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Another year has come and gone for automotive industries largest show SEMA. Year after year, SEMA has become the cornerstone of all things representing the automotive industry showcasing new products from every corner of the market. The expectations are high, and vendors who put themselves in the public eye at SEMA are always putting their best foot forward. But have you ever wondered how it all started?

SEMA, like any organization, has a beginning story. Originally called Speed Equipment Manufacturing Association when they started in 1963, the organization comes from humble beginnings during the muscle car days. Originating out of a need to fill a gap in industry trade regulations, SEMA was the born from the Revell Model company and headed by its first president Ed the “camfather” Iskenderian. Other original members came from the same fuel filled genetics and came by way of names like Roy Richter, Willie Garner, Bob Hedman, Robert E. Wyman, John Bartlett, Phil Weiand, Jr., Al Segal, Dean Moon, and Vic Edelbrock, Jr. Each pioneers in their respective areas and each having made their own mark in automotive history. Not long after its beginnings, the organization changed its name to Specialty Equipment Market Association officially in 1970.

In it’s early days, SEMA shows were small venues aiming at bringing manufacturers together to showcase their products. 1967 was officially SEMA’s first showing holding up in the basement of the Los Angeles Dodgers Stadium. At that time they were able to bring in 98 manufacturers and still got a respectable 3000 people in attendance. The first SEMA show displayed five cars total, but of notable acknowledgement was a 1967 Ford GT40 in the Shelby America booth and a drag race prepped Dodge Dart. Car parts were always only part of the SEMA equation. The other half was showcasing vehicles which were running said parts to bring what the manufacturers had to offer to life. This show format quickly caught momentum and SEMA achieved great success in a short period of time. By 1970, the show grew to a much larger venue, drawing in greater number of industry representatives, larger crowds, and it was quickly become a place where vendors came to showcase their products and were expected to make deals happen as well. Only 6 years later, SEMA was selling out their convention hall capacity at 570 booths and had to turn away manufacturers due to space limitation. For the following year, SEMA moved to Las Vegas for their larger venues and the rest as they say is history.

The show format continued to evolve year over year. Originally designed to be a product showcase venue, by 1979 new day long seminar programs were integrated into the show dates furthering the mission of SEMA to showcase and share automotive knowledge in the industry. The one-day seminar has now become a major part of the show’s program. 1983 was another big year for SEMA when they expanded their parts representation beyond domestic manufacturers. Automotive International Association (AIA) partnered with SEMA to bring in a whole new array of products to the show. Accolades for the shows success soon came to the forefront with Car and Driver magazine stating that SEMA was now the best place to see the direction and trends of the automotive world in the west coast.

Throughout the 90’s, SEMA continued to grow bigger and bigger by the year, and the caliber of the show continued to raise the bar like none other. Creating truly the largest show in the automotive industry, SEMA brought together giants likes the Automotive Service Industry, Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association, and Automotive Parts & Accessories Association which together spanned a total of 1.6 million square feet of exhibition space. The show continued to bring together automotive big leagues like the National Tire Dealers & Retreaders. To this day, the SEMA show still breaks the one million square feet mark for required exhibition space for their show making it the largest automotive industry show in North America. Attendance exceeds 150,000 manufacturers, buyers and industry representatives, bringing together 2,300 exhibitors with over 11,000 booths. In comparison to their humble beginnings of 3000 attendees, SEMA is truly a remarkable operation.

For those of us who might never get the chance to experience SEMA, we will have to resort to cruising the internet for the next little while as journalist continue to publish details of the show and highlighting some of the best show vehicles that always make their place at the annual event.

text by Xavier Kwan


1963:Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) is founded.

1965:L.A.-area promoter and automotive magazine publisher Noel Carpenter organizes “Speed & CustomEquipment” (SCEN), the first-ever speed and performance trade show. It was NOT sponsored by SEMA.

1966:Noel Carpenter produces the second “Speed & Custom Equipment” trade show, with SEMA sponsoring the

event and receiving a share of the profits for the use of the association’s name. While SEMA received a check for $535, the event is NOT recognized as the first “SEMA Show.”

1967:Noel Carpenter moves the “Speed & Custom Equipment” show to Las Vegas; Meanwhile, the first official SEMA Show takes place in January 1967, under the grandstands of Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. The event,

featuring 98 booths and approximately 3,000 attendees, was organized by Robert Petersen.

1974:The SEMA Show moves to the Anaheim Convention Center.

1977:The SEMA Show moves to the Las Vegas Convention Center. The city was chosen

because it provided room for

growth, has dependable weather, big-name entertainment and a world-famous location.

1982:SEMA assumes full control of the SEMA Show from Robert Petersen.

1988:The idea of sectionalization is born, as exhibitors within the street-rod market are grouped in the “Street Rod Equipment” area. Since 2003, the entire Show has been sectionalized into specific market niches.

1992:SEMA joins with other aftermarket organizations to consolidate fragmented trade show activities into one

comprehensive week, aka Automotive Aftermarket Industry Week (AAIW). Set each year for the first week of

November in Las Vegas, AAIW is now a key event in the automotive industry throughout the world.

2002:The Las Vegas Convention Center completes construction on its expansion, opening up an additional 1 million

sq. ft. of space in the two-story South Hall.2003:A vehicle Proving Ground is added to the SEMA Show, where attendees can experience exhibitors’

products in action. The track is the only place at the SEMA Show where vehicles are in motion.

2012:As automotive customization grows internationally, the HiLux, a vehicle not sold in the United States, is on

display along with products for the vehicle made by various exhibitors. Prior to the SEMA Show, the SEMA

International Dept. made a HiLux available to members to assist with manufacturing products for the vehicle.

2014:A new event, SEMA Ignited, is introduced to connect consumers to the excitement of the SEMA Show. Billed as

the official SEMA Show after party, the event is held Friday evening after the SEMA Show concludes. Vehicles,

products, manufacturers and the mystique of the SEMA Show make their way out of the Las Vegas Convention

Center over to SEMA Ignited, where consumers are able to get up close and be a part of the action.

2015:Exhibitor interest in the SEMA Show grows, as expansion areas are added to accommodate manufacturers at

the Show; New products remain the main focal point of the SEMA Show, as the New Products Showcase

experiences record high participation.

2016:The 50thSEMA Show held since 1967 takes place, along with nearly 140,000 industry professionals from all over the world. To celebrate the 50thAnniversary, a commemorative 11’x143’ mural located in the Grand Lobby provides a pictorial timeline of the Show’s evolution and milestones.

2019:The four-day trade show continues to provide the industry with a unique opportunity to grow their businesses. The SEMA Show is on track to hostmore than 161,000 individuals, including 71,000 buyers, 2,400

exhibiting companies,and 3,300 journalists.

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