Container-bound Tesla Roadster trio could set the bar for time-capsule EVs

Gruber Motors

The term “barn find” brings to mind a decades-old relic. An engine that might not even turn over anymore, though it definitely provided shelter for small, skittish mammals. But a barn-find EV? That usually means something like a pre-war Detroit Electric—more modern examples we haven’t yet seen trickle into the mainstream consciousness.

This week’s events may be the first spark. What you’re looking at here is the most significant such battery-electric discovery yet—three brand new 2010 Tesla Roadsters that were left languishing in shipping containers in China. The trio was recently posted for sale by Gruber Motors, a company that specializes in refurbishing and maintaining Teslas.

“Once in a while you’ll find a Lamborghini Countach in somebody’s barn, but EVs haven’t been around long enough to go through the same circumstances that older collector cars have,” Pete Gruber, CEO of Gruber Motors, tells Hagerty Insider.

Gruber Motors

Lumping in the Tesla Roadster with a blue-chip Italian exotic suggests that the former is a comparable collectible, which despite recent interest it is not. However, Gruber’s got a point: We’re seeing these cars show up more regularly at collector car auctions, and they’re beginning to sell for serious money. A 2008 Tesla Roadster Founder’s Edition with 1332 miles sold at Mecum Kissimmee this year for $220,000, and Gruber indicated that in February of 2022, Roadster VIN #13 with 894 miles sold for $295,000 on the Gruber listing site.

The Roadster’s significance as the first mainstream electric that could be considered “cool” is beginning to be recognized in the collector market. The mere existence of this container-car sale, let alone the eventual result, is further evidence of that.

The cars in question, all 2010 models, were shipped that year to their would-be owner in China. They were abandoned at the dock. After accruing storage charges of $9 per day per car, new owners took control of the trio in 2020 and started paying the overdue fees. The shipping company decided it would like their containers back, so the owners reached out to Gruber Motors.

Gruber Motors

Gruber bought his first Tesla Roadster in 2014, and he fell in love with the car. He calls his sales page a “matchmaking site,” and claims it is the largest Tesla Roadster resale operation in the world. He clarifies that the refurbishment outfit does not charge a fee for such listings, nor is it involved in the financial transaction. Though Gruber was keen to characterize the matchmaking page as a service for the Roadster community, it is not a stretch to imagine the marketing value that Gruber Motors enjoys by facilitating these transactions.

Roadsters on the site are listed with a price, but in this instance, email bids are being taken and posted—as of this writing, there is a bid for $500,000 for all three. There’s no set end date for the sale, and a reserve, if any, has not been communicated to Gruber.

As with any “barn-find” sale, there are unknowns. Condition of the cars is often the biggest one. In this case there’s the added wrinkle of the electric propulsion system; it’s not a matter of throwing in some fresh gas after rotating the crank pulley. Here, the big question is whether or not the three cars were initially shipped with their battery packs hooked up.

“There’s a service plug on the main battery pack in a Tesla Roadster that is supposed to get pulled so that it doesn’t drain the battery while it’s sitting uncharged, otherwise it gets bricked,” Gruber says (meaning the battery is rendered permanently unable to take a charge). “If that service plug had been pulled at the time these were shipped to China, which is highly probable, the question then becomes ‘will a pack just sitting there for 13 years be recoverable, and is it still functioning?’ Many of the 2008 Roadsters still have their original legacy battery packs in them 15 years later, so it’s conceivable that these packs may be okay.”

Assuming the batteries are recoverable, a dilemma comes to mind, one familiar to traditional collectors: restoration or preservation? These time-capsule Teslas could be viable drivers, or they could each require thousands to update the batteries to become roadworthy once more. The question of originality also looms large:

“People really like a numbers matching 426 Hemi—having that original engine block is important, no matter how many times it’s been rebuilt,” Gruber says. “That whole question about what’s acceptable to replace has not been fully answered yet for electric vehicles.”

Electric cars might employ different powertrain tech, but we’re dealing with questions as old as the collector market itself. Sales like this one should help define how EVs fit into the mix.

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    I guess all concerned should just be glad that the entire container didn’t burst into flames sometime along the way and toast several other containers surrounding it.

    These were not great cars then and compared to EV models today they really pale.

    I assume some Tesla fan will over pay and the web will say the market is big on Tesla Roadster for 6 months till another sells for little to nothing if there is a sale.

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