Editorial: So… SEMA's Boring Eh? Well, MAYBE NOT

editorial so 8230 semas 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.

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  • Geeber Geeber on Nov 07, 2008

    Edward, An interesting article, but a little perspective - we've been through this before. During economic downturns, someone or some group is always rushing to declare the death of the car, or at least the death of the cars that people really care about. During tough times, interest in utilitarian modes of transporation - the original Rambler, early Japanese cars, etc. - increases, and custom cars, along with performance cars, are derided as "silly" or a waste of money. Which, to some extent, they are, but people aren't required to be rational when spending their money. They do, however, have to have the money to spend in the first place. It happened in the mid-1970s with the fuel crunch, in the early 1980s with the second fuel crunch and resulting recession, and in the early 1990s with the recession that drove the first George Bush out of ofice. Yet, when the economy bounced back, so did the interest in cars and customizing them. The customization trend had been growing under the radar for years. The Fast and the Furious made it into a mainstream phenomemon. Now it is getting hammered by the collapse of the new-car market and a blossoming recession. It will come back, although it will manifest itself in a different way.

  • Wolven Wolven on Nov 07, 2008
    The five percent I refer to are those who modify their vehicle to the point where day-to-day utility is considerably diminished. I’d argue that maybe a sixth of SEMA exhibitors actively courts this crowd/scene. O.K. I wasn't getting that sense from the article. To me, it sounded like that's what EVERYBODY was doing. And just for the record, I agree with you on the extreme "bling" stuff. Just like some of the hideous piercing, hair, and clothing styles some kids wear. BUT, although most of the time "I" think it looks awful, I would still argue for their right to do it. Cuz every once in a while you see something new that actually has some real style. It's not that I was looking for rah, rah, on the SEMA coverage... but at the same time, all "I" was reading was that EVERYTHING was awful, tasteless, pointless, vanities upon vanities, and chasing after the wind...

  • EBFlex What a colossal waste of money. But this installed administration has yet to spend one cent on something that is actually useful and actually leads to some progress. But apparently this is just what we need….a bunch of extremely overpriced but short ranged busses. It’s amazing that all our problems are solved that they have time to waste money on these little pet projects.
  • Hector How much for steering column?
  • John S. Beautiful car, fun series installment, Corey.
  • FreedMike Any link to the grant applications that were denied?
  • FreedMike I'm amazed it took this long for them to do a Challenger convertible.