Picture this: It’s the summer of 1997. You’re five years old and about to begin kindergarten in suburban Michigan. Your mother is driving you to school in a 1985 Plymouth Voyager, brown, with maroon velour seats and seemingly acres of fake wood paneling slathered along the sharp, right-angled sheetmetal of her dorky little minivan. While the Cool Moms in the ‘booshie’ part of town drive two-tone Ford Explorers, this is all she has, working nights as a nurse at the city hospital. Your dad, working nine-to-five for The State in his musty government cubicle, desires nothing more than his navy blue ‘86 Toyota Camry to shuttle him back and forth to the office each day.
While the Voyager sheds a lot more plastic trim than the Toyota, both are reliable and practical by the standards of the day. Your parents are fiercely pragmatic and anti-consumerist, preferring to drive their aging conveyances as long as possible over chasing the latest trend. As a car-crazy kid, your automotive life is utterly bland, boring, and frankly, a little depressing in retrospect.
Few photos of the old fleet remain, such as this one from about 1995, showing the Family Truckster parked in the driveway on a summer afternoon. Grandma Nita must be visiting, judging by the purple Dodge Dynasty backed in next to it – Lee Iaccoca would approve of this household! Our main character proudly rides his tricycle front and center, along with some much older neighbor kids from down the block.
One day, your parents introduce you to a new babysitter named Lisa. She’s cool, hip, sexy, and young. None of these adjectives describe your parents in the slightest. Lisa is an undergrad student at Michigan State, and she drives a white Plymouth Laser. Sadly, no pictures of Lisa or her car can be found in the family archives, but can you just imagine for a moment how sexy and exotic a Plymouth Laser looks when you’re five years old and your daily view is an ’85 Voyager? Let me demonstrate with the image below:
Lisa was a sheer ray of sunshine. She was slim and blonde, always sassy, always laughing, always up for something fun and adventurous, at least to my sheltered elementary-school self. We’d go bowling, play mini-golf, or head back to her place and play primitive ‘90s video games with her stoner college boyfriend. I’ll never forget the first time I climbed into her sleek, white Laser. While Lisa sat in the driver’s seat with the car idling, I used both of my tiny arms to pull the lever that slid the passenger’s seat forward, attempting to climb into the back of the coupe with all of my five-year-old might. She scoffed and exclaimed “Just sit in the front… I won’t tell your parents!” followed by the most suggestive wink I’ve ever witnessed as she grabbed the headrest and effortlessly slid the front seat back into position with that satisfying “click”, staring me in the eyes with a devilish smirk the entire time. This girl was freaking cool.
From then on, riding in the front of her sleek little coupe became a regular theme each week, and it remains one of my most cherished childhood memories. Some of my favorite bands were solidified cruising in the front seat of that Laser. Blink-182. Smash Mouth. Cake. Oasis. Just about every corny late-90s college student stereotype you can think of, really. It even had a CD player! I felt like such a badass riding along with her, knowing I’d soon be regulated back to the horrendous Earth, Wind, and Fire cassette playing on perpetual repeat in my dad’s old Camry.
Every Friday, Lisa would pull up in the white Laser with its big BBS-style silver rims. The destination was different each week. Sometimes it was the pool, sometimes the arcade, often times we’d just stop for fast food and hang out in her dingy college apartment playing the ancient 2-D version of Grand Theft Auto on (the original!) PlayStation. (another “don’t tell your parents” moment as my mom strictly forbid those games until high school) Regardless of where we went, it was undoubtedly a more exciting trip than anywhere I went in dad’s Toyota. I remember the clean gray interior, how quiet, stable, and firm the ride seemed, and of course the ultra low sports-car seating position that kept your legs fully stretched out.
As for the car itself, it was little more than a rebadged Mitsubishi Eclipse, built in Normal, Illinois under the “Diamond Star Motors” venture between Chrysler and Mitsubishi. Lisa’s Laser was a 1990 or 1991 model, as evidenced by the pop-up headlights. I vividly remember that detail along with the flush, body-colored plastic grille panel stamped with Chrysler’s “pentastar” logo. It was clearly the same logo sprouting out the prow of my mom’s van in the form of a big chrome ornament, and the typeface of the “PLYMOUTH” badging was the similar on each car. I distinctly remember reading the decal on the driver’s side of the front bumper and wondering “how in the world can these two cars be related?” Little did I know that, well… they weren’t, really. At five years old, I had yet to discover the wonders of platform sharing.
The Laser’s targa-style roofline was another notable styling feature – even by the late-‘90s, this was a very sleek-looking coupe. While the car was attractive and reasonably priced, the rebadged Eagle Talon sold better (not to mention the actual Eclipse), and the sharp decline of Plymouth in the 1990s made a sporty couple an evolutionary dead-end in the brand’s line-up. Following a rather unattractive 1992 facelift that brought exposed headlights, production of the Laser was halted in early 1994 due to slow sales.
Lisa hung around for a couple years and schmoozed surprisingly well with my parents, despite being about as polar opposite from them as any of my babysitters ever were. Around 1999 or 2000, she finally graduated and moved out into the world, taking the Plymouth with her. Perhaps it’s due to the low sales, an abusive ownership base, or more likely both, but I haven’t seen another Laser since. As far as I know, my parents never found out about me riding in the front seat.