Highlights, Trends, and Takeaways from SEMA 2018

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SEMA: Exclusive to aftermarket companies, this show is probably the one event that any enthusiast would lie, beg, borrow, and steal to get into. With thousands of manufacturers, buyers, new product releases, builds, experts, and celebrities, SEMA season is a miniature city of “all things auto” with temporary root in the heart of Vegas. (Oh yea, did we mention it’s in Vegas? Because IT’S IN VEGAS.)

We're ROXOR-ready!Generally, we find exclusive events to be a little too… excluding. But like townies who snagged entrance to the country club, we put on our nice jeans and hit the show floor with all the excitement of Christmas morning. And while certain things we expected to see—insane engine swaps, tires larger than your average third-grader, and tech-savvy products that left us wondering if a robotic uprising was around the corner—other experiences were surprising.

More than any other show, SEMA defines upcoming trends—a testbed for what the people want to see. The OE’s can pretend all they want, but it’s the enthusiasts who determine what is and isn’t cool. Their hobby cars (and, more importantly, the money they spend on them) speak louder than any marketing department.

With that insight in mind, here is a snapshot of highlights, new trends, and takeaways that will undoubtedly impact 2019.

Imitation of Life

Unsurprisingly, Millennials and Gen Zers are influencing everything from electric, autonomous, and ride-sharing agendas to advancements in tech, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence—all of which are redefining the industry.

“The one major observation from SEMA is that new cars are turning into people’s second personal device,” commented Dave Burke, Category Manager of OEM and Diesel at Keystone Automotive. “Such technical advancements mean less in the area of engine maintenance—because everything is turning to sensors and other luxuries. So now more repairs are centered on electrical failure, which favors dealers and experienced mechanics who can afford the tools and training required to service these new vehicles,” he continued.

The vehicles themselves have become so complex that you need a PhD to work on them. In many ways, that’s been a turnoff for an enthusiast community that gets its fix by tinkering.

Hands-On Hot Rodding is Still Hot

But based on the incredible hot rod scene at SEMA, it’s fair to say that for as many people who buy into a high-tech way of life, our industry is filled with even more gearheads who appreciate the ingenuity and craftsmanship of builders and their rides. It shows in the new products that were showcased by brands like Flaming River—named the winner of Engineered New Product and Street Rod/Custom Car Product for its variable angle steering, which is predicted “to solve a lot of problems for street rod builders facing space restrictions while working around exhaust headers, tight frame rails, and anything else that can get in the way,” explained Hot Rod Network.

SEMA showed us that despite a recent tech boom, traditional hands-on hot rodding is still a beloved trend.
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And it’s evident in the artful display of vehicles throughout the show.

For Jason Sakurai, Director of Marketing at Hypertech, “The top build in my mind was Chris Church’s ’40 Ford pickup, which was featured in the Center Hall Concourse right in front of SEMA’s main display. A 953 HP supercharged LS3 engine, 6L80E transmission, Fab 9 rear end, and incredible attention to detail by Portland, Oregon’s Carolina Kustoms along with the owner, who meticulously wired the truck, is reason enough to be the top custom pick. Moreover, it was selected by SEMA’s Peter MacGillivray for placement in SEMA’s display, not a company who supported the build or one giving away awards, so you know it caught his eye as well as mine.”

Pack, Pack, Pack It Up

On the truck and off-road side, both Upper and Lower South Hall were filled with their own eye candy, from mega trucks, high-end JLs, and stretched Wranglers to face time with the ROXOR, classic Broncos, and law enforcement builds. But it was overlanding that turned out to be one of the most captivating trends at SEMA, and diehards are pursuing such adventure in everything from 4x4s to Mini Coopers—go figure! Functional, versatile, stylish cargo management solutions and roof top tents could be seen from every single angle of the show floor.

On the truck and off-road side, both Upper and Lower South Hall were filled with their own eye candy, from mega trucks, high-end JLs, and stretched Wranglers to facetime with the ROXOR, classic Broncos, and law enforcement builds. But it was overlanding that turned out to be one of the most captivating trends at SEMA. On the truck and off-road side, both Upper and Lower South Hall were filled with their own eye candy, from mega trucks, high-end JLs, and stretched Wranglers to facetime with the ROXOR, classic Broncos, and law enforcement builds. But it was overlanding that turned out to be one of the most captivating trends at SEMA. Sakurai believes that off-roading and overlanding or adventure travel are the trends that will have the greatest impact in 2019. “Look at the numbers from other related industries such as RV and outdoor/apparel, and it adds validity to this assertion,” he said. “There have never been as many campers as there are now, and the numbers are growing steadily. The desire to get outdoors and to be in the wild for extended periods of time is leading to sales of roof top tents, refrigerators, and a host of related products. And once they start camping, the natural progression is to a truck or SUV capable of towing a trailer, and this is what’s fueling the movement,” he added.

Bed Protection Gets Better

Aftermarket manufacturers certainly rolled out the red carpet for truck and SUV cargo accessorizing this year. Pick a truck—any truck—and there is a catalog of aftermarket products to infuse your personality into the small square footage we call the truck bed.

Truck beds are incredibly versatile and SEMA showed us hundreds of ways to customize them. The upstairs portion of the SEMA show’s South Hall [was] filled with trucks and 4x4s, and just about anything with a bed had some sort of tonneau, rack, or shell. Truck Hero had no fewer than eight different styles of rolling and folding bed covers in its massive booth, and it spilled all over the show. In Central Hall, Ford and Chevy had custom-built full-size and mid-size trucks on display with motorcycle racks, TVs, and tool boxes. We’ll be honest, it did inspire us to daydream about our ultimate off-road camping vehicle, tailgating rig, and portable fabrication shop, and it reminded us why we love pickups so much,” commented Hagerty.

Let’s Get Rollin’

What’s absolutely certain, you can’t talk SEMA without doting on wheels and tires. Bigger and bolder is better certainly drove the wow factor at this year’s event. From oversized casts and a throwback nod to earlier-era white wheels to bright colors and brushed gold finishes, this year’s wheel scene was wild. Fab Fours, the masters of innovation, shocked the crowd by releasing a stylish wheel and tire combo, along with the world’s largest brake kit.

What's absolutely certain, you can’t talk SEMA without doting on wheels and tires. Bigger and bolder is better certainly drove the wow factor at this year’s event.

“Forged wheels are coming down in price, but they’re still significantly higher in cost than cast wheels, which just keep getting bigger—24” is like the new standard, with 26” starting to become even more common. This used to be forged-only territory!” said Dan Guyer, Category Manager of Wheels & Tires at Keystone Automotive. “Flow-form cast wheels are very prevalent now. There are finishes galore. Chrome will never die, but we have options – machined, tinted machined, gloss, black, bronze. Ultimately, the consumer wins here….choices, choices, choices. And lug nuts… guess what? They’re not just for holding the wheel on anymore—they’re (spike) decoration,” he added. “And let’s not forget, bigger wheels mean bigger tires. Toyo is releasing a 26, Mickey a 24, and Fury is up to a 30 now. My first TJ had 28” tires,” laughed Guyer.

Get ready to go BIG or go home because if there’s anything we can glean from the 2018 SEMA Show, it’s this: the JL just took the Wrangler aftermarket to an entirely new level of cool, the overlanding movement is heading mainstream, the truck market literally offers something for everyone, and gearheads are perhaps more ingenious than ever before when it comes to hot rodding. 

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