They say trade shows are excellent indications of the health of the market they represent. The bigger and more active the attendance from vendors, shops, and buyers, the better that niche of the economy should be fairing. We're no market analysts, but according to turnout at this year's annual hot rodding extravaganza known as SEMA (the Specialty Equipment Marketing Association), the hot rodding world is headed upward into a bright recovery.

It's not just by our hopeful eye either; we've got hard facts to prove it. While final attendance figures are still being audited, SEMA reported that more than 126,000 credentials were issued prior to the show, with thousands more processed onsite. Those numbers represented a 7 percent increase over the previous year, and the highest in SEMA Show history. That's really saying something considering the size of the SEMA show.

On the show floor were 2,381 exhibiting companies, representing all facets of the automotive specialty equipment market. Stuff like accessory and appearance products, performance products, wheels, tires, and suspension are designed to personalize more than 200 million cars, trucks, SUVs, and power-sport vehicles on and off the road. Representing mostly small businesses, the exhibitors turn to the SEMA Show to connect with more than 60,000 buyers from throughout the world. We've never been so happy to be shoulder to shoulder with thousands of strangers.

On top of that, hot rod shops and builders rolled out an impressive number of custom cars and trucks that represented their best workmanship. The big guys were there with their latest and greatest: Troy Trepanier, The Ringbrothers, Pure Vision Design, Goolsby Customs, D&Z Customs, Chris Holstrom Concepts, to name a few. But what we were most excited to see was a large turnout of small and new shops with cars that put those household hot rodding names on notice. Some cars even represented a first foray into the world of high-end building, which means they'll be on our radar.

With that in mind, we tore through the thousands of beautiful cars in attendance to bring you our top 17 muscle cars. A few of them are established builders with reputations for quality and lasting style, but there are just as many from small shops looking to show the world that they're the next players. SEMA is where dreams are born, and we're proud to report that there's a bright future for our hobby.

427 Wildcat
1967 Cougar
Builder: Wild Wes Paintworks

The Mercury Cougar was intended from the very beginning to embrace the idea of a "gentleman's muscle car." The chassis was shared with the Mustang, but everything else was Cougar-specific and intended to be a step above in both quality and comfort. All the options that were considered upgrades on Mustangs were standard on most Cougars, including four-barrel V-8 engines, deluxe interior, consoles, power steering, and power disc brakes. Power options were plentiful with all of the standard Mustang engines, plus the Cougar is the only FoMoCo muscle to ever have a factory option for the 427 side-oiler.

That history, plus the fact that they still remain off the mainstream radar, are what inspired "Wild Wes" Adkins of Wild Wes Paintworks to choose one for his project. In its original dark green form, the Cougar served as a daily driver and occasional weekend racer for Wes for a few years as he built his business. In 2012, though, he decided it was time to not only build his dream car, but also one that could showcase his talent for customization, fabrication, and of course paintwork. Combining his nickname with the one tossed about affectionately by Cougar fans, the Wildcat project was born.

Adkins' plan from the beginning was to stay true to the Cougar's original intent: luxury combined with power. So everything including the color palette, custom leather interior, custom grille and headlights, and high-end sound system was chosen to maintain that feel. In homage to the top-dog engine FE big-block that the W-code Cougars packed, the Wildcat also houses a 427ci in the form of a Dart-based Windsor. This one packs far more punch though, thanks to twin TorqStorm superchargers that create about 800 hp with only an 8-psi breeze. Watch for a full feature on the Wildcat in an upcoming issue!

By The Numbers
Engine: Dart-based 427ci Windsor with forged Scat crank and rods, Trick Flow 225cc heads, Crane cam and valvetrain, dual TorqStorm superchargers, and Edelbrock EFI
Trans: Cyclone F5 6-speed with 3,500-stall, billet input, and intermediate shafts
Suspension/Chassis: DSE Aluma-Frame with tubular control arms, Detroit Tuned rack-and-pinion, JRi aluminum coilovers in front, DSE QuadraLink with JRi coilovers in the rear, Moser nodular rearend with Detroit Truetrac diff
Brakes: SSBC with 13-inch rotors and SSBC vacuum pump and billet master cylinder
Wheels & Tires: 17x9.5 and 17x11 Vintage Wheel Works GT-40 wheels with 275/40 and 315/35 Mickey Thompson Street Comp tires
Contact: Wild Wes Paintworks; 330-323-4949;