Editorial: So… SEMA's Boring Eh? Well, MAYBE NOT
I waited all day for the fear to take hold. Wandering through a parking lot jammed with alien whips, I wondered when the icy fingers would make contact with my sun-baked scapulae. But it never came. As the desert sun faded to dusk and Las Vegas slowly came to life with humming neon, I couldn’t help but take what alcoholics call a searching and fearless moral inventory. What had robbed these ferociously unnecessary monuments to excess of their terrifying power? Were they too much at home in glittering Babylon, little more than tiny microcosms of the glaring titans that loom over the Vegas Strip? Or had some infectious irony (gone pandemic in the face of national malaise) landed in this last bastion of shallow glitz, reducing each glittering status symbol to so much light parody? Or was I (and the creators of these mechanical beasts) simply preoccupied with said malaise, and the seemingly inevitable national transformation which has only now, as I write from my hotel room, been officially realized? Nobody goes to Vegas seriously expecting answers, but was a little existential fear now too much to ask for too?
Nothing had empirically castrated the gleaming hulks which littered the front of the Las Vegas Convention Center. The luxury armored cars, fire-breathing dragsters, and bristling street racers were not short on horsepower, fuck-off attitude, or obtrusive hedonism. Behind me, a twin-turbo Hennessy GT40 roared to life, blasting a window-rattling raspberry at the very notion that hydrocarbons might not be a God-given and limitless right. No, this automotive bloodline was clearly still feeling its oats, evolving in every monstrous direction and bouncing off the limits of sanity.
And yet, gazing on these brutes I felt nothing more than the inevitable maturity that settles on any movement that founds itself on the principles of outrage and excess. Where a low-slung, double-bubble-topped artifact from the era of the great Dream-O-Ramas shone with the promise of a sleeker, lower-slung future, the Hummer on four individual tread-tracks spoke only of a culture sliding into a morass of unimaginative self-parody. Or a deeply unwell individual.
But even the sight of an H2 perched on triangular traction generators (and its cultural implications) couldn’t shake a sensation that I was witnessing something vulnerable. Fragile, even, for aftermarket parts. Maybe I’ve been watching too much cable TV news which can not stop blaring the promise of historical change they swear is happening. Perhaps it’s the steady diet of apocalyptic news I’ve digested steadily since becoming an automotive blogger. Whatever the reason, I feel the earth shifting around the SEMA show.
When the founder of the duPont Registry admitted that he’d received many questions about the status of the luxury auto market, he made no refutation to the fundamental implication: that Americans can no longer afford the irrational exuberance his publication hocks. All he could say was that the industry must focus on the global market, a remark which strangely reinforced my impression that the boom-town bustle, status fixation and epic scale of Las Vegas felt more Chinese than American. He then unveiled the $300k Knight XV luxury armored car.
If not every mechanical saurian born at the SEMA show notices the burning comet which appears to hurtle towards it, is it even fair to blame its pimps and proud owners? Surely no Tyrannosaur ever considered the evolutionary choices of its forbears (damn, baby girl, you got some tiny arms) anything less than a step towards unprecedented greatness. In the same way, since the first cars emerged from the workshops that gave them birth, their creators have sought to make them bigger, faster and more expressive. That this process of evolution, which has captured the minds and imaginations of millions, has culminated in the grotesque monstrosities haunting the Las Vegas Convention Center is no more surprising than the fact that most dinosaurs eventually transformed from primeval monsters to modern birds.
And though the odd archaeopteryx (Yaris Club, anyone?) perched between the brontosauri, subtly pointing to a more rational future, there is little to suggest that nonsensically transforming utilitarian machines into fearsome beasts is going away completely. Old-school muscle machines outshone their new-wave pretenders, smiling like crocodiles who know that their niche isn’t going anywhere. Car tuning may have become a $38b industry thanks to cheap credit and poor taste, but its beating heart is the not the guy who put 28 inch wheels on a Phantom Drophead Coupe. It’s the guy who works eight hours and then goes home to spend his evening on his back under an internal combustion engine. When the 2009 SEMA show convenes a year from now, that guy will be back in Vegas. More than a few of the dinosaurs may not.
More by Edward Niedermeyer
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