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Customizers' Show Spotlights Vehicle Personalization

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author photo by Ann Job July 2008

Today, we not only love our cars, we lavish them with nearly $25 billion worth of accessories, performance parts, suspension upgrades and flashy wheels-all in an effort to make our vehicles intimately our own.

And more of us are joining in, judging by the impressive 7.5 percent annual growth rate in retail sales of aftermarket items since the early 1990s. "We're really doing phenomenal," said Jim Spoonhower, vice president of research for the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA), which hosts the world's largest automotive accessories trade show each year.

The most recent SEMA show, held from Oct. 30 through Nov. 2 in Las Vegas, proved there's no end to automotive creativity.

Would you believe a 500-horsepower shiny silver Chrysler PT Cruiser pickup with seats that came from a Dodge Viper? How about a bright-yellow 300-horsepower Mitsubishi Lancer sedan with a Mitsubishi Eclipse turbocharger, some of whose parts came from a junkyard? Or a lustrous red 190-horsepower Pontiac Vibe that's lowered, has aggressive front and rear fascias and Ram Air induction and special exhaust system? They were just three of the eye-catching designs at the 2001 SEMA show.

Show Closed Public
The huge, 1.2 million-square-foot SEMA show is a trade show only and not open to the public.

But maybe it's better that consumers aren't allowed in. Just a few hours amidst the gleaming customized cars, trucks, vans and sport utilities at SEMA and I felt that the SUV in my garage was shamefully underdressed. Suddenly, I wanted to take home a shiny, chrome grille guard, molded running boards and 20-inch wheels.

In these days of national crisis, I wanted the red, white and blue leather steering wheel that I saw at SEMA, too.

Automakers Acknowledge Influence
Officials at the major automakers do shop at SEMA. Here they get new ideas for current and future models, as hundreds of auto company executives scour the SEMA show floor.

It's also customary for automakers to loan some of their vehicles to aftermarket firms for customizing and display at the show. The yellow Mitsubishi Lancer at Mitsubishi's booth was crafted by Robert Wilson, owner of Modern Image of Huntington Beach, Calif.-and done in less than two months.

General Motors Corp., the featured marque of the 2001 SEMA show, had the most vehicles ever on display: more than 200. "We're tuned up," John Middlebrook, GM vice president of vehicle brand management and corporate advertising, said at the SEMA opening ceremony. Later, he announced a new program that gives aftermarket firms access, via a Web site, to specs for GM cars to help make their work easier.

Dieter Zetsche, who became president and CEO of DaimlerChrysler in November 2000, was at his first SEMA show, seeing firsthand this all-American aftermarket spectacle.

Hyundai's display included two customized 2003 Tiburon coupes. The new Tiburon arrives in U.S. showrooms in spring 2002 and will, for the first time, offer a six-cylinder engine and six-speed manual transmission. According to Hyundai's Jim Weber, consumers will be able to choose from a 140-horsepower four-cylinder engine or 181-horsepower six cylinder.

Honda, whose cars are favorites among young "tuners" in the compact sport segment, had its newest hatchbacks, the 2002 Acura RSX and Honda Civic Si, at the show for the first time.

Honda also announced that for the first time the automaker will sell and install at its dealerships a Civic suspension package that lowers the EX coupe and adds performance handling. Best of all, when installed by a Honda dealer, the new suspension enhancements will be covered by Honda's new-vehicle warranty.

Star Power at SEMA
Also at the Honda booth, import drag racer Adam Saruwatari unveiled his 2002 Honda Civic Si drag car, while RJ DeVera announced plans to run a 2002 Acura RSX Type-S drag car during the 2002 season.

Star power from the racing world has a long history at SEMA, whose first show was in 1963 when SEMA was known as the Speed Equipment Manufacturers Association.

This year, fans of NASCAR great Richard Petty stood patiently in a long line to get his autograph at the Richard Petty Driving Experience booth at SEMA. Known as The King, Petty had a record 200 victories in his 32 years on NASCAR's Winston Cup circuit. No matter. Petty, now retired as a driver from NASCAR, was overhead telling a fan in a heartfelt tone, "thank you for coming" as he signed an autograph and posed for a picture.

Meantime at the Firestone booth, another racing great, Mario Andretti, signed autographs. Andretti's lengthy career spotlighted a versatile driver who was a Formula One champion in 1978, an Indy 500 winner in 1969 and four-time Champ Car champion.

September 11 Effect
The terrorist attacks on the U.S. and the resulting war in Afghanistan weren't forgotten at the 2001 SEMA show.

The opening ceremony included a presentation of the colors by the color guard from nearby Nellis Air Force Base. It was, according to SEMA chairman of the board Nate Shelton, "the most moving, stirring, opening ceremony we've had here at SEMA."

Meanwhile, patriotically painted vehicles were scattered throughout the show and included Saturn's new VUE sporty utility, a Ford Sport Trac 4X2 and a PT Cruiser.

Jeep had a concept 2002 Liberty American Edition SUV. Besides an eye-catching star-spangled paint job, the Jeep had red, white and blue leather seats and door trim.

In the wake of Sept. 11, many aftermarket companies had added patriotic products quickly to their lines. "We had so much interest," Mary Jane Sanchez of Dream Wing said in explaining why her Hartland, Wis.-based company now offers star-spangled rear wings for cars.

Jay Peskoe of Au-Tomotive Gold Inc. noted, "You hate to make a profit on something like this." But he said his Tucson company had "so many requests" and planned to donate some of the proceeds from his company's new patriotic license plate holders.

Other Trends
Patriotism wasn't the only trend at the 2001 SEMA show.

Video entertainment systems-permanently installed in vehicles or portable-were in good supply. One even positioned the system, with display screen, in the middle seat, between riders.

The latest audio equipment, many including display screens for the dashboard and manual remote controls, was prevalent at SEMA, too.

Several booths showed ways to add lighting to vehicle wheels. Daniel Deutsch said his new Tireflys pro product are small, battery-powered lights that merely screw onto each tire valve stem and turn on automatically whenever a wheel turns. The bright blue color seemed most popular at SEMA, he added.

Items that helped organize a car's interior were hot. Gali Rotstein of the Travel Play Co. of Encino, Calif., showed the new StufStop. Made of a neoprene-like material, StufStop wraps around bucket seats and some bench seats and holds items such as purses, water bottles and books in place. Best of all, StufStop doesn't need to be removed when someone wants to sit on the seat.

Backup sensors that can warn a driver of an obstacle behind the vehicle are another growing trend. Colin Sutherland, manager of sales and operations at C-Back International, noted his device doesn't force you to drill holes in your bumper. Rather, the C-Back system is mounted on the license plate.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Customizers' Show Spotlights Vehicle Personalization - Autotrader