Einstein was supposedly described as "slow" by his teachers, while Abraham Lincoln lost all of his elections before becoming president — and it reportedly took Thomas Edison 1,000 failed attempts before he invented the light bulb. These motivational stories have been beaten into our heads since middle school, in hopes that we’ll actually want to learn useless things — like quadratic equations or the capital of Wyoming, which I cannot remember. After I recently drove the original Tesla Roadster, I think teachers should add this car to the long list of motivational failures.
When you’re a billionaire like Elon Musk, owning a car collection apparently isn’t enough. He even owned a McLaren F1 once, widely acclaimed as one of the best cars ever made — and he promptly destroyed it. Given this was his only notable experience in the automotive industry beforehand, he was totally clueless when he co-founded Tesla in 2003 — and even Musk has admitted this himself. He was quoted by a Fortune writer at the Tesla investor conference last year saying he gave the company a 10 percent chance of survival in those early days — and remarking that they had "no idea what they were doing."
It seemed like a great idea to start a company with a fun sports car based on the Lotus Elise — but the final product had to be modified from the original Lotus body so much that Musk said it would have made more sense for Tesla to engineer their own chassis. Musk described it as a house remodel where the only thing that remained was a single wall in the basement, as the Lotus body had to be stretched to fit the batteries, the suspension needed to be completely redesigned and the electric drivetrain was obviously completely different — so the final product ended up being only about 7 percent of original Lotus components.
Tesla also thought they could save money by purchasing the licensing rights to an AC Propulsion battery setup they were looking for — but this also needed to be completely re-engineered to be put into practical use. Later, Tesla designed and built their own system. Even with costs spiraling out of control, Tesla still managed to launch their first product — but those first buyers were spending over $100,000 on an experiment that proved not very reliable.
Early Tesla Roadster owners reported battery failures, a demon-possessed tire pressure monitor system, water intrusion in the headlamps and a lot of road noise. Despite being the first highway legal lithium-ion battery-powered production car, the original Tesla itself felt pretty crude for the huge price tag. Then there was the disastrous Top Gear segment, which showed the Tesla overheating, the brakes failing and the battery falling well short of its reported range (the latter of which Musk disputed).
Until recently, I had never driven an original Tesla Roadster to make my own determinations — so I was really excited when newly formed Midwest Dream Car Collection in Manhattan, Kansas offered their example to me. Their Roadster is a 2010, with an impressive 40,000 miles on the odometer. At full charge in standard mode, it was showing 161 miles remaining. The little touch screen reports this as an "ideal range," as it knows full well there’s no way the driver can resist stomping on the accelerator and ruining the range.
Of course, I romped it at every opportunity so I could feel the instant, almost painful snap of acceleration that only an electric drivetrain can provide — and I never stopped smiling throughout my drive. Small cars like this Lotus-based Tesla usually handle great — but they rarely give acceleration figures in the larger supercar league. For however long the battery stays charged, this magical old Tesla Roadster manages to deliver both. Given the crazy torque and handling, I can see why owners report going through tires every 5,000 miles.
I didn’t notice any serious age-related wear or issues with this model, despite its higher than average mileage — and I was surprised how well the car had aged. Sure, the interior felt cheap, and the control interface that resembles an old iPod certainly dates the interior — but the exterior styling is timeless, and, in my opinion, way more attractive than the Lotus.
So it’s safe to say this is the best automotive failure I’ve ever driven — and it’s really hard to call it a failure as a whole. Despite its massive engineering and production cost overruns — and despite the fact that it didn’t make Tesla any money — the original Tesla Roadster did succeed in making the electric car cool. As good as the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Bolt are, "cool" is not a word many would use to describe them.
Without the Roadster establishing Tesla as a special, aspirational brand, it may have been more difficult to sell their next offering, the Model S, under a similar guise. Unlike the Roadster, the Model S was way more practical, more reliable and more financially viable. So a note to all middle school teachers: Tear down those posters of picturesque landscapes with inspirational quotes, and tape up a poster of the original Tesla Roadster. You’ll look cooler — and it will have the same effect.