Aftermarket car show is all revved up

LAS VEGAS— Nearly every inch of floor space in this city’s convention center is crowded with vendors hawking automotive products.

There are pedestals hoisting horsepower-generating superchargers. Then there are stacks of colorful custom carpet samples. Nearby is a display case filled with high-performance head gaskets.

If it has anything to do with a car, it can be found here at the Specialty Equipment Market Assn. trade show. With more than 2,250 exhibitors in attendance this year, it is the largest show in SEMA’s history. California plays a large part, with 1 in 4 exhibitors hailing from the Golden State.

Photos: Highlights from the 2012 SEMA Show

The show, which opened Tuesday and ends Friday, isn’t open to the public. But it’s no small affair. The event takes up 2.5 million square feet of space at the Las Vegas Convention Center — and even spills out into the parking lot.

Once considered a niche business, the U.S. automotive specialty equipment industry is expected to rake in nearly $30 billion this year.

That fact isn’t lost on Detroit — Chevrolet and Ford Motor Co. have the largest exhibit booths here. Camaros and Mustangs dazzle beneath fluorescent lights.


Video: Bill Hennigan gives an inside look at SEMA

But the vast majority of the convention floor is crammed with 125,000 salesmen, car customizers and mom-and-pop auto shop owners who have gathered to see and sell the latest technology in the aftermarket car industry.

Allen Cohn, 50, and Jose Fierros, 27, are here to find parts suppliers for Mustang Country International, a small Paramount garage that refurbishes Ford Mustangs. Each year, the 11-employee business makes about 40 old Mustangs good as new.

“We find all sorts of new vendors here,” said Cohn, who owns Mustang Country. “We even find vendors in California we didn’t know existed.”

There are plenty of California businesses to choose from. Of the 2,257 exhibitors, California is home to 564 — many from the Southland.

Companies such as Edelbrock Corp. in Torrance, which makes carburetors, intake manifolds and cylinder heads, and Surf City Garage in Huntington Beach, which makes car detailing products, are mainstays.

SEMA got its start in 1963 when a group of small manufacturers of hot rod equipment organized as the Speed Equipment Manufacturers Assn. The group eventually widened its scope and changed its name to Specialty Equipment Market Assn. Its headquarters are now in Diamond Bar.

“The foundation of our industry and show was built in Southern California,” said SEMA spokesman Peter MacGillivray. “While the show is global, we rely a great deal on our roots. The largest segment of our show participants are from that region.”

There are a variety of cars here, in addition to those brought by U.S. and international automakers. Car customizers such as West Coast Customs of Corona and hot rod shops such as So-Cal Speed Shop of Pomona also have vehicles on display.

But the SEMA show is predominantly made up of businessmen like Alan Peltier, 43, president of HRE Wheels in Vista, Calif. He came to the show to connect with potential buyers of his company’s high-end wheels, which can cost $2,900 to $50,000 per set.

Photos: Highlights from the 2012 SEMA Show

Peltier pitches his product at a booth with two walls adorned with neat rows of rims, which range from shimmering metallic to stark black. The company’s business took a hit in recent years when the economy crumbled and people no longer had money to spend on stainless-steel or carbon-fiber rims.

Now, though, HRE has made steady progress back, Peltier said. The company has 40 employees and a sales office in Stuttgart, Germany, for international business.

The SEMA show “presents a great opportunity to grow our business,” he said. “We’re really excited about it.”