This week marks the 50th anniversary of the SEMA Show, and the theme this year says it all: We Built This. It’s a golden anniversary – the big five-zero. From walking the floor, checking out new products and absorbing the vibes here, it’s apparent that auto culture and the enthusiasts who immerse themselves in it continue to thrive.
The Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association has come a long way since its humble beginnings. Its first expo was held in the basement of Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Some of the booths were nothing more than card tables, a few chairs and little bit of pipe and drape to separate the 100 exhibitor booths from one another.
Contrast that with today’s SEMA, featuring thousands of companies and drawing participants from all around the globe to Las Vegas, the city of glitz that seems forever bent on outdoing itself. Perhaps it is just this environment that is needed to inspire participating companies to be the best they can be here in the center of the arena. Nearly everyone feels compelled to be over-the-top. Otherwise you can almost expect to be overlooked.
The original name of this show was, “The High Performance & Custom Trade Show.” Back then, San Francisco “love-ins” and Vietnam may have gotten all the headlines, but the auto aftermarket’s emergence did not go unnoticed. In the ’70s the organization changed its name to Specialty Equipment Market Association, which resulted in the SEMA Show becoming the name of its annual gathering.
When the Las Vegas Convention Center opened in the 1950s, it only had a 90,000-square-foot exhibit hall, but there were 18 meeting rooms and a 20,340-square-foot rotunda, plus showgirls. By the time the SEMA Show moved there in 1977, Elvis had left the building.
One thing that is a given in life is change, and in the 1980s there were a number of changes taking place in the auto industry, driven by the 1970s oil and gas crisis. The global nature of the industry became more visible at that time as well when the Automotive International Association joined forces with SEMA, creating the SEMA/AI Show. This quickly morphed into the SEMA/AI/APAA Show. One major advantage of Las Vegas was the absence of L.A.’s crowded freeways and nearly toxic smog.
Just before the end of the ’90s SEMA broke the 500,000-square-foot milestone and seemed to take off as if it had wings. I’ve been attending since 1996 on behalf of AMSOIL and have found the scale, innovation and imagination nearly astonishing. Back then the South Hall existed only on drawing boards. Today the 1 million square feet of exhibitor space is still being squeezed to the max. More than 2,500 exhibitors are here this year with an estimated 160,000 manufacturers, buyers and industry representatives expected to attend. No wonder they keep building hotel/casinos out here to house them.
Monday, when these photos were taken, was the last day of set-up before showtime. Media from all over the world have their cameras blazing. Tuesday the doors officially open for another week of business and eye candy. I’m speaking here of the cars, the SEMA Show’s real stars.