Case cracked: The mystery of the Mystery Machine

Erika Cisneros holds up the keys to the 1987 Toyota Van Wagon

Perhaps you’ve witnessed it zipping around town – the psychedelic hubcaps; the groovy flash of chartreuse green, sky blue and tangelo orange; a driver who resembles a certain animated brainiac named Velma Dinkley.

Did someone hijack an elaborate prop from a Hollywood movie set?

Is it a phantasm from a hallowed cartoon of flower power yore?

Are eccentric ghost hunters hot on the trail for the elusive specter of late cattle baron Henry Miller’s daughter, Sarah, who allegedly haunts Mount Madonna?

Wonder no more. The mystery of the Mystery Machine has been solved.


“When I was a little kid, I thought you could buy one. But then I realized you couldn’t. So I just said, ‘screw it, I’ll make my own,’” said Gavilan College student Erika Cisneros, 23.

Her father, Alex Cisneros, 46, regards his children’s classy clunker with hesitation and some apathy.

“For me, it’s not a good car to drive. Sometimes I drive it, and it’s very embarrassing,” he said, eyeballing the ‘87 Toyota MasterAce (more commonly referred to as a Toyota van wagon) while standing at a casual distance from the car on his front lawn in northwest Gilroy. “People are always coming up to me and wanting to take pictures.”

The same goes for his wife, Heide, 50.

A grinning Erika said her mother refuses to ride in the Mystery Machine, “and if she has to, she goes into the back and crouches down” so nobody can see her.

Along with her 19-year-old brother, Edgar Cisneros, Erika purchased the “really ugly” used van for $1,250 in 2010 after spotting it on a Mountain View Craigslist posting. It was silver then, and had 118,000 miles on the odometer.  

As longtime fans of the 1969 animated series “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!” the siblings said they always wanted to commandeer their own version of the Mystery, Inc. gang’s sweet ride. The colorful wagon holds a central role in the cartoon’s quintessential teenage-detectives-capture-bad-guys capers.

“A lot of people have childhood dreams that they don’t really get to complete … so I thought, ‘what the hell?’” said Erika, who works at Round Table Pizza in Gilroy.

Little did the Cisneros family – which includes the youngest brother, Elias, 17 – anticipate the extent to which their carriage of cool would command celebrity status on the highways; spark giddy hysterics among delighted children; get tagged in random pictures on Facebook by friends of friends of friends; or turn adults into starry-eyed youngsters at the sight of a four-wheeled blast from the past.

Some people even impulsively offer to buy it on the spot, Edgar said, citing a high of $2,000.

On one particular outing to a guitar shop in Campbell, Erika recalls “an executive-looking woman in a really nice business suit” who drove an Audi. After spotting the Mystery Machine, the woman trailed Erika and Edgar, parked alongside them and asked if she could trade cars for a couple of hours.

“She was really excited,” Erika recalled, leaning up against the van, which sat parked in her family’s driveway on Delta Drive just off Welburn Avenue. “She looked like a little girl when she saw it.”

When the latest installment of the Harry Potter films came out, the Cisneros siblings and a groups of friends piled into the Toyota to go see it.

The movie theater parking lot was packed, so Edgar parked temporarily in an illegal space while Erika stood in line for tickets.

A golf cart with two security guards pulled up.

“But instead of telling us anything, one of the security guards got out and started beat boxing, and the other started singing the theme song from the (Scooby-Doo) show into his megaphone,” said Erika. “They told us ‘no worries, stay as long as you want and we’ll even watch the van for you.’”

On another occasion when the Cisneros siblings were visiting a friend’s house, Erika remembers a 4-year-old girl who kept walking into living room “like she had lost something.”

When the little girl’s mother finally asked her what she was looking for, “she said, ‘the cartoons,’” said Erika. “She thought they were in the house since she saw their car parked in the driveway.”

Small children aren’t the only ones who get a kick out of the car.

To the amusement of staff members at Orchard Supply Hardware in Gilroy, Erika – a creative individual who likes to draw and build her own skateboards – visited the store on multiple occasions as she attempted to mix the exact paint shades of the original Mystery Machine. She used a key chain as her small-scale reference model.

“She was like, ‘What are you trying to do? We’ve never had anybody do anything like that before,’” said Erika, of the Orchard employee who helped her select the green, white, yellow, red and navy blue shades of RustOleum – the brand of protective, outdoor furniture paint Erika used because it was the cheapest.

It took three tries to recreate a facsimile of the Mystery Machine’s lime green, a laborious eight applications of paint coats and a collective three months to conceive a dead ringer for the fictional vehicle that famously carries Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy and Scooby-Doo on their ghost busting shenanigans.

Three months?

“Jinkies!” as Velma would say.

Measuring in at 5 feet, 1 inch, sporting black-framed glasses and wearing her dark brown hair in a short bob akin to that of her animated doppelganger, Erika’s uncanny resemblance to Velma – the analytical pundit of the Mystery Gang, Inc. – only perpetuates fanatical reactions from the public, her father noted.

“Too many people say my daughter looks like Velma,” said Alex. “All of the neighbors bring their kids and ask for rides.”

What does impress Alex, however, is Erika’s artistic skills. Alex is befuddled in trying to pinpoint which side of the family it comes from.

Standing in her garage, where the sounds of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” flowed from a boom box, Erika said her parents thought she and her brother were “crazy” for spending their hard-earned cash on the old Toyota van wagon that’s as dated as the Sony Discman and the original Macintosh computer.

Mr. and Mrs. Cisneros also feared that replicating the Mystery Machine might be “illegal and that we would get sued for copyright infringement,” Erika laughed.

Now made-over and running like a dream, the siblings say their car is choice for going out and about. Erika mentioned one of her male friends likes to get behind the wheel “because it’s chick magnet.”

When they’re cruising on the highway and need to change lanes, Edgar said agog drivers always yield to the Mystery Machine out of sheer surprise/confusion.

It’s a nice perk, the siblings agree.

With a Mystery Machine air freshener, a license plate frame that reads, “My other car is a Batmobile” and a Scooby-Doo Beanie Baby perched in its seat of honor atop the dashboard, the Toyota van wagon is stylishly accessorized but wants for one thing.

“We did,” said Erika, when asked if she and her brother considered completing the far-out ensemble with a real Great Dane. “But we already have three dogs. Our parents would kick us out of the house if we got a Great Dane.”

Barking from behind the garage door, it’s dubious how kindly Harley, Cocoa and Chowder – one a shih tzu, one a Yorkshire terrier and one a Chihuahua/terrier mix – would take to an oversized canine hogging the back seat. Edgar said the family dogs relish Mystery Machine rides to the park.

As for Elias, a junior at Christopher High School who plans on getting his driver’s license soon, he’s not exactly chomping at the bit to be at the helm of the hip van.  

“No…” he said, giving the car a once-over when asked if he might take his DMV test in the Toyota. “I don’t think so.”

Erika said she’ll miss getting to drive the Mystery Machine on a regular basis after she transfers to De Anza College this January to study mechanics and machinery.

“It’s just nice seeing people smile, and people like taking pictures with it,” she said. “It’s cool.”

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