This is the story of the original Tesla Roadster – and thus, the beginnings of Tesla, which has grown to be the most valuable automaker in history. The Roadster went into production at a time when electric vehicles weren’t just in their infancy, they were a joke, disregarded by enthusiasts and regular customers alike.
The story begins with the Piontek Sportech, which was a home-built tube-frame sports car created by Ford engineer Dave Piontek in his garage in Michigan. It used a 1300cc Suzuki 4-cylinder motorcycle engine (with nitrous injection) and could hit 60mph in just 4.5 seconds, weighing only 560kg. A California-based startup called AC Propulsion bought one of the Sporttechs and converted it to run on Optima Yellow-Top lead-acid batteries. They called it the tZero, and a prospective customer, Martin Eberhard, drove it and wanted to buy one — but only if it used lithium-ion batteries.
Bypassing the expensive nickel-metal hydride batteries that were leading edge at the time, Eberhard helped AC Propulsion go straight to small-format cylindrical lithium-ion batteries, which had vastly more capacity, were much lighter, and were ultimately cheaper. The result was 60mph in 3.7 seconds, and a newly minted millionaire named Elon Musk wanted one, too.
He joined forces with Eberhard, who had created Tesla Inc., and they worked directly with Lotus to extensively modify the Elise to become the Tesla Roadster. In the end, the Elise’s fundamentals remained, but the details didn’t, and the Roadster emerged as its own car.
Tesla, at the same time, emerged as the most valuable car company in the world. And the Roadster became the proof-of-concept that showed enthusiasts that an electric car could be fast and fun. Next up was the Model S, the first part of the the S3XY product line that has catapulted Tesla to previously unknown valuations.
And it all started here.