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Carmentary | FIRST PERSON

Ladies Who Launch: Goodbye, Minivan; Hello, Convertible

October 01, 1998|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The peculiar curse of being born into the baby boom generation is that you can barely have a thought or an impulse without 70 or so million other people thinking and behaving the same way.

So it was the day I went to the Mazda dealership and told the sales representative I was thinking of trading in my MPV for a Miata.

"All the middle-aged ladies are trading in their minivans for sports cars," she told me. "They say, 'I've raised my kids. I've done the PTA thing. Now it's time for me!' "

Obviously, there's lots of competition out there for the cover of Midlife Crisis magazine.

I prefer to think of sports cars as nature's way of telling women, "Move on." There's a time in life when we need big minivans to bolster our strength, to protect ourselves and our vulnerable offspring, to ride high and spot potential dangers, to help us carry foodstuff after foraging at Vons. Then there's a time, after the offspring get their own cars, when we need to travel light, fast and low, the warm wind blowing in our hair, taking the curves that life throws our way and accelerating out of them. While we still can.

With this sort of reasoning, what else could I do? I drove away in a loaded '99 convertible two-seater, black with tan top. I left the old, faithful MPV on the lot without a backward glance.

It took me three days to recover.

Actually, you don't have to know a thing about cars to want a sports car, and I've wanted one since I was a kid. My favorite ride at Disneyland was the Autopia in Tomorrowland. The kid-sized convertible would whiz along a track, in and out of shadowy underpasses, over graceful, ivy-covered arches inspired by the Pasadena Freeway. I'd turn the wheel back and forth, pretending to steer, and pump the useless accelerator, hoping to go faster.

After college, I asked my parents for a Fiat Spider, so I could drive up and down the California coast with the top down, just like Dustin Hoffman did in his Alfa Romeo in "The Graduate." I had a friend at UC Berkeley who had a used Alfa Spider. Senior year, he let me drive it down by the bay. He taught me how to negotiate curves with both hands on top of the wheel without slowing down. I don't recall anything about the car itself; I remember perfectly the silver sky above and the smell of the shiny, briny sea as we zoomed past the whitecaps.

My folks got me a boxy brown Toyota. As soon as I could, I traded it for a soulful white convertible Volkswagen Beetle. Then the safe and practical MPV. After 30 years, I finally have a sports car.

What's amazing to me is how visible I've become and how much friendlier life is close to the pavement. Neighbors I haven't talked to in months wave and smile and stop to talk. Everybody, it seems, is happy for me--and that includes relatives from the World War II generation and my ex-husband.

My 17-year-old daughter is pleased too: If this is evidence that I have a life, I might pay less attention to hers. It's not as embarrassing to be seen driving around with me now, and once I even let her drive the new car. We were in Trabuco Canyon with the top down, driving a curvy country road under a canopy of oaks when she uttered the words that warm a mother's heart: "How rad is this?"

She's just learning what all women have imprinted somewhere in the collective unconscious: There's a price to be paid if you drive a minivan too long.

The slender, blond Miata-driving grandmother who lives next door smiled knowingly when she saw I had broken free, and called out: "Nice choice in car!" One of the things she likes about her car, she said, is the way it hugs the corners. "I could just go around and around in a circle," she said with a laugh. She also likes the way people are surprised that a woman her age would drive a car like that. And she likes traveling light. (One of her packing tips: Just take your old, worn-out panties and throw them away as you go.)

Another friend, who bought a Miata when she moved from New York to California, was as pleased as if we had joined the same sorority, which in a sense we have. At least half the 30,000 members of the Miata club (yes, there's a club and a magazine) are women.

We talk about our cars like boyfriends or babies. We dress them up in fuzzy car seats. We tuck them in at night under car covers. We give them names. A 10-year-old friend decided I should call my new car Black Beauty. No one ever suggested I name the minivan.

There's always talk about sports cars as sex symbols, and Barbara Beach, publisher of the Miata magazine, has plenty of unprintable stories of adventurous husbands and wives rekindling passion on the road. For her, however, the car brought romance. She met her husband after he left a note on her car saying, "My Mercedes would like to meet your Miata."

I wasn't at all surprised to hear that women who have to give up their cars for a family car start to show symptoms of what they call "post-Miata depression." One of the danger signs is trying to drive the oversized car as if it hugged the corners and could maneuver into small parking spaces. If they can't wait until their family-car days are over, they sometimes buy a used Miata for a second car.

I suppose some people might doubt that a natural imperative drives middle-aged women to get sports cars. They should listen to a friend of mine who hadn't known I'd been thinking of a new car. When I told her what I'd done, she said: "That's too weird. Last week, I dreamed I traded in my Volvo for a Miata. Two nights in a row."

She's next.

Times staff writer Lynn Smith can be reached via e-mail at lynn.smith@latimes.com.

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