Good-Time Facts About Cars Frontman Ric Ocasek

Andrea Papillon

When Richard Theodore Otcasek was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1944, World War II was still raging. He often ran away as a kid, escaping a fractured home life and parents from a different generation. This kid would become Ric Ocasek, a “visionary” and songwriter of some of the biggest new-wave rock hits of the late 70s and 80s. How did he accomplish this feat? His quote provides a clue: “When you become tired of fitting in, is when you truly become yourself.” Here are 40 self-propelled facts about the iconic Cars frontman.

1. Space Dad

Ric Ocasek didn’t always have the greatest relationship with his father, but he could at least say his dad had a cool job: Mr. Otcasek was a systems analyst at NASA.

2. Big Brother Visits

Ocasek once described a Twilight Zone-sounding incident when government officials paid a visit to their family home to grill his mother about his father’s dreams at night.

3. Stage Grandmother

Ocasek’s granny was wheelchair-bound, but don’t make lame assumptions! She had the rock ‘n roll savvy to buy him his first guitar after young Ocasek became obsessed with Buddy Holly and the Crickets.

4. Thank You, Next

So much for music worshipping: Ocasek started taking guitar lessons after his granny bought him the instrument—but he quit after just three months.

5. Beach Bumming

Ocasek’s relationship with his parents became fractured in his early teens. Ocasek often ran away from home to the Ocean City boardwalk, surviving on the streets for several weeks at a time.

6. No Mistake

It wasn’t a mistake when the Otcaseks moved to Cleveland (AKA the “Mistake on the Lake”) when Ric was in his late teens. It was monumental in the young singer’s life, because he started performing live in Cleveland. Also, after moving to Cleveland, Ocasek also starting buckling down more at school. He tried hard to up his grade point average, as he had his sights set on getting a higher education.

7. They Lost the Taste Test

The Cars were up for Best New Artist at the 1979 Grammy Awards. They lost to the disco act A Taste of Honey, a one-hit-wonder who went the way of a day-old cruller.

8. Book Learning Wasn’t His Thang

Ocasek was accepted into, and attended, not one, but two different schools: Antioch College and Bowling Green State University. He tried both schools—but all he learned was that he wasn’t scholastically-minded. Dropping out of college for good, Ocasek’s focus turned to music.

9. Rock and Roll Entomology

In the 60s, basically every cool band had an insect name (I wonder who started that trend?). Ocasek first saw Benjamin Orzechowski (future bass player in the Cars) when Orzechowski was performing with a band called the Grasshoppers, on a local variety show in Cleveland. I’m still waiting for a band called the Filbert Weevils.

10. Music Inc.

Ric Ocasek might not have been scholastic, but he was business-minded when it came to pursuing music. He went as far as copyrighting the first song he ever wrote, and he put together his first bands just so he could fine-tune all the songs he’d written.

11. O-Types

Talk about blood brothers. Ric Ocasek and Benjamin Orzechowski met in Cleveland in the 60s, beginning a musical partnership that lasted decades. They formed various bands throughout the Ohio and Michigan areas before the two relocated to Boston in the 70s.

12. Did Henry Ford Not Teach You Anything?

According to Ric Ocasek, he was the driving force behind the Cars, serving as leader, singer, rhythm guitarist, and songwriter. Why he didn’t make like Henry Ford and name the band after himself is anyone’s guess.

13. Try Some Folk on for Size

When Ocasek and Orzechowski relocated to Boston in the 70s, they formed a folk-rock band called Milkwood—heavily influenced by the popularity of Crosby, Stills and Nash and similar music of that decade.

14. Cross Off that T

Ric Ocasek dotted the “i” in Ric, but he crossed off the “t” in his last name completely. Ocasek changed his name from Otcasek in the 70s, just before forming a band called Richard and The Rabbits. His friend and musical partner Benjamin Orzechowski went even further, changing his last name to Orr at the same time.

15. Their Forecast Fell on Deaf Ears

After Ocasek and Orr formed the folk band Milkwood, they released an album, How’s the Weather, but the record tanked.

16. Bunny Hopping

Sometime after the release of How’s the Weather (Milkwood’s lone album), the band was retooled and renamed Richard & the Rabbits. I’m picturing the dude-version of a cat lady.

17. From Carrots to Cars

Richard & the Rabbits eventually went under a personnel change and became Cap’n Swing—then, there was even more turnover, and they finally settled on the name the Cars.

18. His Musical Left Brain

Ocasek described his eclectic musical tastes as coming from the “left side of the music brain.” He admitted to loving both avant-garde legends Velvet Underground and sappier 70s tunes by The Carpenters.

19. Punks Done Good

According to The Rock and Rock Hall of Fame website, the Cars produced “six classic studio albums” that moved punk rock from obscurity into the mainstream.

20. Vice President O

Make that Senior Vice President of Artists and Repertoire…a position given to Ocasek by Elektra Records in 2003. The Boston Globe reported that Ocasek’s job was to “scout and sign new bands. But Elektra is investing in more than a fresh pair of ears.” That’s what I call singing Ocasek’s praises.

21. He Was an Orr-iginal

Ocasek always joked that he was supposed to be the “good-looking” one in the Cars (Orr was drop-dead gorgeous). Benjamin Orr died from pancreatic cancer at just 53 years old.

22. Not Going in Reverse

Ocasek got used to explaining the Cars’ breakup to every interviewer who asked (funny how things like that come up). After the album Door to Door was released, Ocasek said the band’s attitude, combined with their touring schedule, became a “big dark thing.” They weren’t having fun anymore, and Ocasek put a stop to the band completely.

He said he’d never go back, and he held out for 23 years, before finally reuniting with the surviving Cars members on a comeback album in 2010.

23. Trade-Ins

Ocasek’s marital patterns remind me of a guy trading in cars (pun intended). Little is known about first wife Constance, who divorced him in 1971. But in the same year, he married model-turned-English-lit-grad Suzanne Otcasek (she still goes by the original spelling of his last name). He and Suzanne were married for 17 years.

That relationship ended in 1984…precisely when 40-year-old Ocasek met 18-year-old supermodel Paulina Porizkova, when she starred in the video for the Cars’ hit song “Drive.”

24. Playing Caps

Cap’n Swing was one of several incarnations of the bad that would eventually become the Cars. At one point, a Boston disc jockey named Maxanne Sartori got a hold of Cap’n Swing’s demo tape and began playing it on her radio show (despite the fact the band was unsigned). Unfortunately, the band was still rejected by record labels, but their brush with fame did push Ocasek towards a band that truly fit his songwriting style.

25. He Went Han Solo

In 1982, Ocasek tried his hand at doing it all himself. That year, he released Beatitude, his first-ever solo album. On some tracks, the singer played every single instrument. “Emotion in Motion” was his highest-charting single from the album.

26. A Lonely Road

After the Cars broke up in 1988, Ocasek went into seclusion. He re-emerged in 1990 with another solo effort, and he released more solo projects throughout the 90s. His solo projects were commercially disappointing, although they received mostly positive critical reviews.

27. Shake It Up

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Ocasek really tested his creative boundaries. He delved into drawing, mixed-media art, photo collages, and writing poetry. Selections of his artwork were displayed in a gallery in Columbus, Ohio, in 2009. In 2012, he released Lyrics and Prose—a complete retrospective of his lyrics, from the Cars to his solo projects, as well as previously unpublished artwork, poetry, and prose.

28. Touring Blows

In 2005, Ocasek admitted to an interviewer that he hated touring. He also said he’d never do a reunion tour with the Cars, but he okayed it if his former band wanted to tour without him. They did, replacing Ocasek with Todd Rundgren on vocals, under the moniker the New Cars.

29. Missing a Wheel

In 2011, Ocasek reunited with the surviving members of the Cars, putting out their first album since 1987. When an interviewer told Ocasek that they liked the ballad, “Soon,” on the new album, Ocasek sadly replied that he wished Orr had been alive to sing the ballad instead.

30. His Lyrical Paintbrush

Ocasek said there while there was a lot of comedy and sarcasm in his lyrics, everything he wrote was meant to be sincere. Ocasek was very self-deprecating about his lyrics, believing some of them to be “crap.” He was also very influenced by Beat poetry, saying he loved the way Beat poets “threw words around like they were painting.”

31. The Ocasek Report

Ocasek shared a special bond with talk show genius Stephen Colbert. Ocasek popped in at various times on The Colbert Report to ham it up. From taking good-humored pot-shots at Todd Rundgren to volunteering himself to “bird-nap” a baby eagle named Stephen Jr. from the San Francisco Zoo, Ocasek was always game to play around with the show.

One particular highlight of Ocasek and Colbert’s collab was on the April 18, 2007 episode of Colbert’s show. Ocasek suddenly appeared during his wife Paulina Porizkova’s interview with Colbert…right after she admitted that she found Colbert “extremely attractive.”

32. Reproductive Déjà vu

Even I can’t screw up this math. Ocasek was married three times, he had six kids, and each wife had two sons. Eldest son Christopher is a singer, who led a rock group in the 80s, with one album to his credit. Christopher also had a bit part in the film Pretty Woman.

33. Don’t Say Cars

Generally, the Cars didn’t use any “car” or “auto” imagery in their lyrics. The song “Drive” is a rare exception to the band’s automotive taboo.

34. Driving Off into the Sunset

“Drive” was significant to Ric Ocasek for both personal and professional reasons. He not only met his third wife on set when she starred in the music video, but “Drive” was also the Cars’ most successful single in the US.

35. A Painful Reminder

It seems a bit harsh, but in a true demonstration of how beloved the late Princess Diana was in the UK, a British radio station temporarily banned any song, following her death in an auto accident, that could potentially “upset people.” “Drive” made that unfortunate cut.

36. It’s Magic

Ric Ocasek also spread some of his musical fairy dust into producing other acts, notably Weezer. Ocasek produced The Blue Album, otherwise known as Weezer’s self-titled debut, an album that Rolling Stone called “seminal”.

37. It Was for Life

Weezer paid touching tribute to Ric Ocasek on Instagram following the singer’s death. Weezer poignantly said, “when he was your friend, it was for life.” The band called Ocasek “respected” and in a position of “great power,” but he taught them to remain humble, and he had the “biggest sweetest heart in the industry.”

38. A Car Wreck

After a storied career in rock, the Cars broke up in 1988. Subsequently, Ocasek and Orr’s musical partnership and close friendship became estranged as well. But, despite their differences, Ocasek spoke very sweetly of Orr during the Cars’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ocasek also wrote and dedicated a song to his longtime friend after Orr died of cancer in 2000, titled “Silver.”

39. A Priceless Doodle

Ocasek’s sons with Porizkova, Jonathan and Oliver, posted a heartbreaking photo of the last drawing that Ocasek ever did. Describing Ocasek as a “prolific doodler,” his sons went on to say that Ocasek couldn’t have known what the drawing “would end up meaning to us. We love him so much.”

40. You Heard Him…Laugh!

The meaning behind Ocasek’s last doodle, which he left on his armchair, may never be fully known, but he scrawled a few phrases in the margins that speak volumes. One reads, “Never forget that look,” while another says, “It is what it is.” The most uplifting scribble? “Keep on laughin'”!

41. No More Bicycle Lane

In May 2018, after 28 years of marriage, Porikova explained on Instagram that she and Ocasek were no longer a couple—but her reassuring words left no doubt that she, Ocasek, and their two sons remained a very happy family.

42. A Peaceful Passing

Ric Ocasek died on September 15, 2019, from cardiovascular disease. He’d been recovering from surgery at his New York City townhouse, where Porikova and their two sons were tending to him. In a heartbreaking Instagram post, Porizkova explained that she’d come into his room with coffee, and she’d touched Ocasek cheek, realizing in moments that he’d “peacefully passed on.”

Drive on, Ric Ocasek…and RIP.

Sources1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12

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