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.
Welcome Max P, Great starting COAL. You nicely describe the awakening sense of “what lies ahead” once we get just a bit older through the cars of a lifetime and one sensitive and very cool person like Lisa.
And that wink. Wow.
It could be supposed that the Voyager might just be a whole lot cooler now than it was then. At least on this site.
Looking forward to what happens next.
Earth, Wind, and Fire is a new sound for me. I’ll have to take some time to go through their music.
Never heard of Cake.
Personally, I love Earth, Wind, and Fire… But I’m a child of the 70’s.
Cake is just about the “funnest” band I’ve ever heard.
On of the most fascinating things in life is to look back and discover the individual, disparate elements of life that; when put together; make you the person that you are.
God bless the Lisas of the world.
Your parents likely now know about you riding up front. Good thing the statute of limitations is working in your favor.
Now you have me thinking of being that age, riding in a VW convertible and some other things best left unmentioned.
Great write up… put me right back to that time in my life. Well done 🙂
Outstanding piece, Max. It reads like you have a great gift for memory and detail. Lisa and her Laser both sounded amazing.
Neat cars. My brother built one of these for a customer. AWD, Modified the engine, set up the trans and clutch and it ran high 8’s in street trim. His slow car was a Viper.
Max P.: What a grand entry on the COAL stage! Welcome to the club!
You are just 1 year older than my 1st son. That means I am probably a little more sympathetic to your parents. I guess the hour of reckoning is approaching. Bring it on, man. I dare you dissing Earth Wind and Fire!
It’s so cool that the cars of the 90’s find appreciation. In the 90’s people often wondered if these plastic eggs and soap bars could ever garner some collector enthusiasm. I never had any doubt because cars change but people don’t. People like the things that they associate with their childhood and youth.
Who designed that dash anyway? A group of severely hung-over 18 year old were presented with a box full of parts pulled from the shelves and tasked using these words: “I know it’s Monday morning and your heads are still abuzz from the heavy metal weekend. Now take that stuff and find some new angles. See you at noon!”
Love your explanation of the dash design!
What a great story, Max P! I can only imagine how cool and subversive sitting in the front seat was – when I was that age, it was just normal. Cool and subversive would have been “oh, just forget about the seat belts.” 🙂
You have me remembering some of my babysitters. Mine tended to come from the neighborhood and I don’t remember driving anywhere with them, having come from the “just go outside and play” generation.
There was Debbie, a real girl-next-door type who used to bring her Beatles albums over in 1964. And Barb whose father was a bit unusual in that even in the 60s, he continued to drive only blue Ford sedans with overdrive (a 56 and a 61). Neither of them ever gave me a suggestive wink of any kind, sadly.
I identify with this very much. I’m a few years older,born in 1985 and it wasn’t a babysitter but my aunt and uncle, my mom’s younger sister and brother lboth in their twenties in the 1990s. My uncle used to do burnouts in his 1980s Trans Am and tell me not to tell my mom or grandmother, my aunt would let me shift the gears in her Prelude and they both are how I know so much 1990s grunge/alternative rock. They were two of the coolest people in my world when I was a kid.
I remember my cousin’s baby sitter didn’t drive but got dropped off an picked up in a brand new 84 Cadillac Eldorado which we all oohed and ahhd over.
I remember riding in the front seat of my babysitter’s VW Beetle… Oval window and no seat belts! (Hey, it was the mid-60’s).
Nice story about your babysitter and her car.
I don’t know your parents but I can understand where they might be coming from. As I’ve aged and become aware of my financial responsibilities, the car I have placed more of an emphasis on value rather than style.
I didn’t have a babysitter. I was going to the Kindergarten that was run by catholic nuns who believed in corporal punishment. They didn’t drive.
The nuns that drove used DAF’s
Welcome to the club, Max! Fantastic debut.
A very fine debut indeed, Max. Looking forward to hearing more from you!
This reminds me just a little of my own experience–when I was probably 7 or 8 years old, I had a babysitter who was tall, blonde, pretty and drove a white Subaru XT. This was in the mid-late 80’s so the car was still relatively new, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever, and thought her to be commensurately cool. Sadly I never got to ride in it, as she only appeared on the rare occasions when my parents went out for the night, an occurrence of only a couple times a year. And I never had that same kind of connection to be sure! But I certainly remember Heather and her 80’s-futuristic Subaru.
Cool debut, Max. Bonus points for the Blink-182 hit. Although I like Earth, Wind & Fire too. At least your parents weren’t groovin’ (LOL) to Lawrence Welk.
Hey, don’t make fun of Lawerence Welk. I thought the Lennon sisters were hot.
Lawrence Welk, Ed Sullivan, Red Skelton ….
When I was five, we didn’t have a car. There was no baby sitter either. By age six we did have a car (’35 Plymouth) and by 8 or so we did have an after school girl look after us (and she was kinda cool. Long curly black hair. I could feel the lust). She had no car tho. Front seat, back seat? Who worried about things like that? Indeed, I was well past college age before seat belts became common (I had to talk my mother into using hers). Car seats were still way off in the future somewhere. Like rock and roll and, God forbid, digitals.
In H.S. I did gardening jobs from time to time. A young kid at one of these places wanted me to give him a ride in the borrowed ’51 Dodge Station Wagon I was driving (not a Laser, but kinda cool in its own way). I complied. Just around the block. Up front, of course. No seat belts. (Nobody had seat belts).
Next day. Fired. Gardening job kaput.
I think the kid enjoyed the ride, tho.
Great 1st post, I can definitely relate to the “babysitter has a more fun car”, but unfortunately came along a bit later in the 90s then you did.
As for my example, getting to ride in an 2001 E320 was certainly more fun than riding in my parents’ 1999 Taurus and 1995 Corolla. My experiences in that car, as well as riding in numerous other leather-trimmed vehicles owned by both sets of grandparents, made having leather a priority when I became able to get my own car.
When I was in preschool – back in 81, 82 – I had a similar experience with my babysitter, Liz, who drove a moped or a burnt-orange ’76 Chevy Monza. So much cooler than my pop’s Pinto. Though my mom’s Plymouth Cricket was also awesome-when it ran; it was gone pretty quick. The main family truckster til ’86 was a pale yellow ’76 Impala wagon with BLACK vinyl seats and for some reason no third row. If there was one we never used it, though the ’83 Chevy that replaced it did. I loved that ’76 and the clamshell, though, first car I ever cried over selling. It had a bad transmission and the typical Chevy panel rust. But Liz made me realize how cool motorized vehicles could be. 🙂