The day that I gave the founder of Tesla a ride in my Lotus Elise in return for a ride in his T-Zero prototype
There’s an interesting video interview on CNBC with Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning, the original founders of Tesla, that talks about the early days, and how they decided to base the Tesla Roadster on the Lotus Elise. I had a very small part in helping them along that path at the time, and decided to write down the story as I remember it.
I grew up in the UK, and moved to Silicon Valley in 1993 to work for Sun Microsystems. I moved back to the UK in 1996 and ended up buying one of the original Lotus Elise series 1 cars in 1998. In 1999 I moved back to Silicon Valley, and had to sell the Elise, but missed it, as there was nothing like it in the USA. In 2000 I found a company that was planning to import the Elise by fitting a different engine to replace the Rover engine that wasn’t approved for the US market. In March 2002 I finally took delivery of the car, with an Acura Integra TypeR engine fitted, and registered it as a kit car. The Lotus Elise wasn’t imported by Lotus until 2005, so I had one of just a handful of these cars in the USA for several years.
A co-worker at Sun sent me an email, telling me that his wife was advising the founders of an electric car startup, who were still in stealth mode at the time. They were looking at doing a deal with Lotus to build an electric car based on the Elise, but they’d never seen one in person. He’d seen a car in Sun’s parking lot and found out that it was mine. Would I be prepared to meet them and take the founding CEO Martin Eberhard for a ride? Of course I said yes, so we setup a meeting.
In the video, Martin mentions that they went to the LA Auto Show and spoke to Lotus, and got an invitation to visit them in the UK. I think this meeting was after the LA Auto Show, but before they went to visit Lotus in the UK.
I met Martin one weekend at a cafe in Woodside, which is in the foothills not far from Stanford University. Martin drove his T-Zero there, and explained to me that it had an electric drivetrain, a lithium-ion battery but the body was based on a race car chassis and they needed to find a good donor vehicle as a starting point. They were in talks with Lotus, but they wanted to see the car and how it drove, to build confidence before their trip to the UK.
Martin got in my Elise, and we drove some back roads then took a highway 280 onramp. As I was merging in, I saw a Lamborghini go by, so I put my foot down, caught up and followed it for a while, going “quite quickly”. After we passed a couple of exits, we pulled off and retraced our route a bit more sedately. My Elise, with it’s engine transplant, has a lot more noise and vibration than usual, but that wasn’t an issue, given their plans to put in an electric drivetrain. Martin enjoyed the ride, and I think that helped them build confidence for their plan to work with Lotus.
Then it was my turn to get a ride in the T-Zero, and Martin pulled onto a straight section of back road, stopped, then floored it. My chest was crushed and I couldn’t breathe in. And unlike my Elise, it didn’t pause to change gear, it just kept going. It felt a lot faster off the line (they measured 3.6s 0–60mph), and my Elise is 4.3s 0–60mph, so I was impressed. The high pitch wailing noise of the drivetrain was very different, but I thought it was cool. The effect on people after their first experience of an electric launch later became known as the “Tesla Grin”, and I’m happy to have been one of the first recipients. It also converted me on the spot, and I started to follow their progress as they worked to get the Roadster designed and shipped.
At the time they were being built, 2008–2011, I couldn’t afford to order one, but in 2012, when Tesla launched the Model S, several early Roadster customers arranged a trade-in deal, and Tesla ended up with about 20–30 Roadsters that they needed to sell. The price was right, so I bought a low milage blue 2010 Roadster. I still have the car and have driven it a lot. It still generates the “Tesla grin”. Nowadays I also have a Model 3 for everyday use.