Quick Stats: David Robinson, drummer for the Cars/artist and gallery owner
Daily Driver: 2003 Volkswagen Passat W8 wagon (David’s rating: 9 on a scale of 1 to 10)
Other cars: See below
Favorite road trip: Boston to Los Angeles
Car he learned to drive in: 1962 Mercury Comet wagon
First car bought: 1976 Chevrolet Corvette
If you’ve ever wondered about the story behind the name of the band Cars, you might assume its members are car enthusiasts.
But when you ask drummer David Robinson, who came up with the name, the answer is more layered than you might think. Perhaps even a Freudian slip for a kid from Boston who could’ve started out life as a car designer.
“We made lists. One of the names I made up was ‘the Cars,’ and we thought, ‘It’s really easy to remember, it’s short, it comes at the beginning of the alphabet.’ It had nothing to do with cars. Totally random. I was at a point where I hadn’t thought about a car for years and years and years,” Robinson says, laughing.
The Cars catapulted to rock stardom at the beginning of the New Wave music movement in the late 1970s, selling more than 23 million albums, and the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. At the height of the Cars’ popularity around the world, the person who came up with the band’s name did not own a car.
Sometimes an interview unwittingly becomes an unearthing of one’s childhood dreams. “We never even talked about cars,” Robinson says. “Cars didn’t mean anything particularly important to us. But I was totally into cars as a kid and into junior high school, obsessed with cars and designing and drawing pictures of cars. When I was thinking about this interview, I remembered something that was really an important thing that happened to me as a kid. They used to have something called the Fisher Body [Craftsman’s] Guild.”
Robinson described the contest, sponsored by GM in an effort to foster future talent, where teens would make scale cars. “I remember going to the assembly hall, and it was around the time I started making model cars, and I used to be obsessed with making them. The headlights would turn on, the doors would open, and they had real upholstery in them,” Robinson recalls. “I wished that I had started out a career as a car designer back then. I gave up on cars when I realized you needed money to buy a car. Then I just forgot about them.”
Even so, Robinson is still interested in cars today: “Every time I see a new car, I immediately redesign it in my head,” he says.
Robinson admits choosing the word for the band’s name might’ve been a reflection of his subconscious. “It’s fun that I’m finally being asked about cars. Nobody’s ever asked me about my car or anybody’s cars, from the beginning of the band,” Robinson says.
Over the years, music journalists have asked the band about their name. “They would ask who made it up, and does it mean anything, and we would just say abruptly, ‘No,’” Robinson says.
Today, Robinson is far from the stage lights. He lives a simpler life on the coast of Massachusetts with a view of the ocean. He’s an artist, an abstract photographer, and a gallery owner who sells jewelry he makes. He does not own a cell phone, only has a landline, and drives a 2003 Volkswagen Passat W8 wagon—which was a very purposeful decision.
Robinson rates the Passat high on a scale of 10. “Since I just spent $15,000 to restore it, it’s now a 9,” he says, laughing. “The frame rotted out. I’d been struggling to keep the car because I love station wagons and manufacturers have cut back on station wagons, so there’s not much to offer. Styling-wise, it looks really nice and it was in good condition.” Part of the restoration was removing the rust that had occurred since the car is parked near the ocean. “It’s fast—it’s really fast,” Robinson adds.
Once Robinson got a wagon, he never looked back when he saw how handy it was. “I use it for hauling stuff. I have an art gallery, so I’ve done remodeling and all kinds of things where I just needed room. I hate SUVs,” he says, with a laugh. “SUVs—they were a car that nobody actually asked to be built. They’re too big, they’re mostly ugly, they’re too high up off the ground. They don’t handle well.”
Robinson didn’t need a car until he was in his 30s, since he took the subway in Boston. He’s also owned three other wagons—two Mercury Sables and a Ford Taurus. “I got those because when the Sable first came out, it was the first streamlined, nice-looking station wagon. They were still making boxes up until then,” Robinson says.
The Passat was a deliberate upgrade. “I thought I wouldn’t have to haul junk around, so I could get a better station wagon,” he says, laughing. “But then when I saw there was an eight-cylinder, that was what I wanted. I like the styling, too. It’s held up really, really well, I think.”
1969 De Tomaso Mangusta
Robinson also owns a dream car he never even thought he would have—a 1969 De Tomaso Mangusta that’s being restored by Wayne Carini, of Chasing Classic Cars fame (watch episodes on Motor Trend Premium right here).
“He’s had it a couple years now. I hope I’ll get it back in the fall,” Robinson says. “If not, I’ll have to just wait. It won’t matter when he finishes, as long as I can get it in the spring to drive.”
Robinson has never driven the Mangusta, even though he bought it 24 years ago. “It was my favorite car. In 1966 I remember seeing it in car magazines, at the European car show, and it was just one of those a ha moments,” Robinson says. “It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, and I lusted after it. I wasn’t really looking for one. I just forgot about them.”
Robinson has owned a couple of Cobra replicas in the past, and when he was having one built at a shop in Massachusetts, he asked the shop workers if they were working on anything interesting. “They said, ‘We’re working on this car that we’re going to chop up and race up in New Hampshire.’ It was a Mangusta. I got right in my car and went over and bought it. And then I put it in storage.”
Car he learned drive in
Robinson transformed his first car—a 1962 Mercury Comet woody station wagon—into a band car. He learned to drive around the streets of Woburn, Massachusetts, in that Mercury.
“I had already been driving with my friends illegally. I drove my friends’ cars a couple times,” Robinson says. “But I formally learned and was instructed by my dad in that car. I didn’t let on that I’d already been driving it. And that’s the car I had my driver’s test in, too.”
The Comet was the first new car Robinson’s dad bought. “It turned out to be a horrible lemon, and he went through hell to get Ford to fix it. He went up to the state house to complain, he wrote letters to Henry Ford complaining about it,” Robinson says.
Robinson says his father was trying to get Ford to give him another new car. “It drove him crazy. I’d like to think that people like him were responsible for those lemon laws coming into place,” he says.
Robinson drove the Comet when he was in the high school band. “I decided it was getting run-down-looking—the fake wood was peeling—so I painted the light part of the fake wood to match the car, which was green,” he says.
He also got more artistic with it, putting paisley contact paper on the Comet. “Paisley was big in the psychedelic ’60s—it was like a rock and roller thing. It was silver like foil, and it had pink, white, and black paisley on it,” Robinson says. “So I stuck it on and made the pattern match like wallpaper, then I painted the wheels the same color as the car. I put baby moon hubcaps on it.”
He made a professional-looking sign for a band he had then, called The Rising Tide, and stuck it on the side window. “It looked incredible, but it caused a commotion on the street. It was so bizarre; people beeped and screamed. My father was so excited because it got all this attention from young people, so he thought he was hip,” he says.
Three times, people left notes on the Comet to ask where they could get it done to their car.
“We just laughed. My father was more excited about it than I was. I think my mother was in shock. I only had the Comet for a few more months. I was over at the band’s practice house in the winter, and we heard this giant crash. We looked out the window, and a drunk driver going 50 mph rear-ended it. We went outside and couldn’t find it because it flew through the air over a snow bank. The guy survived, but the car was perfectly, evenly crushed like an accordion,” Robinson says.
After the Comet, Robinson inherited another car from his folks around the time he was getting out of high school—a 1961 Pontiac convertible that was starting to fall apart. “The roof got shredded,” Robinson says. “I used to shovel snow off it in the winter. I drove that for a summer.”
First car bought—His unintentional “rock star car”
By late 1978, Robinson was in the Cars, but he wasn’t looking for a car to fit his new rock star life. He just happened to buy a 1976 Corvette on a whim because a girlfriend’s father, who worked in Detroit, called her up and asked if she wanted his secretary’s company car (a 1977 Corvette is shown above).
“She already had a much nicer Corvette, so she called me, and I said, ‘Yeah, sure,’” he says, with a laugh. “I flew out there and got it and drove it back. I had that car for a year when I lived in Boston, and I was pretty sure it was going to be stolen every single night. But it lasted an entire year. I didn’t need it, since I lived in Boston and didn’t have anywhere to park it. I just thought I’d buy it for fun. The other guys already had much nicer cars than that. Newer, better cars.”
Robinson hardly drove the ’Vette. “I would use the band’s van because it was parked in an indoor garage a block away from where I lived, so I never really needed a car until I moved from Boston in 1986, and then I got into the station wagons,” he says.
One day, his fear that the ’Vette would be stolen came true. “We were in Boston and we did a radio interview, and it was Christmas Eve and the guy who interviewed us asked us what kind of cars we owned … I don’t like answering those questions myself because if you’ve got an expensive, fancy car, people aren’t going to like you, or they’ll think you’re a rich snob, and the other guys did have other fancy cars,” he says. “So I waved my hand to say ‘No,’ but before I could, the other guys all answered. I felt stupid and I told them I had the Corvette. Four hours later, it was stolen. To this day, I’m convinced it got stolen because this DJ asked us what kind of cars we had.”
After the interview, Robinson drove the Corvette back home, three blocks away, where he got lucky to find a parking space in front of his door. He went in to wrap Christmas gifts and came out two hours later to find the car no longer there.
“It had just started to snow and there were fresh tracks in the snow. Somebody was really determined to take it because there were people all over the street,” he says.
Since Robinson took public transportation in Boston, after the ’Vette, the Cars’ drummer was carless until his mid-30s when he moved to the suburbs.
Favorite road trip
When Robinson was in another Boston-based band called Modern Lovers, they drove across the country to record an album. They took the road trip in a 1963 Dodge Dart and the band’s van, which had the bass player’s BMW motorcycle in it (a 1963 Dodge Dart is shown above).
“We took the northern route out and the southern route back. On the northern route, we would take the bike out on interesting mountain roads,” Robinson recalls. “I was a passenger then; I have motorcycles now. That trip was unbelievable. We stopped at everything there was to see—the Grand Canyon, which I had never seen, we stopped at Indian reservations. I can’t tell you how great that was just to see America, especially the Grand Canyon. When I saw it in person, I was speechless. I couldn’t believe what it really looked like in person.”
They took this road trip in the early 1970s, driving from Boston to Los Angeles, New Orleans, and back home. “The trip was incredible because I had really never left Massachusetts and I had never seen any of the natural wonders,” Robinson says.
Though he’s most known for the Cars, Robinson still has a connection to the band and its music, especially in his home state of Massachusetts. “For three or four years, they’d been trying to make one of our songs the state rock song, a song called ‘Roadrunner,’” he says. “The guy who introduced it is now the mayor of Boston. So I’m hoping that might mean this year they can make this song the state rock song. Other states have rock songs.”
2018 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
The Cars were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year, after being nominated twice before (photo above is courtesy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame).
“I’ve always been slightly suspicious of a big commercial thing called the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and maybe I was a little snobby about it until I looked at who was inducted, and then I realized my favorite ones are in there. Every once in a while they’d induct someone I didn’t really approve of myself,” Robinson says, with a laugh. “But mostly we’re in incredibly good company.”
Rhino’s expanded versions of Shake It Up and Heartbeat City
Two years ago Rhino released two new digitally remastered box sets of the Cars’ catalog, with extra material and artwork. This year, in honor of the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the label released expanded editions of the band’s most iconic albums, Shake It Up and Heartbeat City. Robinson was always the art director, designing the band’s album covers.
Robinson was recently given the gift of being able to go back to 1984. Or at least, with the Rhino releases, redo the album covers, including the one for Heartbeat City.
“In 1984 I designed this elaborate cover and the record company completely screwed it up and screwed me over, and for years I’ve lived with that horrible cover. It’s still got my name on it as a designer,” Robinson says. “When Rhino started putting out our records, they let me fix the cover and change it. First I fixed the outside of it and then I re-created the inside as it would have been in 1984.”
Robinson was able to put in all the concepts he had in 1984. “That sounds crazy, but it’s like a dream come true for me,” he says. “Pre-computer days stuff was pretty complicated, you’d have to go and print pictures in a darkroom and do all this masking and airbrushing, so to make it last year was 100 times easier. It came out 50 times better.”
In 1984, Heartbeat City included hits like “Drive” and “You Might Think,” which won the inaugural MTV Video Music Award for Video of the Year. There are seven bonus tracks on Rhino’s Heartbeat City, including unreleased versions of “Why Can’t I Have You,” “I Refuse,” as well as the demo for “Drive.”
Robinson has always enjoyed working on the art for the band’s albums. “We put out the Cars’ anthology and I worked on that and it looks like a custom hot rod paint job. The slipcase was painted by a car customizer in California and we asked him to make something that would look like it was on the hood or trunk of a hot rod,” he says. “They printed it with real metal flake for a few years and then switched over to some laser thing that doesn’t look so good. … We put a lot of authentic details like pictures of a real hot rod wheel for the disc itself. It’s a good box set for hot rod lovers.”