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The 2011 SEMA Show from a Car-Buyer’s Perspective – SEMA Auto Show

The Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) show devotes acres of space to thousands of products no one really needs. When we buy a car, most of the time it already has a working engine and brakes, seats and belts, a full set of wheels, glass in all the right places, and a passable stereo. That’s it; we’re set once we’ve bought some gas.

It’s just that there’s more to a car than the purchase price and the cost of keeping it on the road. Buying a vehicle, or anything else auto-related, is just as much an emotional purchase as a rational one. And everything at SEMA is emotional. That’s the point.

People are looking for thrills, something to stimulate their senses. It’s not logical, but it is human nature. That’s why there are so many jazzed-up Chevrolet Camaros and Ford Mustangs at the show. These are relatively affordable cars that can then be personalized piece by piece, whenever the owner gets the time and money to splash out.

Even small cars like the Chevrolet Sonic and Fiat 500 – recent interlopers to what has traditionally been something of a testosterone-fest – are now being catered for, to keep up interest once the novelty value has passed, since these are hardly powerful machines.

There’s also the vicarious thrill. Most of us would never jack a pickup so high we could walk under it, or slam a sedan so low that not even an ant could take a short cut. But it’s fun to see that someone else has done it, that someone actually decided to paint their car metallic cherry and fit a high-flow titanium exhaust.

So it’s time well spent for a member of the car-buying public to check out the happenings at an aftermarket trade show, not least because it gives us a look at many optional extras, either fitted by the factory, the dealer or a specialist shop. It might just sway the decision to go for one car rather than another, because of the potential it has not just in terms of add-ons, but also the social scene that goes with it. Or perhaps the line of “Hamstar” clothes accompanying the Kia Soul has a certain appeal.

Another good reason is to learn that the aftermarket industry in the United States is alive and thriving. This 2011 event had more than 2,000 exhibitors; 500 of those were first-timers.

The SEMA show is a good way of finding out what not to opt for, what might be the future mullett hairdo of the automotive world. From a purely personal point of view, those matte paint finishes might be all the rage right now and look good under harsh exhibition lighting, but get one out on the road with a few weeks’ worth of grime and a couple of bird poops, and it looks like the car has been sitting in a barn for the past 30 years.

There’s also something deeper going on here, something that tugs at the emotions even more than thrills and spills. It’s a sense of community, that we’re not alone; there are others like us whoever we may be – kids into turbocharged imports or dudes into trucks.

See more coverage of the 2011 SEMA Auto Show.


COLIN RYAN has driven hundreds of cars thousands of miles while writing for BBC Top Gear magazine, Popular Mechanics, the Los Angeles Times, European Car, Import Tuner and many other publications, websites, TV shows, etc.

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