(Pre) Last Call: Rear Seat Entertainment


In-car entertainment systems have come a loooooong way since I was a child in the 1990s. Vehicles on sale today have an assortment of rear-seat multimedia systems. From iPads in headrests, flip-down BlueRay DVD players and minivans with two separate displays; if you want to stare at a screen while on the road, it’s easier than ever. Heck, you can buy aftermarket entertainment systems that can be had and installed for under $300.

My family had a big, green 1995 Ford Windstar LX when I was growing up. “Godzilla” took us on countless road trips and vacations, when it ran properly. With two full rows of bench seats, there was more than enough room for all three DeGraff boys to claim our own corners of the van, and sprawl out for hours. Ford didn’t offer an in-car TV back then, so my parents got creative and found a solution. Buy a 9-inch television with a built in VCR, connect it to AC household outlet adapter, tighten it around the front armrests with two bungee cords; and you’ve got yourself a movie theatre on wheels. Wedged between the front passenger and driver’s seat sat that little color tube TV, that would move around anytime we made a quick turn or stop. My two brothers and I would sit cramped three-deep in the second row bench seat, while mom and dad overheard every goofy child’s movie that played off that VHS tape. I thought this was awesome.

Then a friend of mine’s parents bought a late 1990s Dodge Grand Caravan with a “real” TV,  that cleanly sat on the floor between the two front seats. Right before the millennium however, Chevrolet blew everyone out of the pond with their Venture “Warner Brothers” super-cool, Hollywood-themed minivan. It had…wait for it…a FLIP DOWN SCREEN! Wow, I’m too excited over this. Most of these vans had VHS players but a lucky few could play those high-tech DVDs. There were even RCA inputs so you could hookup a Nintendo 64 and play Goldeneye on the go. They (Chevy) even used the cheesy tag line “Goes from zero to fun in two shakes of a rabbit’s tail,” to help pitch the sale.

The DVD era took off and our family replaced the old, boxy in-car tube TV set up with three portable DVD players and miles of headphone cables. Battery issues, scratched discs, spilled drinks and bumpy roads fought hard to disturb our movie watching during drives. In-car entertainment systems continued to evolve, becoming more mainstream, affordable and reliable. Xzibit “Yo Dawged,” everyone by taking televisions in vehicles to the next level, and proudly letting America know about it. Why wouldn’t you need a TV in yo’ side view mirror or under yo’ car so when you’re changing the oil you can watch South Park?

Mobile devices starting with “i” took over once the mid 2000s rolled around. Want to watch movies, podcasts or the latest sports game? You can do it all on the go thanks to windshield mounts, dashboard  head-unit kits and Aux ports.

One of the best forms of “rear seat entertainment,” took place in the rear of the car. Get your mind out of the gutter. I’m talking about the flip-up, rear-facing jump seats found in station wagons. Countless Volvo V70s and Mercedes-Benz E320 wagons cruised around my neighborhood. No one called “Shotgun” for those, rather we darted for the rear hatch, hoped it was unlocked and proudly sat like pre-pubescent bosses –eagerly awaiting to get moving. Oh the shrieks and angry screams we got from our moms, every time we made “friendly distracting gestures” to drivers behind us. Long live the wagons!

Whether it be past or present, what’s your favorite form of rear seat entertainment?

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34 responses to “(Pre) Last Call: Rear Seat Entertainment”

  1. Manic_King Avatar

    How about some sheikh bling from the eighties, puke colored suitcase and all, owner probably had color matched shoes as well.
    <img src="http://www.upload.ee/image/3487317/grandprix-metalcarft_w126__1_.jpg"&gt;

  2. cruisintime Avatar

    When I was a youngster we had the drive-in theater. Sometimes we did not see the second feature.

  3. Rich Avatar

    Entertainment when I was a kid in the 70s: "Keep quiet back there or I'll stop this car!!" (and the huge Bel Air prevented my mother's swing from connecting if I squished myself all the way into the back seat)

  4. jeepjeff Avatar

    My favorite Passenger Entertainment System always has been (and probably always will be) the ones built in to every single car: the window*. I've always just loved watching the land roll by and taking in all the scenery and landmarks. (This also has the advantage that I basically never get lost; I got good at building internal maps and memorizing routes when I was really young. I don't remember not knowing the layout of my home town.)
    * And to keep people from posting the Jeep Hotrod from Roadkill or its ilk, this definition of window also includes the view from an open-top, window-free vehicle. Actually, those are even better. You get smell-o-vision to with the scenery. 🙂

  5. Ed Avatar

    It was so long ago that I'm any NDA has to be null and void by now, but one of the VERY first projects I worked on when I got into the automotive research and consulting business was the Chevrolet Venture you speak of above. Except that it wasn't supposed to be a Warner Bros. tie-in; it was supposed to be Disney. Would have made sense too, given all of the Disney-GM tie-ins that existed at the time. There were all kinds of proposed ideas for the vehicle meant to go beyond just Disney badging; there were proposed Mickey-shaped fold-out table surfaces and much more.
    In the end, the deal fell apart in negotiations between the two companies; they could never agree on the financial terms. So, GM took the concept to Warner Bros, and the rest is history!

    1. racer139 Avatar

      I think the Canadian venture had a disney edition. My sister inlaw has a olds van with all the goodies from that time.

      1. Kris_01 Avatar

        Yeah, I seem to remember seeing Venture ads with a Disney package back around Y2K or so; I was in college at the time.

      2. dukeisduke Avatar

        The Olds Silhouette model they called the "Premiere".

        1. salguod Avatar

          I thought the Olds came first, but I'm not certain.

  6. $kaycog Avatar

    Rear seat entertainment……….no comment.

    1. longrooffan Avatar

      After $kaycog's comment, this olelongrooffan is not sure any response can equal hers…
      However, remembering riding in the back back of TheGentlemanFarmer's '67 Country Squire with thejeepjunkie and each of us striving to be the first to recognize the vehicle following us has been, and will always, be a memory that follows us our lifetimes. That trip to Ontario from the Ozarks is something neither of us will ever forget…as well as those weekend trips to Table Rock Lake.
      We were prior to the TV's in cars entertainment and, as a result, there was always lively conversations going on, and ya know what? that wasn't such a bad thing. I recently did a short trip with my daughter and her friend and they both were plugged into somesort of ear plug based entertainment and they both missed the Airstream Ranch when we passed it by.
      To me, that is a tragedy.

      1. longrooffan Avatar

        BTW..still stuck at 96p…what the F is up with that.?

        1. Batshitbox Avatar

          I just went and green thumbed your last 40 comments, all the way back to your 5 week hiatus.
          HOONS! Give OLRF the Flomax treatment, and help his 'p' !

        2. MVEilenstein Avatar

          I've been at 97 forever.

          1. jeepjeff Avatar

            It took some concerted jackassery to get each of the last points of the 90s. The algorithm starts getting pretty stingy when you break 90. You'll get there. In the mean time, I'm going to go ding as many of OLRF's comments as I can (I'm sure I've already gotten to a couple of them).

      2. $kaycog Avatar

        I agree that it's a tragedy. When I was little, my entertainment on a car trip was going through the alphabet with signs and license plates. I catch myself still doing that.

      3. MVEilenstein Avatar

        I subscribe to the philosophy that the less TV children watch, the better. I'm probably in the minority, but riding in the car is the perfect time to daydream, imagine, play games, read, write, have a conversation, or heck – just take a nap. Some of my best memories are of road trips, and we never had a TV in the car.

        1. calzonegolem Avatar

          I'm right there with you on that. We spend enough of our time staring at screens.

        2. Vairship Avatar

          I do all those things while driving. Oh, wait…

  7. Kris_01 Avatar

    Me and my three younger brothers grew up in the back of an '88 GMC Safari and a '94 Aerostar extended wheelbase.
    The GMC was a fun old van. It was a cargo van that Dad bought off the original owner, who used it to tow an Airstream to Florida and back every year. We got it in '92 when it was four years old, but by this time it had batter than a quarter million klicks on it. Now, I don't know if any reader here remembers what cargo minivans used to be like, but here goes.
    Basically, it was a passenger van from the dash to the front seats. Past that – a tin box. She was a true cargo van with no side windows except one on the sliding door, which I think was a factory option on a cargo van. The whole thing was a deep forest green with tape stripes on the side, and the PO had installed a brow visor over the windshield. It was the cheapest "good" used minivan available at the time in the area (Caravans were still pretty hot commodities, even the early ones with stickshifts and 2.2 K-car engines, and you could forget getting a decent deal on the Toyota Star Trek Shuttlecrafts or any flavor of Nissan, be it the Multi or the Axxess). Now since a cargo van isn't very family friendly as-is, my father and my 12 year old self made the trek to a self-serve junkyard for seats and interior furnishings. We scored a blue vinyl bench seat from an old Chevy truck, and a pair of bucket seats from what my mind is telling me was an old Nissan or Toyota truck. We also scored seatbelts, but I don't recall what from – they were lap belts and I think they were Chrysler flavored.
    The buckets were mounted in the middle-seat area of the Safari using eight very long carriage bolts and two three foot long chunks of 8×8 lumber. The bench seat fit in the rear and was directly bolted to the floor and frame rails as the seat mounts were higher. We outfitted the cargo section with cheap carpeting, cut a hole in the side for a camper-van style window which we got a glass shop to install, and lastly lined the roof in fibreglass office-style cieling tile which was cut to fit. Lastly, for that high tech flavor, we wired a boom-box stereo directly to the vehicle wiring.
    That old van saw us through more family vacations and road trips than I care to count. Like all old GMs of that vintage, the lock cylinder eventually wore out to the point when you could start it without a key, and I kept that piece of wisdom to myself. 14 year old me learned burnouts in that van, and 16 year old me used to transport friends around at 3 in the morning quite frequently.

    1. Kris_01 Avatar

      Oh, to continue, Dad realized that a true passenger van would be a good upgrade, so in '96 we got a 2 year old Aerostar extended version. IIRC it was a 2 year lease that had just been taken back with excessive KMs (I think it was around 60K which was bad for just 2 years), so Dad got a pretty good deal on it. Next to the GMC (which we kept as a second vehicle for a good three years afterwards), it was a pure luxury vehicle. Real seats! A real heater/A/C unit! No more freezing in winter and boiling in summer! What was funny was that the van came with the factory child seat option – 2 built in child seats in the middle row. By this time my two youngest brothers were 10 and 9 respectively – so the child seats were never used.
      It had actual sliding windows, rear heater/AC controls that you could work from the middle seat, and headphone jacks which were frequently used. Dad would load up the tape deck and then kill the sound to the front speakers; end result a rather peaceful trip.
      I can remember that according to more than a few Ford techs, Dad;'s van technically should never have been built. It was an extended version RWD XL model with the 4.0 V6 and the heavy-duty trailer package. Apparently, you could get the 4.0 V6 in any level trim if you had AWD, but if it was a RWD van you had to select the XLT or Eddie Bauer trim levels (as the XL trim was the intermediate trim level).
      Neighbours of ours had the very same van except with the 3.0 V6 (the Taurus engine which was the base for Aerostars by '94). Ours was like a hotrod next to theirs. That thing had lots of power and never once left us stranded. It had 445,000 kms on it in the summer of 2003 when my 17 year old brother decided to see if it could fly, and took a 90 degree dirt road turn at better than 100 KPH. He took out four solid trees, flipped a good three times, and busted every pane of glass. The airbags went off but I'm not sure3 why; the front end wasn't impacted too badly. The engine was apparently still running when he came to rest. Walked away with three broken ribs (God looks after the fools I guess, and I'm not a religious man).
      Dad was bummed about the loss; said he wanted to get 500K out of it. It was a terrific van and had a Toyota level of quality – it never had a wrench on the engine except spark plugs, one thermostat and regular oil changes. We had been worried about the transmission when we got the van; we'd heard that Aerostars had trans issues, but by '94 those demons must have been exorcised – after the van went to the scrapyard, someone actually salvaged the trans out of it.

      1. RegalRegalia Avatar

        Great stories, thanks.

  8. JayP2112 Avatar

    The kid likes being tucked in the back of the Mustang for roadtrips. He has his pillow, a blanket and his cell phone to record me singing Michael Bolton songs without my knowledge. I've been lucky- he is a great roadtrip pal and can have conversations about what we see on the road.

  9. Devin Avatar

    As I grew up in the '90s, my road trip entertainment was this:
    <img src="http://static.giantbomb.com/uploads/original/0/9566/392624-123950_gadget26_gameboy_b.jpg"&gt;
    Luckily I also grew up before airbags, so I could sit in the front and talk to my parents too. I would really miss that if I had kids.

  10. jeepjeff Avatar

    Oh man, almost forgot about this one: giving truckers the toot-toot sign to get them to honk. It never got old. Alas, I did, and where many will honk for a 10-year-old, it starts falling off badly by 15.

  11. scoudude Avatar

    We did the TV/VCR and then TV/DVD player in our 98 Windstar, since the only option it didn't have was the flip down screen and VCP in the jockey box between the seat. We selected ones with the ability to run on 12vdc too. Then a splitter and headphones so mom and I didn't have listen to what ever kid's movie they were watching they also had the RCA inputs and I had an inverter so they could play video games too. That was replaced with a 03 Mountaineer with the factory DVD system, still have that vehicle and I can't remember the last time it has played a disc, though it we definitely got our moneys worth out of it in the first 5-6 years of ownership.

  12. NothingHappens Avatar

    As a child of the 80s/90s I can report two versions:
    1) Black and white tube TV with antenna only. 9". Only really worked around "major metropolitan areas" which were few and far-between in my childhood trips. Complete piece of shit, my parents were/are cheap on tech.
    2) Portable Compact Disk Player with MASH 20 second anti-skip and rechargeable batteries! If you recall listening to a CD (from one of those portable CD cases) beginning to end with the anti-skip to even out the bumps. The 1996 xmas gift if I recall.

    1. Kris_01 Avatar

      And remember how turning on the anti-skip feature would kill the batteries in short order?

      1. NothingHappens Avatar

        And hitting the player to make it skip would do the same. Yeah.
        The "old days" sucked.

  13. dukeisduke Avatar

    I've dragged along a laptop with an auto/AC adapter for a couple of our vacations. It worked pretty good, but I really would like to put a DVD entertainment system in my wife's SIenna. We made it through this summer's vacation without videos, just the kids' iPods and iPad.

  14. stigshift Avatar

    Rear seat entertainment does not require technology…

  15. wisc47 Avatar

    The Honda Pilot my parents own has a flip down screen and spots to plug in a device that used Red White and Yellow AV cords. All you needed was a 12V to home outlet adapter and then you could plug in a video game console. In high school I was a swimmer year round so during our pre-season some guys from the team had to drive about 40 minutes one way to practice, so we ended up playing Mario Kart on Gamecube. A driving game in a moving car? Things got a little Meta.

  16. salguod Avatar

    When the kids were little and we still had the '88 Grand Caravan, we borrowed a 9" TV/VCR and were amazed at the peace we had on the 9 hour trip to grandmas. We took out the middle bench and they sat 3 across the rear with the TV atop two suitcases behind the driver's seat, somewhat bungeed in place.
    The next year we bought a '99 Odyssey and got our own TV/VCR and a tote made by Steelhorse that hung it securely between the front seats. Our Odyssey was the EX model with the same head unit as the Nav equipped models. That meant it was set up to play Nav. instructions through the front speakers. I exploited that and put an input jack and a switch in the dash, reversed the speaker wiring and then I could play the TV sound through the rear speakers and the radio through the front. That never worked out as well as I had hoped, but it did mean that they could hear the movie without it blaring out the side speaker in the TV directly in my ear and we didn't have headphone cords everywhere. The how to on that is probably still posted deep in the archives at odyclub.com.
    We later replaced the TV/VCR with a TV/DVD and had used it until this year in the Odyssey and then out '10 Outlook. For our camping trip a couple weeks ago, I strapped it in yet again and plugged it in the 12v outlet. I went in the house to get something and came back to find the truck full of smoke as something had shorted on the TV. I ripped it out and we went without it.
    A built in would be nice, but they're pricey even still. Three personal DVD players are under $100 each, a better deal. Funny, that original Steelhorse bag plus TV/VCR cost me about $300. Or maybe we'll do nothing.

  17. joedunlap Avatar

    Some great growing up stories here. Thanks to all for the reminiscences. Ill try to make mine short. Like many of you here, my time was spent in the back of a van. A 61 VW no window transporter my dad purchased brand new. Right out of the gate, we made a road trip from Morro Bay Ca. to New Braunfels Tx. to Wichita Ks. and back during the Thanksgiving holidays to see relatives along the way. We removed the fiberboard partition between the front bench seat and the cargo area, and I spent most of the trip standing up against the bulkhead(13 years old at the time) watching the world go by in my "virtual" front seat. Almost all of the trip was over undivided 2 and 4 lane roads, as the interstate system was still in its infancy, especially in the southwest. Puttering along behind semis (drafting them when we could) staying in seedy little motels (left my collection of model train magazines in one of them in NM.) Watching a Greyhound bus get get blown up on 2 wheels in a crosswind after it passed us. somewhere near Alpine Tx. (Why it didnt blow us over or into Mexico I still dont understand.) And mile after mile of the flattest, emptiest prairies this side of the Steppes. Memories I wouldnt trade for all the gold on earth. Thanks Mom and Dad.

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