This is why SEMA matters

No one can predict the next big thing. But checking out the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) show in Las Vegas might give us a clue. I believe it is the automotive world’s own crystal ball.

First, let’s discuss numbers. This year was the show’s fiftieth anniversary and I met at least two vendors that haven’t missed a SEMA event in over twenty years – a consistency that I have trouble grasping. So, from presumably small and loyal roots, SEMA has become a behemoth; it is the fourth largest trade-show in Las Vegas, and features aftermarket automotive equipment from thousands of manufacturers around the world with over 165,000 attendees traipsing over miles and miles. (I clocked thirteen miles in two days.)

And I contend that if you work in the automotive sector, SEMA matters a great deal. For some small vendors, attending SEMA is the year’s single largest marketing expense. For others, including the participating OEMs, it’s just one of many events on the calendar. But for folks like Barry Meguiar, Richard Rawlings and Magnus Walker, it’s a place to see, be seen and discover what’s happening.

By all accounts there are many things happening in the car business. In fact, quoting someone more way famous than myself, “the news of my death has been greatly exaggerated” – the same can be said about internal combustion. Gasoline powered cars and trucks remain among the most ubiquitous forms of travel in the world and SEMA proves that for many people customizing their own rides still matters a great deal.

But in addition to exposing new ideas and trends, SEMA is where some trends come to die. To prove my suppositions I’ll offer two examples. The first focuses on an end: RWB Porsches. Rauh-Welt Begriff (RWB) should be familiar to anyone who follows global car scenes with any avidity. Akira Nakai, its originator, is known the world over as a chain-smoking Japanese artisan who cuts up perfectly lovely Porsches and converts them into wide-bodied monsters. Many are then stanced, and for the last three years Nakai-San, as he is known, has been busy traveling around the world offering “product as a service” to support his brand.

I’m won’t debate the merits of his customization trend. Whether you find RWB cars fantastic examples of expression or abominations doesn’t matter. What is absolutely an incontrovertible fact is that what Nakai-San’s been doing is trending. At least three, maybe four RWB cars were displayed at SEMA this year. However, they were not presented as a cohesive unit in support of RWB itself, instead were being used to hawk other manufacturers’ wares. I’ve also seen the first of these cars sold online, and sitting around waiting for buyers.

Their inherent uniqueness made RWB Porsches special. Nakai-San designed and made each one. But at SEMA, a lack of cohesion and brand ownership was exposed under very harsh lights. Nakai-San is a craftsman and RWB can’t be adopted en masse because doing so fundamentally devalues the trend itself. (A parallel can be seen in music, when bands become popular they often lose their credibility with core fans. See selling out.) But he’s also guilty of mismanaging his moment. RWB lost what made it special because the cars were co-opted by smaller companies looking to use Nakai-San’s products to promote their own.

Now, Nakai will no doubt remain busy for some time to come but I have a strong feeling the moment has peaked and we won’t be seeing quite so many slammed Porsche 964s at next year’s show. Why? Because RWB doesn’t understand brand stewardship and rather than partnering with players that could help guarantee his future, Nakai allows his cars to be used in ways that devalue his work.

The other part of the cycle is seeing what’s next and SEMA is also perfect for discovering new custom builders doing things properly by creating great cars and value-added partnerships. Two notable examples are Singer Vehicle Designs and The Ring Brothers. I attended SEMA in 2013 and The Ring Brothers were in a small booth upstairs in the central hall reserved for new products and manufacturers. This year they had their own large booth, as well as a custom LS1-powered motorhome at the Prestone stand. In three years they have vaulted from relative obscurity to substantial popularity by doing something important: building incredible cars.

Singer also reflects this ideal. In a sea of knockoffs, builders like Singer and The Ring Brothers are defining the top end of the custom build scene, their attention to detail inspiring other builders around them. But they are also careful while breaking new ground. Singer makes cars for discriminating (read: wealthy) buyers and this year they were featured at the WeatherTech (a company with about $400 million in annual revenue) booth. This association makes sense as this particular Singer had beautiful custom-made WeatherTech floor mats that dovetailed with Singer’s ethos, “everything matters.” The cars are special, and in the case of the Ring Brothers who build one or two cars per year that distinction is even greater. You generally won’t find either car at your local cars and coffee. And that’s how to play the long game.

As for SEMA, I’ve concluded that it’s both healthy and truly matters. Many folks in the automotive press have discounted the Las Vegas show, believing that it’s a waste of time because of all the shiny rims and big engines. But they are missing the point. SEMA’s show is the largest pulse point in car culture today. It’s a distillation and snapshot, and for that, it’s critically important because at SEMA we can all see what the crystal ball reveals.

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