Words: Mike Ryan
Photos: Newspress UK, SEMA Media, various manufacturers
Every year since 1967, the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) has presented the latest products from the automotive aftermarket industry - products that enhance the performance, styling, comfort, convenience and safety of cars, pickup trucks and SUVs.
At that first show, held in Los Angeles, a grand total of 98 companies exhibited. Now there are close to 2,400 companies exhibiting and the show covers a massive 1.2 million square feet of the Las Vegas Convention Centre. The growth of the show reflects the automotive aftermarket industry that’s now worth an estimated US$44.6 billion.
Most of the exhibiting companies use a vehicle – or several! – to showcase their products, with cars, pickup trucks and 4x4s to wackier creations, like tracked off-roaders and military vehicles, featuring on exhibitor’s stands.
For this reason, outsiders view SEMA as a car show, first and foremost, To be honest, a lot of the media representatives (around 3,300 media reps attend each year) see it the same way, too.
From classic American muscle to European exotica, as well as a LOT of pickup trucks, there’s also plenty of oddities and rarities on show each year as exhibiting businesses aim for something different to bring attention to their stand.
The major American automotive manufacturers – Ford, Chrysler and GM – get involved to varying degrees each year, as do import brands, like Honda, Hyundai and Toyota.
While the SEMA Show is a trade show and not a public event, it’s become something that plenty of enthusiasts want to get into. In 2019, a big portion of those enthusiasts came from the off-road fraternity, as kitted out 4x4s had their own dedicated display space for the first time.
The growth of 4x4-based off-roading and camping, what the Yanks call ‘overlanding’, has seen dedicated expos pop up across the US. You may have already heard of Overland Expo West and its Eastern counterpart, thanks to coverage from youtubers like Trail Recon, Wayalife, All Things Overlanding and Mixflip. In 2019, Overlanding was given its own section at SEMA – the ‘Overland Experience’.
Devoted entirely to equipment like camper trailers, rooftop tents, canopies, SUV and pickup truck storage systems, roof racks and more, most of the dozens of exhibiting companies in the Overland Experience brought along a vehicle fitted out with their products. Many of those were Jeeps and LandCruisers, as well as dual cab pickups, like the Ranger and Gladiator.
Clever products from the exhibiting companies here included a pull-out tent mounting system from American Adventure Lab that was on a swivel, so even if the vehicle was on uneven ground, the tent itself could be level.
Hiker Trailers presented a model with airbag suspension, pressurized hot water system and a sleeping area that extends to cater for taller people, while another clever camper trailer was the ‘Pro’ pop-top from AntiShanty.
Launched in 2019, the Pro features a steel frame and aluminium hardshell roof that opens to a steep gable – over 9 foot at its highest point - to allow bunk bed sleeping, or a bed up top with 4-person dining table below. Fully insulated, and with built-in kitchen and storage areas, the Pro is also configurable, meaning the full-width rear hatch allows the Pro to be used as a conventional cargo trailer, so it can be your toy hauler for a day of trail riding, or kitted out with all your camping gear for multi-day adventures.
ARB presented a US-spec Ranger kitted out with a range of their products, including a front bumper, lights, side steps, drawer system, fridge, awnings and a prototype rear bumper that allows the factory towbar hitch to be retained.
Other Australian companies were exhibiting, too, and while there was variety aplenty in the products on display, it seems the must-have accessory in 2019 was a rooftop tent. These seemed to be everywhere in the Overland Experience and it was easier to count the vehicles that didn’t have one than the ones that did!
Additional to the exhibiting companies was the ‘Overland Education’ seminars, where more than a dozen experts shared their knowledge with SEMA attendees on a range of topics, from identifying trends in the market to how to best appeal to the overlanding community and even defining overlanding for the newbies.
Speakers at the Overland Education included familiar names from the overlanding industry and adventure travel scene, like Dan Grech, Nick Taylor, Jim Oostdyk, Sean Holman, Mary Krogh and Scott Brady.
Finally, with the addition of the Overland Experience, a new awards system was added to the SEMA programme this year, too, with the ‘10 Best Overland Vehicles’ awarded. Judging criteria was hard to get a handle on, but presumably included things like innovation and use of materials, as well as practicality for overlanding, finish and overall quality.
Inaugural winners included vehicles as diverse as an ’84 BJ42 LandCruiser, a 2013 Lexus GX460, ’69 Jeep Wagoneer and even a new, Fuso truck-based ‘EXP’ from EarthCruiser USA. Of local relevance was the Dynatrac ‘Code X’ Jeep Gladiator: a shortened, Hellcat V8-powered beast that Aussie company Patriot Campers supplied their PCOR tray system for and also did part of the build.
At SEMA 2019, Code X, was just one of the many Gladiators on display…
The Jeep Gladiator was at SEMA 2019 in a big way, with too many examples on show to count. Inside the Overland Experience, as well as the other display halls and outside, it seemed like there were Gladiators EVERYWHERE!
Most retained the dual cab configuration and slapped on some big rims, fat tyres and a vinyl wrap, with the aforementioned Code X one of the most radical Gladiator-based creations on display with its ‘space cab’ custom body, fully-adjustable suspension, Dynatrac XD60 and 80 axles, 40-inch Milestar tyres and, of course, that wild 6.2-litre supercharged Hellcat V8 engine.
A far as radical Gladiators go, a close second to Code X was Jeep’s own ‘J6’ concept, which debuted at the 2019 Easter Jeep Safari in Moab, Utah, and was brought along to SEMA with other Mopar-built customs from that event.
Obviously, what sets the J6 apart is its single cab configuration – something not available on the Gladiator from the factory, and not likely to be, unfortunately, despite the concept’s 118.4-inch wheelbase exactly matching the Wrangler’s.
With a longer, 6-foot load bed, the J6 also features a concept sports bar, spare wheel carrier, beadlock wheels and front bumper extension. Production parts on the J6 included a 2-inch lift, standard Gladiator Rubicon front bar and rock rails, LED lights and cosmetic parts, like a grille insert, bonnet latches, pedals and floormats. The finishing touch is bright metallic blue paint, which is an homage to Jeep’s Honcho pickup from the 1970s.
Radical for a different reason was the ‘Hatchet’ from RoamR. Keeping the dual cab configuration, RoamR swathed the Hatchet in Rhino Lining protection and fitted it with a 3.5-inch MetalCloak suspension lift with specially-tuned Falcon 3.3-inch shocks. Icon Compression wheels wrapped in 37-inch Nitto tyres, JCR bumpers and a Leitner Designs bed rack also feature, while a FreeSpirit Recreation ‘Overlander’ camper trailer (appropriate!) was given the same Rhino Lining finish to match.
Skyjacker Suspensions were another company to fit their Gladiator with the Hellcat V8, combining it with their own 4.5-inch suspension kit. Fitted with 40-inch Milestar Patagonias, like Code X, the Skyjacker Gladiator also featured 17-inch Raceline wheels, ARB air lockers, Dana diffs, Artec Industries skid plates and an angular bumper and wheelarch kit from Fab Fours (who had a Gladiator on their stand, too).
Decked was one of several companies to give their Gladiator a military look, with the build (by Complete Customs) finished in a desert sand cum olive green paint job – although the lookalike Pontiac Firebird bonnet emblem was far from military!
As well as custom wheels, tyres, bumpers and rock rails, Decked’s show vehicle incorporated their own MJ1 slide-out drawer system for the Gladiator, as well as the compatible D-Box and CrossBox storage containers. A Traeger Grills swing-out bbq was a cool touch, as was the slide-out sink and burners for the rest of your cooking and washing up.
Another unit fitted with a Leitner Designs bed rack, the Decked Gladiator topped that with a huge Tepui 4-person rooftop tent.
What’s been written and presented here only scratches the surface of what was on show at SEMA 2019. As far as an industry showcase and one-stop-shop for the trade goes, nothing beats it. For the 4x4 and off-road industry, the addition of the Overland Experience has made a great event even greater.