Chicago Auto Show Blog

SEMA Show Highlights

Posted by: Jim OBrill

A couple weeks ago, I traveled to Las Vegas, NV to check out the mecca of auto shows for an enthusiast-minded auto geek. The Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) show is one-of-a-kind that features the latest performance upgrades and concepts from auto manufactures, custom-built privately-owned vehicles, driving experiences and the latest in automotive products. One thing is clear at SEMA, and that is anything goes and is viable to be showcased. Around every turn inside and out there were custom cars ranging from the next Chevrolet Blazer to a 1956 Beetle modified with a V8 engine.  
SEMA is a trade-only show and not open to the general public. After two days and nearly 75,000 steps logged, I did my best to take it all in. I was like a kid in a candy store who didn’t know where to look first and couldn’t help but be drawn to the sounds of squealing tires and loud exhausts coming from the outdoor Ford exhibit. Besides looking at vehicles, Ford offered up the opportunity to ride in Mustangs drifting around a track or in a rally version of a Ranger complete with jumps. It was clear the guys riding shotgun were walking away with huge grins on their faces.  
The show is broken up into several halls hosting themed areas with auto manufacturers spread throughout. If you’re looking to build an off-road vehicle complete with built in tents/camping equipment, you visit the Upper South Hall. If you’re more interested in wheels/tires, head downstairs to see more wheel options than you’ve ever seen in one place. Since I view wheels as shoes for cars, I couldn’t help but spend some time admiring the latest designs and what they’d look like on my Honda Prelude complete with some new race inspired tires. 
After a couple days of exploring I’ve highlighted a few things from SEMA 2018 below… 
Vehicle Debuts:
Just as they do at shows like the Chicago Auto Show, manufacturers showcased new models that have yet to have a big public presence. Among those at the show this year were the Ford Ranger, Chevrolet Blazer, Acura ILX, Kia Forte and Kia Telluride. To date, we’ve really only seen a mid-level orange Ranger travel the auto show circuit. Ford showcased a few versions of the Ranger at SEMA and I was pleasantly surprised to see this truck look more like a strong competitor to the Toyota Tacoma TRD and Chevrolet Colorado ZR1. Speaking of Chevrolet, the new Blazer looks great in person although I’m not sold on it being called a Blazer. This new crossover is more of a muscular-looking Equinox ready to take on the Ford Edge and Jeep Cherokee. With Ford set to introduce the Bronco, it’s inevitable that the Blazer will be compared to it and this vehicle just isn’t in that off-road capable category. 
Outside of the vehicles around every corner, there are experiences similar to the Ford one described above. Continental Tires partnered with BMW to showcase its tires’ ability in drifting BMWs. The smoking and screeching sounds could be seen and heard from nearly anywhere outside. If you weren’t feeling the wait to ride in a car you could visit the Hot Wheels Legends exhibit and race some 1:64 scale cars. The Hot Wheels exhibit featured ten consumer vehicles that won the opportunity to be featured at SEMA and the chance to become the next Hot Wheels model. The winning vehicle resembled a fighter jet with a body like a bullet and roof like a jet cover. The frame of the car came from a Nissan 300ZX and it’s powered with the engine of a Toyota Supra with 627 HP and a Subaru STI engine…… a perfect example of the types of custom builds on display at SEMA. SEMA is also a place where several automotive celebrities make appearances. Famous drivers like Richard Petty, builders such as Chip Foose & Richard Rawlings, and enthusiasts as big as Jay Leno were all onsite making appearances along with many other TV personalities from the various auto channels. 
Outside the obvious lifted trucks and Jeeps with massive tires, wheels and suspensions, 70s era Ford Broncos were all over. Knowing a new Bronco is on the verge of making an appearance, it’s no surprise the older versions were out in full force. 
Rat rods were another popular site at SEMA. Cars generally built using scrap parts from all types of vehicles modified with ridiculous engines were turning heads left and right. One of my favorites was one known as ‘Jokers Wild’ and was featured on an episode of ‘Vegas Rat Rods.’ The car was built out of junk parts and had both a turbo and supercharged V8 complete with nitrous. The lime green paint and the face of a monster was one begging to be looked at. 
Camping accessories and modifications nearly filled an entire exhibit hall. I’ve seen images on Instagram, but seeing how they’ve incorporated an entire camp site into the back of a 4Runner or pickup truck was very neat. From custom air mattresses to fit the bed of a truck to roof top tents with ladders, everything you’d need for your next off-road/camping adventure was there. 
Craziest Vehicles:
Aside from the couple I’ve already mentioned, it was the norm to see the wild and unexpected at SEMA. A lifted truck painted in pink would turn your heads on the streets of Chicago, but not at SEMA. Trucks like that were everywhere so it was the anti-truck that caught my attention.
“Never Enough” was a 1994 Geo Tracker that the owner purchased for $300 and built it out from there. The mini convertible SUV was complete with a blown Chevy 350 engine with a massive blower and stack. Painted in bright orange and outfitted with at least nine nitrous bottles and a supercharger, this a one of kind Geo that you’re likely not to see anywhere else. 
“Teslonda” was parked in outside lot among some other privately-owned cars, but this oddity caught my attention as it was the frame of cream colored 1981 Accord with dragster type of tires. Upon further investigation, I determined it had a Tesla drivetrain and was all electric going 0-60 in 2.7 seconds. This 536 HP Frankencar deserved more attention than it got. 
“Boogy Van” was a 1969 Chevy G10 Handy Van with a big block stuffed in between the seats in the van.  The van was subtly painted with purple accents and a very 70s purple interior. Boogy Van is outfitted with a custom exhaust and Micky Thompson tires wrapped around Cragar Mags. 
Other notable rides were a 1956 Beetle with an all-aluminum Buick 215 V8 stuffed in the car, a monster looking Power Wagon tow truck built by Hauk Designs and a rusty 1970 Chevy C10 long bed with a custom 632” big block Chevy… the sleeper of all sleepers. 
SEMA Winners:
With so much to see and do there were bound to be a few stand out exhibits and vehicles. Overall, I was impressed with the contributions Ford made to SEMA. Their driving experience and show was always packed with lines and viewers, while the indoor exhibit featuring the likes of the Ford GT, Ranger, F150s and more showcased their dedication to performance. 
As an import fan, the Toyota exhibit featuring four generations of stock Supras was already on my list to visit. These cars were so impressive in person and I loved seeing these time capsules of a car that could easily be seen in any suburban parking lot back in the 80s. My favorites were the 2nd and 4th generations, both of which looked so fresh in white on the show floor. 
Ringbrothers is a shop out of Wisconsin that built at least two stand out vehicles for me. The first was a Chevy K5 Blazer with a removable hard top. This truck was so clean and simple which accentuated the truck in the best of ways. The silver painted truck with brown interior looked modern and classic… this is what I think of when I hear the name Blazer. Ringbrothers also built a 1972 AMC Javelin AMX that was on display in the Prestone exhibit. Again, with a clean and simple custom design, this car was golden. From the paint color to the custom wheels and tight body gaps, this car was a showstopper. No need to look under the hood as you know this car has the performance to match. 
Overall, attending SEMA was an auto experience different from any other. From talking to vendors, other attendees, and manufacturers… one thing everyone can agree on is that you can expect the unexpected at SEMA. It is 100 percent fitting that this show takes place in Las Vegas, where anything goes. If you like to make your car more personal or just like to see its wildest potential, then find a way to visit this show at least once in your lifetime. For more photos, check out my Instagram page @jpcars22
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