By on November 12, 2013

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I hear the SEMA show was last week. You know the SEMA show, right? It’s that important aftermarket manufacturers’ show held each autumn in Las Vegas where various companies try to pitch their products to customizers and retailers. Like all good automotive trade shows, SEMA features hundreds of companies and dozens upon dozens of custom vehicles. The fancy, hand-built cars draw people to the displays and form a pretty canvas on which a company can display its wares. But like any fashion show there is a hidden truth. The special parts on this or that big-name builder’s hot rod won’t have the same effect on your own, more mundane vehicle. No, for most of us beauty is an illusion; the phrase “lipstick on a pig” exists for a reason.

The SEMA show is a big deal because there is a lot of money at stake. The Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association predicts 2014 sales to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 248 Billion dollars so it makes sense that the manufacturers go all-in when it comes to the Las Vegas show. Why wouldn’t they? If they have a unique product this is their chance to get it to the consumer. My only question is who actually buys this crap?

Now I’m not talking about performance parts – not genuine ones at least. If you drop a bunch of money on a set of headers or a cold air intake and you buy something that looks clean and neat I’m not going to criticize you. A carbon fiber hood saves weight and if it just happens to look really cool on the black and white Twin-Cam Corolla you have tarted up with JDM Trueno badges I won’t laugh – much. But that’s because I believe in performance modifications. Every enthusiast knows the Feds have regulated all the fun out of the business and that new cars are tuned too lean in order to meet strict emissions guidelines. A reflashed control module and a new exhaust just puts a car right back where it should be and it’s only natural that you should want to get everything you pay for, right? Right?

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It’s the other stuff that I wonder about, the stick-on bits of bling and little doo-dads to decorate your car’s interior. Larger modifications too, things like Lambo doors and weird body kits. The economy has been tough these last few years and people are hurting. Still, for whatever reason people seem bound and determined to still squander what little they have. What is the point of buying these things? How much time do you spend in your car that you need to have the insides entirely decorated in Hello Kitty seat covers and lace throw pillows?

We’re all car folks here. We all love our cars and if you are like me you probably spend hours cleaning and detailing your ride to make sure it looks its best. But buying this stick-on crap is over the top. When you face St. Peter at the Pearly Gates he’s sure to ask you why you put those fake Buick porholes on your Saturn. What are you going to say then? Unless you are under 18 or a Japanese “gyaru” there’s no excuse.

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast, he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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55 Comments on “Plain Jane to Bling Queen Courtesy of SEMA and the Miracle of Plastic Chrome...”

  • avatar

    “When you face St. Peter at the Pearly Gates he’s sure to ask you why you put those fake Buick porholes on your Saturn.”
    Well put sir!

    • 0 avatar

      Especially when, as I often see locally here in Chicago Southland, the portholes are added to vehicles already dripping with artificial and superficial blingy ornaments, e.g. Escalades.

    • 0 avatar

      Lol, I see people around here putting those on the rear quarters! I even saw a Charger that had fake brake vents on the rear doors.

    • 0 avatar

      Anyone seen portholes on a Leaf yet? I have seen ’em on a Prius, but a full EV would truly be mind-blowing.

    • 0 avatar

      I did put cruiserline ventiports on my old ’99 Accord. I cut them out of some magnetized material, and just stuck ’em on. (They’re real cruiserline ventiports: cruiserline ventiports are fake intakes, so any fake intake is a real cruiserline ventiport.) I put them on because they distinguished my Accord from all the other Accords out there. Cost me about $5.

  • avatar

    The same reason you walk into a liquor store for your fifth of Maker’s Mark and look down at the little jar of Black & Milds or individual cigarettes or mini liquor bottles at the cash register: Because value-be-damned, many shoppers just want something at a specific price point TODAY. Forget saving up for a real mod, what can I get for $10 and walk out the door.

    Incremental “improvement” with no regard for the Gestaltist ideal. Don’t try to use that hypothesis in the checkout line at Pep Boys, though.

    It’s not about your class or auto subculture or race or any socioeconomic things. It’s just impatience — the true, unspoken problem with almost everything in society.

    But dude, what if you die tomorrow? Your SL2 shouldn’t have to go without a sweet exhaust for one more day. YOLO.

  • avatar

    why do people decorate their homes? At it’s core it’s shelter. That’s all you need. Cars are for getting from A to B right? you can extrapolate an answer from there…

    • 0 avatar

      You got me thinking, there. I spend a lot of time making my home ‘personal.’

      I guess decorating my home gets me laid whereas women could care less about what I put on my car. At least the women I date, do. So is it priorities?

  • avatar

    Meh, so folks choose to put their energy and sometimes meager resources into blinging out their daily driver. I say let ’em. They’re only hurting themselves by devaluing their vehicles. That’s why unmolested versions of even the most malaise of vehicles will always have higher resale value.

    P.S. I hate the Buick portholes the most!

  • avatar

    When I saw the lead pic I was 80% sure this was a Bertel Schmitt article.

  • avatar

    The plasichrome portholes, outlining every body panel with plastichrome, sticking 2 grand worth of wheels and tires on a 3 grand car, these are things that make me go hmmmm.

    The one that struck me this morning was the DO/AC 7″ circle magnets that are popular now in Southern NJ. This one was stuck on the FRONT fender of a new Acura TL. Why in gods name would you do that to a 40 grand car???? Nearly everybody in SNJ has been to Atlantic City at least once. You’re not special in that regard so why disgrace your car with that lame magnet?

    • 0 avatar

      Everyone loves their geography/vacation bragging stickers. Here in the mid-South, it’s usually a sun-shaped “30A” (South Walton, Gulf Coast of FL) or similar. Hooray, you’ve been to a really expensive beach along with every other human on the I-65 corridor from Illinois to Alabama. Including me.

      “OBX” can be seen all over the eastern US, where apparently 100 billion people have been to the Outer Banks of NC. Except me.

      If you drive the rare Subaru in the non-snowy Southeast, it’s more often “AT” (Appalachian Trail) or maybe “GSMNP” (Smokies NP).

      The only thing I see more than the geography stickers are the “How far can I run?” stickers. 26.2, 13.1…and then I saw a 0.0 version and laughed heartily.

      • 0 avatar

        The 0.0 sticker also contains, in little tiny lettering: “I don’t run”. I laughed for five minutes the first time I saw one.

      • 0 avatar

        OBX is my big qualm. In Pittsburgh it became a major chunk of the upper middle class identity to vacation there. I grew up working class so my only trips to the ocean were Ocean City, MD (the nicer Ocean City Iin my view) which was the OBX of the working class…except nobody had stupid bumper stickers. I understand OBX is more cabins than anything so I guess it’s a more communal type vacation….I’ve always been a doer on vacations so museums and such are more my speed.

        Now that I’ve transplanted to Flagstaff, AZ I see a ton of PHX and random snow crap stickers. They’re almost as ubiquitous but with more ‘look how my whole rear is covered, aren’t I cool’ hippies…

    • 0 avatar

      Sounds like the OBX craze in southern Virginia. I’d dare say its not even that nice of a place to visit as its as crowded as any other along the east coast except you get the added bonus of sand in your crotch.

      The Outer Banks was maybe a great place back in the 60’s and 70’s but toward the end of 80’s it was starting to turn into the over commercialized vacation trap it is today… bleh!

  • avatar

    “It’s the other stuff that I wonder about, the stick-on bits of bling and little doo-dads to decorate your car’s interior. Larger modifications too, things like Lambo doors and weird body kits. The economy has been tough these last few years and people are hurting. Still, for whatever reason people seem bound and determined to still squander what little they have. What is the point of buying these things?”

    It is the insecurity of being poor that gets people to buy this crap. Kind of like poor kids spending a lot of money on clothes, while rich kids thrift shop out of irony, and out of the lack of need to use clothes as a class marker when their parents’ house and the college they are going to are class marker enough.

    Also, people not being able to afford new cars will get them to put more crap into old cars. In some ways it is a very inefficient alternative to financing. People getting an old car and making pay-as-you-go “improvements”, because they cannot get the financing, at least at an attractive rate, to make payments on a new car.

    Of course that kind of behavior is inadvisable, and facilitates the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer.

  • avatar

    I’ll be the contrarian here and say that I may not like the aftermarket bling I see on a lot of cars, but some of it looks ok. At least it tells me the owner takes pride in his car and wants it to look as good as he can make it. Remember, it looks good to him

    • 0 avatar

      The well done projector HID lamps always get me thinking about upgrading my truck’s to OEM or OEM-like HID lamps. Some of the aftermarket gets you the same marketing gimmicks done for less and saves you the cash from choosing high trim levels.

    • 0 avatar

      Agreed, especially considering we’re at the point that every damn car looks the same. Wedge/sporty/rounded/aggresive front end. Yahoo.

  • avatar

    Hyundai already blinged out my Sante Fe for me. Genuine imitation wood trim. Engine cover that shows fake intake manifold going the wrong way. :)

  • avatar

    Hard to even know where to begin with all of this, but let’s just cut it short and say that one person doesn’t really have any business criticizing (or making value or personality judgments) based on what another person chooses to do with his money, whether it’s being spent on houses, schools, food/wine, clothing, or automotive stuff.

  • avatar

    Back up a sec… you can get Hello Kitty seat covers?!? I’ve been missing out! (chuckle) :)

    I reserve my right to heartily laugh at others for their choices (and I invoke it often), but at the end of the day, à chacun son goût.

    • 0 avatar

      You want to argue with my wife about the esthetics of Hello Kitty?

      I’m with those who say ‘live and let live ‘. The only stuff that really annoys me is the pseudo performance racing stuff. A lot of this stuff is just playful (even though I’d never touch it)

    • 0 avatar

      I think you can buy an entire Hello Kitty car from the factory, in the form of a Mitsubishi Mirage.

  • avatar

    Sounds like the PRI show in December would be more to your liking. About the only “accessory” booth you’ll find is Go Pro, and most hard core racers have at least one of those mounted to their roll cage lately.

    Last week’s SEMA Show was the largest in recent memory. I skipped entire halls just to get to the vendors I needed to see.

  • avatar

    I personally dislike the stick-on portholes. Only Buicks should have portholes… and maybe Maserati, but that’s another topic.

    My biggest beef are the fart-can mufflers. Nothing sounds more obnoxious than a 4 cylinder with one of those, other than almost all motorcycles. I prefer driving softly but carrying lots of horsepower!

    I just laugh at kids who put all that money into ill-fitting and unpainted body kits on their Civics. Like they have money for any of that. Their money would be better spent on fixing their clapped-out heaps they do drive.

    My rule-of-thumb on decorating a car, especially on the exterior: If it doesn’t look like it belongs there, don’t do it at all. Spend your money on a good wax and other cleaners, and don’t blow it on pine-tree or gold crown air fresheners or chrome skull knobs!

    • 0 avatar

      The irony is they’re actually losing power with fart-cannons. They need the back pressure unless they’ve done the intake and head work to match the freer flowing exhaust.

  • avatar

    “What is the point of buying these things? How much time do you spend in your car that you need to have the insides entirely decorated in Hello Kitty seat covers and lace throw pillows?”

    I scoff at mods that looked tacked on, as many of them do. But I understand them. Even a small mod can make your car feel fresh for a little while, and that’s a good feeling. Especially when you know your car isn’t everything you’d like it to be. And I have a soft spot for underglow that I won’t admit to out loud.

    Those modders are more honest than those of us who install performance mods. What could be sillier than increasing our car’s top speed from 137 to 140mph when we never exceed 80? Oooh, my coilovers save me a second when I drive around in a circle on a loop in the middle of nowhere. Best $1,000 evar! (I did install coilovers on my Miata. I like them, but it wasn’t a purchase I try to justify.) In contrast, visual mods make their difference 100% of the time, including when parked, and in heavy traffic. That’s value.

    • 0 avatar

      In my opinion this is the best post here so far. I drive stone stock, but try to order new when the money’s available so that I get what I want. Personalization is just that – what one person likes. If I find something visually offensive, that’s my problem. I live in a country where esthetics is democratized to the point of finding Buick portholes stuck on a Mitsubishi – and I’d have it no other way. (The noise pollution of Harley’s and their ilk or loud, thumping stereos is more troublesome because “looking away” is not an option.) If we want to eliminate the plasti-chroming of cars, we should elevate our common esthetic sensibilities by improving our educational system. It won’t change by ranting about my neighbor’s decals.

  • avatar

    “new cars are tuned too lean”

    lol, no. If a car is too lean it produces too much NOx emissions, an easy fail for a smog test. I’m not sure where you heard this from. If anything, stock tunes are too rich for safety and warranty of engine components. At idle and closed loop, no modern car will be lean nor rich, that’s why they have a narrowband O2 sensor that hovers around perfect stoich.

    Stop spreading information that is incorrect.

  • avatar

    OBX? Because I’m an Oberheim fan!

  • avatar

    tl;dr version:
    “Stay off my lawn!”

  • avatar

    I’m not a big fan of strictly visual aftermarket upgrades; i.e. stick on portals and body kits.(I just returned the grill on my car back to stock from the aftermaket one the previous owner had put on it.) That being said I like that there appears to be a car culture for every socio-economic group, whether its guys putting in super chargers or guys slapping on chrome plastic wheel covers and stick on baubles. A common thread (showing love for whatever vehicle you have any way you can) is a good thing for humanity. Even if it looks silly.

  • avatar

    The thing about these types of ‘mods’ (if you call them that), is that someone took time out of there day to do it. They actually spent some sort of time carefully applying the stick on…not to mention going out to buy it.

    My wife and kids barely give me time to switch the summers to winters….

    I do enjoy barb wire anything and bobble head showcases in the back window.

  • avatar

    What about tribute vehicles?

    I’ve always wanted to do up a W-body Grand Prix coupe to look like Fireball Roberts #22 Catalina. And what good is an original M-class expect for a Lost World replica?

    Hell my avatar on TTAC is a McLaren SLR with a Pontiac nose and a Trans Am hood graphic.

    • 0 avatar

      All this time I thought it was a fifth gen Firebird that never came to be.

    • 0 avatar

      Somebody in my city has a black current-gen Camaro done up (badges, decals, hood) as a Trans-Am. I have seen it a few times during my work commute. Definitely a “what could have been” eye raiser.

      • 0 avatar

        I Googled Camaro “Trans Am” and apparently a company called Trans Am Depot has conversions. Way cool. They even have a Pontiac GTO kit.

        This looks like one Trans Am my ’68 Galaxie 500 won’t be able to spank. LOL

  • avatar
    el scotto

    Stick-on geegaws and such? Because some guy is thinking “because chicks dig it”.

  • avatar
    Athos Nobile

    Why people decorated their horses, carriages, etc in the past? Why do people dress differently? Why we all don’t drive a LADA?

    Personally I don’t care, even in the most offensive of the cases. And I saw plenty of those in Venezuela. Here not so much, but they’re still out there… Brembo brake caliper covers anyone? chintzy 20″ chrome wheels? As far as I’m concerned, people can spend their money in whatever they want.

    For example, I would use the aftermarket to upgrade my headlamps to projectors, complete with angel eyes. I also would like a fancier stereo and some “sport” seats would spice up my current ride. Some 18″ wheels would make it look more actual too. And retrofitting later model suspension bits would make it drive nicer. A turbo kit would certainly give it more oomph and coupling it with a LPG kit would make that “affordable” to run. I could sort those issues via OEM bits, aftermarket or a wrecker.

    With the Saab I would gladly add a Hurst-like shifter knob and a spoiler, maybe some sheepskin seat covers. On a turbo version, some of those cool Defi gauges too.

    And there is one I find actually cool: the solar powered winged thing I see some cars.

    “When you face St. Peter at the Pearly Gates he’s sure to ask you why you put those fake Buick portholes on your Saturn. What are you going to say then?”

    Go G-luten F-ree?

  • avatar

    I honestly think the rise of those items is a desperate attempt to ad some individualization to a sea of vanilla mediocre cars.

  • avatar

    “What is the point of buying these things?”

    For a dude it’s simple: he thinks it increases the probability of getting laid.

  • avatar

    I think you are preaching to the choir here. I doubt that any TTAC reader is the type to use those Pep Boys customizing touches, or dubs, or fart cans or any of the other cheesy things at SEMA.

    Unfortunately there a large percentage of the general public that has terrible taste. Same thing with houses, my wife is a realtor and it still amazes me how many houses she shows where the owners have cheesy decor, terrible color choices, tacky kitchens and bathrooms, etc.

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