Aftermarket autos revving up

Specialty car equipment industry brings in billions

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LAS VEGAS -- Nearly every inch of floor space in this city's convention center was crowded with vendors hawking automotive products.

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

If it has anything to do with a car, it could be found here at the Specialty Equipment Market Association trade show. With more than 2,250 exhibitors in attendance this year, it was the largest show in SEMA's history.

The showwasn't open to the public. But it's no small affair. The event took up 2.5 million square feet of space at the Las Vegas Convention Center -- and even spilled 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. had the largest exhibit booths here. Camaros and Mustangs dazzle beneath fluorescent lights.

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

Allen Cohn, 50, and Jose Fierros, 27, were here to find parts suppliers for Mustang Country International, a small Paramount, Calif., 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."

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

Bouncing back

There are a variety of cars here, in addition to those brought by U.S. and international automakers. Car customizers 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.

Peltier pitched 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."