a name like Sonic it was only a matter of time before someone did this. The Hot Wheels display at the GM both is so big even Ray Charles could see it. Okay, that might be going a bit too far, but I could ask if this is a Hot Wheels booth featuring life-size cars, or a Chevy Camaro display with a Hot Wheels orange track suitable for any of GM’s coupes or convertibles? Well, it’s both. Chevy even has a green Camaro prepared by the toy company that does look for all the world like a giant toy sports car. This brings out the six-year old in all of us.
A surprise in the field of GM cars is the Cruze. Not because it doesn’t fit the preconceived notion of what we expect to see at SEMA, but simply because the project Cruze cars look outstanding. A few aftermarket parts really turn these into eye catching affordable vehicles. GM is very proud of its crate engines too. The blocks lining one edge of the booth offer a wide selection including the most powerful motors one can squeeze under the hood directly from the GM. It’s always nice to know one can order up a dream with a simple signature and some extra greenbacks. We do see a number of other GM cars that do make us drool. One of those is the Cadillac CTS-V Coupe prepared by D3. While this is part of the Toyo Tires booth, this would be right at home at the GM area, with mega-wide body fender flairs and custom flat black paint. A few accents in bright yellow, such as the brake calipers, add an extra dose of fireworks. While D3 does offer performance upgrades, we can attest that the standard Cadillac V cars are damn fast as is. D3 is catering to adrenaline junkies with extra large Thanksgiving size portions of speed.
Dodge/Chrysler/Jeep/SRT/Fiat space is back in the South Hall. Sure, Andy would want to inquire why this is located there instead of in closer proximity to GM and Ford. The simple answer is, I have no answer. But, logistically speaking, there is only so much available space, so many of the OEMs are scattered about all three halls. Besides showcasing it Hemi power in its rawest form - crate engines, the former Motown underdog turned international suave player has a healthy variety of cars for us to eat up. A 70s Challenger R/T complete with shaker hood and hood pins sets the tone. A current Dodge Charger Pursuit vehicle on hand is definitely most wouldn’t want to see in their rearview mirror, but are happy to see in the convention center.
Additional project range from rock-crawling capable Jeeps to desert racing Ram trucks. All of which espouse the virtues of Mopar parts and accessories. Chrysler front radiator grill sampling is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the catalog of aftermarket goodies. Mopar can handle almost any demand as the company is clearly demonstrating. Honda is taking advantage to show variations of the new civic. While the cars are wild, the floor space, as it normally is at Honda, is quite mild. A little more excitement here would be welcomed especially as the civic has long been a tuner’s favorite.
As tame as Honda is, it at least looks more exciting than the Toyota space. It looks like the company’s latest woes are reflected in real-time at SEMA. Strangely, there is a rather long line surrounding the Toyota booth. And, those in line are looking to take back home a little bit of Toyota with them in the form of tee shirts being silk-screened while-u-wait. I understand everyone wants some swag, but maybe the shirt give-away should be inside the booth space to create a little buzz? Both the Scion and Lexus space thankfully take a different approach. Scion has a rather bland exhibit space, but it does feature some of the wildest cars from any of the companies. Lexus is outside, and sits in an area between the South and Central Halls. Inside what looks like a temporary structure resides the all-new Lexus GS. And, even better than that is the Lexus Project GS by Five Axis. This white sedan has a clean stylish body that is on par with an AMG upgrade, but looks well integrated into the actually design, so as to not look like aftermarket parts or an afterthought. It’s so seamless that one might even think that this is the stock GS, as so few of those have been seen in public yet. Of course, this is definitely more aggressive than one would expect to see coming directly from a Toyota brand.
Mazda has a number of SEMA project cars that range from a chopped Miata that resembles the Porsche Boxster Spyder to a 3dCarbon built Mazda 2 with a paint color called Spirited Green. Nope, we didn’t make that up. There is the ALMS ModSpace Mazda GTP1 race car. Those that know who’s who can also spot several of the designers from their Irvine studio including Director of Design Derek Jenkins. Hyundai and Kia both have show space that reminds me of Mazda’s, in that they are non-descript. In other words, they let the cars do the talking. The best part of having no agenda allows for the time to stop and smell the roses, or something like that. I stumble upon a Driving Innovation panel discussion that featured such industry luminaries like Beau Boeckmann from Galpin AutoSports (think Pimp My Ride), Myles Kovacs from Dub, and Stewart Reed, the transportation department president at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.
In the same Innovation showcase is a how-to for builders with real life examples to get the point across. Dr. Steve Neads from AB Dynamics in England explains their testing equipment, which is residing in the driver’s area of a full-size pick-up truck. In a nutshell, Dr. Steve reminds us that companies selling modifications that effect drivability (like those found at the SEMA Show) need to test these to be in compliance with federal laws. A comforting thought. AB Dynamics provides the testing know-how for those companies that want to keep the sunny side up. Not too far away, I spot a Foose custom unlike anything else. In fact, this is a giant poster of the evolution of 3M and it’s impact on the auto industry. This storyboard features Chip’s sketchy rendering style that we have become so familiar with over the years. It is impressive how this relatively simple display is easy to absorb in a matter of moments. It’s nice to see that 3M decided to go this route instead of some overproduced video to reconfirm its extensive involvement in automotive products. This decade will see a boatload of technology related products hitting the market. However, sometimes just a simple idea is worth mentioning. Yakima is introducing its Whispbar roof rack system that is a leap forward in what is really a low-tech device. For decades there’s been little advancement in roof racks. Finally, the Whispbar uses a wind tunnel to help shape the ideal horizontal supports. Yakima now has a roof system that is quieter than anything else out there, which also has less drag, and in turn isn’t a drag on fuel economy. Our only question is, what took so long?
SEMA wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t have something really odd. This year it comes in the form of Custom Urns. Maybe Andy Rooney would fancy one of these, but I doubt it given his sensibilities. Just what he’d want, a final resting place that some child will play with and ultimately break. Or equally upsetting, being accidentally sold at a garage sale after aspring-cleaning some years down the road. I come across the one poignant moment that sums up SEMA so perfectly. I am almost completely mesmerized by the 100-point cars that Meguiars has carefully positioned around its elevated Car Crazy Central platform outside. I am not the only one transfixed by these wonderful cars that are standouts in a field of eye-catching six-figure cars. As this is right in front of the Central Hall, you would physically trip on these cars if you didn’t see them. So, at one point or another everyone from the show will more than likely pass by these. While there are hundreds of people near me, I am just one of a handful of people that notice on the platform Barry Meguiar is interviewing the legendary Carroll Shelby. In so many ways Carroll is one of the most important building blocks of the aftermarket industry. Now it isn’t like you couldn’t see or hear it, as the sound system being employed is almost adequate for U2. So, what gives? Well, everyone is running from point A to point B, and trying so very hard to check out the cars, and desperately trying to avoid bumping into anyone or anything else. So, what you get is SEMA overload! It’s almost unbelievable that ole Shelby is just feet away from hundreds, yet the masses are oblivious.
On my way returning back to California, I have a chance to embrace the delights of the Mercedes Benz S 350 again. It’s just me, Andy, and about 280 miles of open road. Even though one would think a few days of SEMA would have numbed me to the features of the Benz, it was really the opposite. I delight in the adjustable suspension setting, the vented and heated seats with massage controls, the Distronic cruise control, Lane Departure Warning, accident avoidance warnings, heated steering wheel, and a pretty cool night vision display. While the car even offers a split-view screen, which allows the driver to see the normal functions in the dash mounted screen, and the passenger to view something else, such as a movie, out of the very same screen at the same time. The seat next to me is vacant. And it seems now Andy is no longer speaking in my head. Maybe, just maybe he would have to admit what the rest of us know. All of the aftermarket toys found at SEMA, and all of the latest OEM features have one common denominator, the extra money spent leads to happier drivers. I’m pretty sure that I know what his grudging response to that is: “All right, you got me”! To view Part One of The Road to SEMA 2011, click here [nggallery id=sema-2011-day-two]