Tesla’s Roadster turns 10

More than time flies when Silicon Valley superstars have fun. Last month, to celebrate the tenth birthday of Tesla’s first production car, company CEO Elon Musk flung his personal 2008 Roadster into space aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.

An epic demonstration for a car with humble beginnings not only typifies Musk’s fertile imagination, it substantiates the remarkable progress Tesla and its associated enterprises have made in 15 years. If Musk’s braggadocio is to be believed, the coming decade will bring interplanetary travel, 750-mph underground vactrains, electric semis and pickup trucks, and a new Tesla Roadster that could make the original seem like a Model T minus the tailpipe.

By that we mean acceleration to 60 mph in 1.9 seconds, a 250-mph top speed, and 7400 lb-ft of torque. A straight-faced Musk touted those specs, along with a 620-mile range, for the new 2+2 targa last November with a $200,000 price and a 2020 delivery date; wise admirers have learned to season anything their hero spouts with a pound of salt.

Before Musk joined what would become Tesla Motors, Martin Eberhard, a Silicon Valley electrical engineer, hungered for something, anything fun to drive that didn’t burn gasoline. What he found was the AC Propulsion tzero prototype created by a Southern California startup. Built on a Piontek Sportech chassis, this two-seater was fueled by 28 lead-acid batteries powering a 200-horsepower electric motor. (Side note: Dave Piontek developed his motorcycle-engined Sportech kit car only a few miles from Hagerty’s Ann Arbor, Michigan, editorial office.)

What Eberhard brought to the party was the lithium-ion battery experience he gained developing the Rocket eBook, one of the first digital readers. He commissioned AC Propulsion to replace the tzero’s lead-acid batteries with 6800 lithium ion cells, a conversion that yielded significant gains: 500 pounds less weight, 10-percent quicker 0-60 acceleration, and three times the driving range. In 2003, when AC Propulsion could not be convinced to produce its promising concoction, Eberhard and partner Marc Tarpenning founded Tesla Motors to pursue the car’s commercialization.

Musk was one of the venture capitalists to get a test drive in Tesla’s first prototype (on loan from AC Propulsion), and he promptly contributed $7.5 million in seed money. In 2004, Musk recruited the brilliant JB Straubel as the company’s chief technology officer and became chairman of the board. The hands-on leader guided the design effort, convinced that the Roadster would be attention grabber with the potential to bankroll mainstream electric cars.

Tesla Roadster driving
Tesla Roadster Tesla

Musk astutely realized that Palo Alto, California, was not the center of the automotive universe. He recruited Lotus to assist development in 2005, an arrangement that lead to the British firm supplying a modified version of its Elise sports car to underpin the Tesla Roadster. The Elise’s wheelbase was stretched two inches to accommodate a battery pack and new body panels were molded in carbon fiber to save weight. Dozens of prototypes were constructed, tested, crashed (intentionally), and validated over a three-year development period.

When production began in 2008, only suspension components, tires, air bags, windshields, and some instrument panel parts were shared between the Elise and Roadster. Sotira molded the body panels in France, Siemens made the brakes and airbags in Germany, and the single-speed gearbox was supplied by BorgWarner. Tesla built the liquid-cooled battery pack, power electronics module, 248-horsepower electric motor, and assembled those components into “gliders” supplied by Lotus.

Once delivery began, teething troubles surfaced. The two-speed transmission planned for the car and fitted for original magazine test drives couldn’t be perfected and was ultimately shelved. A 2009 recall of 345 cars was necessary to tighten rear-axle hub-flange bolts. The following year, 439 Roadsters were recalled to remedy chafing of a low-voltage battery cable located near the right headlamp. In addition to the standard 3-year, 36,000-mile warranty, Tesla offered U.S. customers optional battery-replacement and extended-powertrain warranties.

Starting at $98,950, the Tesla Roadster accelerated to 60 in less than four seconds, was governed to a top speed of 125 mph, and provided 244 miles of driving range according to the EPA. The 2.5 Sport edition introduced in 2010 cost $128,500 and was equipped with a 288-horsepower motor which clipped a couple of tenths off the 0-60 time.

2011 Tesla Roadster front 3/4
2011 Tesla Roadster Tesla

Using direct marketing, Tesla sold approximately 2450 Roadster in 30 or so countries through 2012. About 1800 cars were sold in the U.S. online and by phone with the support of 13 showrooms. Approximately 50 right-hand-drive cars were produced. When necessary, company trained technicians traveled to customer homes or offices in mobile service units. Disabled Roadsters needing extra attention were trucked to the closest Tesla service center.

Initial Roadster owners took a chance on what Tesla called an Energy Storage System. Consisting of 6831 cylindrical cells with an 18 mm diameter and 650 mm length—a laptop standard–the ESS provided 53 kWh of electrical power. A full recharge took about four hours using 240 volts on a 90 amp circuit or 48 hours using 120 volts and 15 amps. That said, most owners typically recharged partially depleted batteries so their time on the plug was less. Unfortunately, Tesla’s handy Supercharger equipment introduced for the Model S sedan is unable to energize Roadsters.

Tesla rated battery life at seven years or 100,000 miles, stating that 70-percent of the original capacity should be available after five years and 50,000 miles. A 2013 Plug In America poll of 126 Roadster owners who had logged over 3 million miles found that Tesla erred on the conservative side. PIA concluded that 80- to 85-percent of the battery capacity generally remained at 100,000 miles. In addition, their independent survey found no correlation between climate and battery longevity.

Tesla Roadster rear 3/4
Tesla Roadster Tesla
Tesla Roadster interior
Tesla Roadster Tesla

Taking advantage of strides in battery design, Tesla announced an 80-kWh ESS providing 40 percent more range in 2014. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the new pack costs $29,000, including installation, and is available only to those who pay a $5000 reservation fee and wait patiently in line. Tesla began installing the new batteries in 2016.

Thanks to the Roadster’s combination of shocking speed, attractive design, decent service support, and excellent reliability, used examples command premium prices. We found two dozen offered by dealers and private parties on Auto Trader, TrueCar, and eBay websites with prices ranging from $46,500 to $79,000.

George Clooney’s 2008 Roadster sold at a 2012 Pebble Beach auction for $99,000 (with proceeds donated to charity). A 2010 example with 5304 miles and the factory battery upgrade reached $59,000 at a Mecum auction last year without meeting its reserve. At January’s Bonhams auction in Scottsdale, Arizona, a 2008 Roadster in 3+ condition with but 414 miles on its odometer brought $71,500.

So, take your pick: will it be a new Corvette Stingray for $56,590, a Porsche 718 Boxster for $58,450, or a ‘pre-owned’ Tesla Roadster for comparable money? Don’t forget that only one of the above is kin to a bona fide space cowboy.

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