Our highlights from the SEMA Show 2021

We take a tour through the halls of the massive SEMA Show to bring you some of our highlights

Photographers: Phillip Thomas

THE SEMA (Specialty Equipment Marketing Association) Show has returned to the Las Vegas Convention Center [sic] after a one-year hiatus, offering a varied snapshot of just how far the aftermarket industry has come over the past couple of years.

Car counts may be down and international travel is still tricky for many vendors and builders, but in this distilled show there are several hidden gems and a rise in interest for EV conversions. Conversely, the diehards are still bringing out their internally combusting heavy-hitters, their sound and fury impossible to leave behind. Besides the array of builds, the aftermarket parts industry is answering the call at both ends of the spectrum.

Take a tour of the show floor with us!

Likely the most controversial swap in SEMA’s halls this year is Project X, the ever-evolving ’57 Chevrolet made famous by Popular Hot Rodding in the 60s as well as the 1980 movie The Hollywood Knights. Over the years the shoebox Chevy has become a rolling testament to whatever modern trends are happening at the time, flirting with every format you can imagine from a classic street rod to a high-class pro-touring machine, and with its current home at Hot Rod magazine, it’s become electrified thanks to Chevrolet and Cagnazzi Racing.

The power unit under that gun-sighted hood produces 340hp and 330lb-ft of torque, which certainly ain’t the brag-worthy numbers of many of its past combos (the most recent being a supercharged LSX376). But with an electric motor’s ability to produce nearly all of its torque the moment it begins to spin, there’s no doubt it’ll still roast tyres on demand.

That torque is sent through a new quick-change rear end, and situated just above the new axle is a 400-volt, 30kWh battery pack.

Beyond just challenging the views of Project X disciples, it’s a preview of Chevy’s intentions to offer a crate EV powertrain sooner rather than later.

Was it sacrilegious to mute Project X, even with its legacy of reflecting contemporary trends and future ideas? We’ll let you be the judge there.

Ford, of course, couldn’t let its cross-town rivals have all the attention, showcasing its Mustang Mach-E GT-based F100 Eluminator – a play on the company’s Aluminator crate motors. With a Mach-E power unit at each axle – each producing 281hp and 317lb-ft of torque – for a combined 480hp and 634lb-ft, it’s certainly no slouch. The best part is that it’s ready for purchase, with each power unit coming in at a shockingly affordable US$3900.

The F-truck rides on a Roadster Shop chassis and was built by MLe Racecars, known for producing both of the NHRA’s all-electric wonders, the Ford Cobra Jet 1400 and Chevrolet eCOPO.

The OEMs aren’t the only ones playing with electricity. This Buick Electra was built by Ant Anstead for actor James Marsden, using the chassis from a Karma Revero electric car.

On the flip side of things, Steve Strope has finally pulled the wraps off his long-term 1969 Nova project for podcast king Joe Rogan. Beneath that slate-smooth silver paint is a relentless tour de force of sheet-metal work to transform the ‘slab-sided’ Nova into something Strope thought it should’ve always been.

Keen-eyed readers will immediately notice the side strakes from a ’69 Camaro, expertly grafted onto the Nova to bring a subtle, but simultaneously dramatic, change to the entire presence of the car. We say ‘subtle’ only in the sense that it looks like something Chevrolet would’ve done, without going to extremes to draw attention via large flares, exaggerated vents or anything too exuberant.

The subtlety continues in the rear, with custom tail-lamps, a widened ’70 Camaro Z/28 spoiler and a quad exhaust-pipe set-up that punches through the rear bumper at the corners.

There is nothing subtle about the bones underneath, though. An LT4 brings the party ahead of a proper six-speed manual, and that power is routed through a custom IRS, with C6 Corvette hubs at each corner.

Big Oak Garage is showing off its ’66 Cadillac, built for Don and Brenda Waters. What started off innocently enough as a basic repaint quickly spiralled into a full-tilt build once the couple took a glance around Big Oak’s shop.

It’s all in the details with this Caddy, with the rear tail-lamps totally re-machined into a unified piece, while the bumpers were also tucked into the body and welded into a single, seamless stretch of steel and chrome. Where the General brushed the trim on the Caddy originally, Big Oak either polished or machined new pieces, which pop against the candy red paint.

Chip Foose may not be everyone’s favourite builder, but his vision for the perfect hot rod has come to define many of the trends we find all over SEMA today. In a small celebration of his legacy, the Chip Foose Experience brings together the largest-ever meeting of his most iconic builds, from the Hot Wheels-esque Hemisfear to the regal Madam X Cadillac. It’s a time machine to the last 30 years or so of hot rodding and customs, with Chip’s signature attention to twisting the details on display across 20 vehicles.

The ’69 Pontiac Firebird built by BBT Fabrications is like no other Poncho we’ve seen, with every square inch of the car undergoing a transformation. The interior pulls subtle cues from the modern fifth- and sixth-gen Camaros with its silver-trimmed, double-pod cluster, but the parallels end there, with Pontiac medallions throughout the custom seats, console and panels.

Beneath those massive extractors on the hood isn’t the typical LS, thankfully, but instead a 482ci big-block Pontiac motor built by Butler Performance and rocking a dual-throttlebody intake.

Speaking of the LS, while it may be the most common swap motor on the show floor, it’s long-since been replaced by the LT-generation of direct-injected V8s. Scoggin-Dickey is showing off just how capable the platform can be by pushing its stock-block, stock-crank unit above 2000hp with little more than rods, pistons and top-end work.

Okay, sure, boost is cool and all, but nothing really replaces the snappy brutality of a naturally aspirated big-block, and Chevrolet Performance is bucking the electrified trend with an insane 1004hp, 632ci big-block crate motor. And it makes this number on pump gas! The Hoonigan crew got their hands on one and have stuffed it into a third-gen Camaro – surely a novel improvement over the factory tuned-port disappointments they were originally equipped with.

Speaking of Hoonigan, the Burnyard returns with a crazier set of vehicles than ever, thrashing in the confines of an intersection-sized concrete arena. Unlike most of the organised automotive industry, they’ve reached out to the sideshow world to pull some of the best drivers out of the street and into the pit at SEMA. Of the three exhibitions going on, there’s nothing as rowdy and gritty as theirs. You’d almost think the only thing they hate is tyres, because few of them leave the pit intact.

For its part, Ford has a front-stage spot by Central Hall reserved for drifting exhibitions, featuring Formula Drift drivers Vaughn Gittin Jr, Chelsea DeNofa and Justin Pawlak. If you’re a lucky bystander, Ford also offers a handful of rides in the new Shelby Mustang Mach-E.

The Optima Ultimate Street Car Challenge returns to SEMA as well, but new for this year are drifting exhibitions during the main event. In previous years, you had to stick around after SEMA to catch some of the best pro touring machines in the world battling it out, and while that’s still the case for the main competition, the new exhibition puts their racers front and centre during the show’s most popular days.

What makes the Ultimate Street Car Challenge unique is that it’s simply not enough to go fast; the cars must be show quality, with judging on everything from the paint to the interior. The only thing sacrificed in many of these builds is a little extra weight for spats of leather and the comforts of HVAC; underneath, they’re easily the quickest and meanest machines at SEMA in any given year.