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Where the Specialty Equipment Show Goes, Enthusiasts Follow

Events * Annual SEMA International Auto Salon moves to Long Beach. Both crowd and cars are more diverse than ever.

April 25, 2001|ROBERT BEAMESDERFER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The future of California's car culture is easy to see: Just visit the International Auto Salon and talk to the enthusiasts who crowd the aisles, gawking at nitrous-oxide injection units, 20-inch custom wheels, 5,000-watt stereos and everything in between.

They are young, they drive imports and a few small domestic models, and they like to look good, sound loud and go fast.

The theme might have been "youth will be served," but the crowd and the cars at the third annual show, which moved this year to the Long Beach Convention Center, were more varied than one might expect.

Sure, there were a few folks wearing T-shirts proclaiming their allegiance to street racing, and a bevy of young, mostly Asian American women in extreme heels and tight mini-dresses. But offering stark contrast were a middle-aged guy in a Ferrari cap and another in a NASCAR T-shirt proclaiming "Turn Left for a Living."

The parking lot was filled with the usual Honda Civics, Acura Integras and Mitsubishi Eclipses. However, those popular models shared space with more eclectic vehicles, including a Porsche RS Turbo, an Audi ABT coupe and a Subaru Impreza RS.

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More than 9,600 consumers and industry members attended the recent show, a 13% increase over last year's event at the Fairplex in Pomona.

The sport-compact portion of the automotive aftermarket industry was worth $1.2 billion in 2000, according to the Specialty Equipment Market Assn., the Diamond Bar-based trade group that presented the show, along with Atlanta-based parts retailer Nopi. Those robust sales compare with $756 million in 1999 and $295 million in '97.

But for the moment, forget that many of these auto aficionados will spend more on custom and performance parts than they did for the original car. Although spending big translates into more show or more go, enthusiasts talk mostly about taking the commonplace and making it suit their individual tastes. The real bottom line: Cool is the rule.

Sharing that sentiment were Rich Cutting and Amanda Fletcher. The twentysomethings from Woodland Hills visited the show because they want to buy and build a car together and were checking out the aftermarket parts.

"Nobody wants a stock car," Cutting said. "Your car has to say a lot."

The couple are interested in the Lexus IS 300, a vehicle Toyota's luxury division introduced last year with exactly this market in mind. Though Fletcher knows the IS won't match the '86 Ferrari she used to drive, she's sure it still will be fun.

For Cutting, the Lexus project represents a switch from his teenage passion for car stereos. Even though he has spent as much as $8,000 on mobile audio, he's looking forward to building a "perfect car" from a performance standpoint.

Representing a previous generation was Bruce Gallagher, 43, who brought along sons Jason, 15, and Ryan, 9.

"In my younger days, I did crazy stuff. Now it's his turn," Gallagher said, referring to the older boy.

Fast approaching driving age, Jason knows what he wants: a Chevy S-10 quad cab pickup truck with lift kit, stereo, tinted windows, roll cage and skid plate.

That's in sharp contrast to his father's all-import, all-stock stable of Toyota 4Runner, Honda Accord and Audi TT roadster.

Being different also was on Korey Stephens' mind. In the parking lot across from the Long Beach Convention Center among the dozens of custom cars--from a vintage Datsun 240Z to newer and more extremely customized cars--the 35-year-old Chatsworth resident was clearly in his element.

"I like the shows like this because they take an ordinary car and personalize L.A. style," he said. "It's about those who want to be different."

His ride is a 2000 Mercedes-Benz CLK with new wheels, auxiliary lights and lowered body--a choice that would have put him right at home in another hot sport-compact market: Europe.

Indeed, said journalist Eddy Passchezoone of the Belgium enthusiast magazine Opgezet (Tuning), Japanese cars are gaining ground in Europe, but the performance market still is dominated by the German marques.

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What is hobby for some becomes a way of life for others.

Take Rob Quon, who has been an enthusiast for seven years. He and his fiancee built a successful show car from a 1994 Honda Civic. The car earned sponsorship from numerous aftermarket companies--but only after the couple spent about $15,000 of their own money, earned by working retail jobs and living paycheck to paycheck.

In addition, Quon voluntarily promoted the companies whose parts his car featured by having friends pass out the firms' literature when the Civic appeared in shows.

From February through November of last year, Quon worked for the U.S. distributor of a Japanese tuning company that sponsored his show car. That job, he says, paved the way for him to turn his avocation into his profession.

Soon the 24-year-old will go to work in sales at Area 51, a friend's new tuning and speed shop in Irvine.

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Robert Beamesderfer is Highway 1's news editor. He can be reached at bob.beamesderfer@latimes.com.

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