Curbside Musings: 1995 Dodge Neon Highline – Brite Lite

1995 Dodge Neon Highline. Lakeview, Chicago, Illinois. Sunday, June 9, 2024.

I had a great assortment of toys when I was a kid.  Though many of them were shared and/or hand-me-downs as I was the middle son of three, some were exclusively mine.  There was a plastic beach bucket of die-cast Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars that were considered to belong to all of us, which I believe was as much a factor in my development as a car fan as growing up in Flint, Michigan, the factory town birthplace of General Motors.  There was also a multitude of Lego sets both with and without their original packaging.  One Christmas when I was four or five, I got a Pianosaurus toy piano that was both whimsical and fun.  I would end up playing the actual piano for years until my early twenties.  There was an Erector set my older brother had passed down that I tinkered with often, as I built cranes, buildings, and other types of structures.

Old-school Lite Brite packaging, as sourced from the internet.

With the exception of G.I. Joe or other similar action figures, I had a lot of typical guy stuff and enjoyed playing with those toys.  I horsed around with my brothers all the time, occasionally breaking things accidentally.  I also had a blonde-haired, female doll whose hair I would braid, and for whom I would sew primitive dresses on my mom’s sewing machine.  My parents took that doll away after the second grade, but their doing so didn’t butch me up, so to speak, and I perhaps then missed out on becoming the next Halston.  The Dennis house didn’t have a copy of Marlo Thomas’s brilliant “Free To Be… You And Me!” children’s record, but it probably should have.  I own it on compact disc today.

1995 Dodge Neon brochure pages, as sourced from

I wonder sometimes what my two, straight brothers thought at the time about my emerging, atypical, more effeminate qualities as they started piecing things together.  What’s up with Joe?  Now, that shouldn’t be…  My parents probably just hoped and prayed with all their might that I was just going through a phase.  We all know how that turned out.  (I’m trying to be careful not to establish causation for those who aren’t familiar with my humor.)  I will say with utter seriousness that one of my absolute favorite toys of all time was… my Lite-Brite!

The concept of the early Lite-Brite makes my sensibilities as a seasoned homeowners insurance underwriter visibly cringe and go diving for the first ABC-rated fire extinguishers and eight-volt batteries for the smoke detectors.  Let’s take this medium-grade, white plastic housing, screw a regular household lightbulb into a socket (40-watt, 100-watt… who cares what’s on the box, or how hot it gets?), put a piece of black construction paper on the front, and let a child play with it and leave it plugged in indefinitely so anyone who happens to pass by can admire a kid’s glowing, pixelated work of art.  A clown, a flower, a house, it didn’t matter what I would make because it glowed.  It was magic.  There were downsides, of course.  Anyone familiar with stepping on Legos in the middle of the night knows how quickly one can go from drowsy to wide-awake.  Stepping on loose Lite-Brite pegs embedded in cut-pile carpeting was only slightly less painful.

1995 Dodge Neon Highline. Lakeview, Chicago, Illinois. Sunday, June 9, 2024.

In my mind, the Lite-Brite was a totally gender-neutral toy that any kid should have been able to feel comfortable playing with without fear of reproach, even in less enlightened days.  At some point (and general safety concerns aside), it became totally uncool to play with a Lite-Brite.  For some reason, and not necessarily based on an actual memory, I can hear my older brother’s voice telling me the Lite-Brite was “weak”.  (He probably did say that.)  I admit that even later on, when my younger brother and I would talk as adults about our favorite toys, we’d both end up laughing about the Lite-Brite, how lame it was, and how any such gift I would get for his kids would go straight back to Amazon without even coming out of the box.  Well, guess what?  I am completely reversing that narrative about the Lite-Brite.  I love it and think it’s an amazing, colorful, fun idea that deserves its place in the pantheon of great toys my Generation X cohort was lucky enough to experience.  It’s Pride month, and how I wish I had a Lite-Brite to peg a multicolored rainbow right there in my living room.

Let’s talk about another bright light from the ’90s, Chrysler’s Neon subcompact, which was sold in the U.S. under both the Dodge and Plymouth nameplates.  Both started production in early 1994 as ’95 models, with the first-generation running through ’99.  The second iteration arrived in time for the new millennium, with the Plymouth version bowing out after ’01, but with the Dodge lasting through ’05.  Over 2,076,000 were built between 1994 and ’05, not counting the Mexico-market third-gen cars that arrived for 2016.  Courtesy of a license plate search, we know this particular car has the SOHC base version of the 2.0 liter four-cylinder, originally rated at 132 horsepower which, according to Consumer Guide, was good for 8.9 seconds to sixty miles per hour – a great showing for an economy car of the day.  In a perfect world, this one would have had the five-speed manual for a little extra fun, but it’s got the three-speed TorqueFlite automatic, which means that anyone can drive it in a pinch.

1995 Dodge Neon brochure pages, as sourced from

An extra-long inaugural ’95 model year for the Dodge Neon yielded sales of about 179,000, most of which (about 145,100) were four-door versions.  (The coupe, added later, never even got close to approaching the sedan in popularity, with only 33,800 sold for ’95.)  The midrange Highline trim level added, among other things, what I consider to be a significant aesthetic upgrade: body-colored bumper covers.

I immediately liked these cars.  The early Neon had great style, including a glassy greenhouse and a rakish stance.  They reminded me more of some limited-production, “boutique” car out of Japan, like a U.S. version of something like Nissan’s Be-1, but sized for North America, intended for the mainstream, and at affordable prices.  The Neon’s exterior finishes even had a bright color palette including the wild Strawberry Red metallic hue on the subject car.  Thinking about the Chrysler Corporation of the mid-’90s sometimes gives me goosebumps, with all of the promise shown by what seemed like their unstoppable innovation.

1995 Dodge Neon Highline. Lakeview, Chicago, Illinois. Sunday, June 9, 2024.

As I had learned not to talk about my doll with other kids in the classroom, the Neon also became a model for which I learned not to show too much enthusiasm when discussing cars with others.  It was rounded and looked a little like a jellybean.  So what?  It may not have been the most masculine-looking thing around, but compare it to the utterly joyless look of the Caliber that replaced it.  Did DaimlerChrysler’s attempt to make their subcompact five-door look like a Tonka trucklet make it more popular than what it replaced?  No.  Granted, the Caliber’s hatchback and cargo area that was larger than the Neon’s probably made it more useful, but one could still fold down the rear seat of a Neon and put more things back there than would otherwise be the case.

The bottom line is that at some point, and at least with the people I was talking with at the time, the Neon became something of a punchline.  Even now, when I read something negative about a Neon for no other reason than its being a Neon, a little bit of fight wells up in me.  They were good, reliable cars, and Chrysler sold a ton of them.  Life’s too short not to just like what we like (or love who we love), which in my case includes both the Lite-Brite and the Neon, both of which fall into the category of cheap-and-cheerful.  The world could use more of both.

Lakeview, Chicago, Illinois.
Sunday, June 9, 2024.

Here’s my 2016 take on two Plymouth Neons from each generation parked nose-to-tail

Brochure pages were as sourced from