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SEMA 2009: Running, But Not Quite On All Cylinders

“More opportunity for survivors”?

by on Nov.06, 2009

Saleen brought its latest offering, the S281 Mustang, to this year's SEMA show, but there were plenty of no-shows at the normally SRO event.

Saleen brought its latest offering, the S281 Mustang, to this year's show, but there were plenty of no-shows at the normally SRO event.

Veterans of the annual Specialty Equipment Market Association convention can gauge the gathering’s health like an old-school mechanic with stethoscope.

Arriving in Las Vegas early Monday, the show’s last day for set up, taxi lines that in past years would have consumed hours were non-existent. Driving to the Las Vegas Convention Center, our cab circled the large parking lot in front of the three main halls. Normally the space features display vehicles and mobile marketing rigs. While there was activity, vast areas that had once held a veritable midway were largely open.

Keep in tune with the "tuners."

Keep in tune with "tuners."

In the pressroom, journalists arrived to have their hopes dashed about scoring yet another SEMA-logoed roller-wheel backpack (coveted annual swag for more than a decade). Even the more functional, but less glamorous steno pads went missing, both for lack of sponsorship.

People keep working on their cars, said one SEMA 2009 exhibitor.  They just don't spend as much.

People keep working on their cars, said one SEMA exhibitor. They just don't spend as much.

Doing an early show walk-through during the final move in, all three halls of the LVCC included thousands of square feet of exhibit-free space. Random collections of customized vehicles (normally parked in front of the halls) were moved inside to camouflage the otherwise empty concrete, creating a surreal parking garage effect.

Major industry players were also missing or utilized much less exhibit space. Michelin was totally absent. General Motors occupied half the space of years past.

SEMA’s numbers are likely down from 2008, itself not a banner year. As for how much, SEMA representatives remain coy about sharing figures on exhibitors and attendees. Details will likely become available in a few weeks.

While walking the show Tuesday through Thursday, we had opportunities to talk to Michigan business owners and operators to get their take on the health of the aftermarket industry.

There were vast open spaces out front of the Las Vegas Convention Center, this year.

There were vast open spaces out front of the Las Vegas Convention Center, this year.

TheDetroitBureau.com’s first stop was at Saleen Performance Vehicles where we talked with Mike Shields, the company’s president and CEO. After a walk-around of the company’s new S281 Mustang, Shields spoke in upbeat terms about Saleen, “The brand is perhaps as strong as it’s ever been, and we think that because it is now part of several companies, Saleen is poised to become even stronger.”

Shields also owns Cyltec, Power-Tec, and Control-Tec, companies that specialize in complex machining, advanced design engineering for OEM programs, and engine management controls. All three companies support product development at Saleen.

As for what Shields sees coming, “We’re happy to still have 120 great employees, but not all that long ago, we had 180. That hurts. But now I think that we’re poised for a frustratingly gradual recovery over the next four to five years. In our non-Saleen units, we’re quoting many more projects now, so that activity bodes well. Because of the decimated supplier base, there is more opportunity for the survivors.”

This year's SEMA show still had plenty of "tuners," ready to take your mundane muscle car and turn it into something truly special.

This year's SEMA show still had plenty of "tuners," ready to take your mundane muscle car and turn it into something truly special.

We also caught up with Ken Lingenfelter. Lingenfelter Performance Engineering proudly displayed its handsome concept of what a new Pontiac Firebird could be. He said, “This is a huge, huge hobby that employees so many people. Of course, we want it to remain strong, but we have concerns about government regulation of the industry.”

Regarding GM’s introduction of emission-compliant crate engines, Lingenfelter thought the move was smart and a positive action by an influential member of the aftermarket.

Lingenfelter is using SEMA to gauge interest in the firm’s Firebird. While talking about his love for Pontiac, he said, “We designed it to be production ready. Edag completed the prototype build for us, and the molds are ready. The business case needs to be studied further but we could begin production quickly if the numbers work and the interest is there.” The tone of his comments was positive, reflecting an optimism that the economy has bottomed and will slowly gain momentum.

TheDetroitBureau also caught up with two small business owners, Scott Hoag of Mustang Racing Technologies of Plymouth, and Adam Genei of Brighton’s MobSteel.  Both builders are seasoned, and each brought customized Ford Motor Company products to SEMA.

Standing between MRT’s Taurus SHO and turbocharged Fusion, Hoag said, “Guys are still spending money on their cars. The activity is still there, but the price per transaction is down.” With typical Detroit stoicism, Hoag continued with a smile, “But if I had known poverty were this much fun, I would have tried it years ago.”

Hoag started MRT in 2003 after a long career with Ford, where he managed in-house production of low-volume Mustang editions including the Bullitt and Mach 1.

Representing the more elemental population of SEMA builders, Genei seemed puzzled by the economic question, “It seems that we’ve always been struggling, so we just don’t know any different.” Genei explained how MobSteel started, “I never had a plan. I only had a name and a place to work. My friends would come hang out and work on their rides, and we’d build cars the way we wanted to. Then one day we had a business.”

MobSteel is known for its sinister renditions of classic 1961-69 Lincoln Continentals (the brick sleds with suicide doors). These custom Continentals have become favorites of entertainers and athletes who want something more distinctive than an Escalade.

As Genei contemplated his small company’s moves post SEMA, he talked about making many of the parts completed for his show car available. While daunting, he said, “Hardship doesn’t stop us though.” Indeed.

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