Future classics

Future Classic: 2008–12 Tesla Roadster

by Andrew Frankel
8 August 2023 3 min read
Future Classic: 2008–12 Tesla Roadster
Photo by James Lipman

Why is a Tesla Roadster a likely candidate for a future classic? For the same reason a 2007 iPhone just fetched $190,000 (£145,000) at auction. With a paltry 4GB of storage and almost zero functionality compared to iPhones of today, by any objective assessment it is ludicrously unfit for purpose. Yet it still went for the same sort of money Porsche asks for a 911 Turbo. It was the first of its kind and is now considered an icon as a result.

The Tesla Roadster is arguably an even greater achievement, if somewhat less successful. It made its global debut in 2006, a new car from a new company, and went into production in 2008, pre-dating even the Nissan Leaf, commonly regarded today as the first credible EV from a mainstream motor manufacturer. The Roadster was a pioneering vehicle in the truest sense of the word, a voyage into the unknown whose future, and future influence, was entirely a mystery.

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2010 Tesla Roadster-rear 3/4
(Matt Tierney)

And it bombed. Despite initial enthusiasm and no shortage of publicity, fewer than 2500 units were sold over a five-year period as people decided an extremely expensive sports car that made no noise, had no gearbox, and was saddled with a poor range and dreadfully slow charging times was not actually for them after all. And it is only now, over a decade since production stopped, that a few manufacturers are starting to look at the concept of electric sports cars again. The truth is that, conceptually, the Tesla Roadster was wildly ahead of its time, but the technology to support it simply did not exist at the level required for it to become a viable proposition.

Which is not to say it was a terrible car, just rather flawed. When I first drove one I was ready to rubbish it as the car that took one of my favourite machines, the Lotus Elise, and by making it so much heavier and removing all aural sensation from it, stripped most of what I loved about it in the first place.

But actually, I found it fascinating. I think the first surprise was that the car seemed so well engineered. I’d feared the conversion from Lotus Elise to Tesla Roadster would result in a Heath Robinson contraption of the kind that might make Doc Brown’s DeLorean seem quite well integrated by comparison. In fact, if you’d had no knowledge of its origins, you’d have thought the Roadster had been designed like that from the outset.

And it was fast. Really, properly fast. The very first time I put my foot to the floor was on the start line of the famous Goodwood hill, and instead of being slightly bored as I’d expected, I found myself rather busy and goggling at the rate at which it acquired speed. Of course, today an EV with a 0–60mph time of less than 4 seconds is nothing to get excited about at all, but 15 years ago, when the only other electric ‘car’ I’d driven was the execrable G-Wiz quadricycle, it was absolutely astonishing.

2010 Tesla Roadster-driving head on
(James Lipman)

And while it was vastly heavier than the Lotus – by 385kg, an enormous amount to add to a flyweight like an Elise – it didn’t turn the handling into a nightmare. Sure, it didn’t react to steering inputs like a fly avoiding a swat any more; it felt a touch more cumbersome and a little less intuitive, but remember this was all relative to the standards of one of the best handling cars of modern times. By any other means, it was just fine. Better than fine, in fact.

Of course I didn’t have to live with it or book a hotel room just to have somewhere to stay while it charged, but today such matters are less likely to be problematic. Today, far more than then, such a car would be the purest of recreations, taken out for relatively short journeys and then left in the shed on a trickle charger until the next time it was due out.

Those who own them will know their car is not the last word in anything. They will have to suffer the jokes about its creator hating his so much he fired it into space, but it is likely these owners won’t care. It will be part of a much larger collection, a curio if you like, but a fascinating one nonetheless. And remember this: Ten years from now, when EV sports cars are no longer a novelty but the norm, people will look back at the Tesla Roadster and remember it all started right there. In the USA, where the vast majority of cars are located, average sale prices are already above $100,000, and my guess is that they’re only heading in one direction from there. In time, the Tesla Roadster will be seen as that first-generation iPhone is now – not the greatest of its kind, but the origin and, therefore, the most important, too.

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  • James says:

    Completely love mine. Huge, huge fun.

  • Michael Manov says:

    People don’t believe me when I say I have a Tesla that’s a proper car enthusiast’s car, but it’s true! The RWD, carbon fiber body, direct steering, and loud electric motor make it insanely fun to drive. I don’t hear “cool Tesla” when I’m driving my Model Y, but I get it every time I take the Roadster out.

    Thank you for the spotlight on such a rare and sick car!!

  • Henry says:

    I purchased one new in 2011 thinking I’d keep it a couple years until there were more practical EVs available. Totally fell in love with it and now selling it would feel like selling my first-born child. We’ve owned 4 Teslas and the Roadster is still, hands down, the most fun to drive.

  • Kevin Jones says:

    It didn’t bomb. They sold as many as they intended to sell. Tesla bought 2,500 Elise gliders from Lotus, sacrificed 50 or so in product development and crash testing and sold about 2,450 to the public. The car did what it was intended to do, which was proof of concept and to establish sufficient credibility to raise funds (including $450mn from the Department of Energy) to develop the Model S. Without the Roadster, nothing else would have happened.

  • John Payne says:

    Electric cars are the biggest polluter don’t be fooled by all money makers hype.

  • Michael Whitehead says:

    Here here. Never to own. I’ll keep my gas guglein V8 Vantage.

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