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The Cars that Dreams Are Made Of

Why do specialty automakers keep diving into a high-stakes, low-production market? To save the world, beat the racing field or something in between?
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Sopranos, Mar/Apr 2007

By some estimates, as much as a quarter-billion dollars' worth of sheet metal is down on the 18th fairway. In less crass terms, the annual Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance is a celebration of the most beautiful automobiles ever built. And sure, a few of the better known, mass-market names, such as Cadillac, Lincoln and Mercedes-Benz, are among them, but for the most part, the cars that draw the largest crowds, and win the top honors, are the products of specialty manufacturers like Bugatti, Voisin or Delahaye, marques that, in a busy year, have produced no more than what a typical automotive assembly line turns out in an hour.

So it is, perhaps, fitting that a steady stream of natty Concours-goers wends its way off the green, up the hill and onto the well-tended field where Tesla Motors has set up shop. The two-seat sports car on display is distinctly modern—futuristic, in fact. But it's also decidedly rare. Production isn't set to begin for at least another year, and if you're lucky, you might get on the waiting list for one of just several hundred the start-up automaker intends to build.

Though it's clearly not your typical car company, Tesla does join a long and proud tradition of specialty auto manufacturers, some run by entrepreneurs, others by enthusiasts pursuing their dreams. The cars they roll out may serve as a paean to another era, like the retro roadsters of Excalibur. Some are just plain quirky, like Rinspeed's car/boat hybrid, while others may push the technological envelope, like Tesla's two-seat sports car. Some specialty manufacturers start from the ground up, producing just about everything but the raw rubber, glass and sheet metal. Others, like Callaway, begin with an existing, mass-market product, such as a Chevrolet Corvette, and by the time they're done, they have crafted a work of automotive art all their own. Whether a specialty automaker will ever share honors at Pebble's vaunted Concours remains to be seen, but, collectively, they feed a hungry and growing niche market for cars—even some light trucks—that aren't just more of the same old, same old.

Charged up over tesla
Elon Musk, Tesla's chairman, would certainly like to think his little roadster might someday be considered a classic. But his long-term goal is a little less modest. He's hoping to change the automotive world.

Musk, one of the founders of PayPal, has put up much of the $60 million so far raised by Tesla, a start-up based in the San Francisco suburb of San Carlos. (Other investors include Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the Google founders, while many high-profile customers have already plunked down large deposits for a two-seater that's still months away from production.) Investing in the automotive world is certainly a high-stakes game. Just ask Kirk Kerkorian, who recently bailed out from General Motors. So why are these high-tech visionaries moving their digital cash into the rust-belt world of autos?

Tesla's prototype roadster certainly has all the numbers that set an automotive aficionado's heart aflutter. The company claims 0-to-60 times of just under 4.0 seconds and a top speed in excess of 130 miles an hour. Another number appeals even more to geek gearheads: the little roadster's projected range of 250 miles on a single charge. The Tesla roadster, you see, is an electric vehicle. A very fast one, but it runs solely on battery power.

The company's chief executive officer, Martin Eberhard, is quick to tout the Tesla's advantages. "We need to break our addiction to oil," Eberhard declares. But he quickly concedes that not everyone shares his sociopolitical convictions. So, to connect with consumers, Tesla "can't [just] ask Americans to behave like better people. We have to build a better car."

"These vehicles," asserts Musk, "will compete on performance."

They certainly won't on price. The Roadster makes use of the latest lithium-ion technology, in a pack with 6,831 individual cells. Anyone who has replaced a single laptop computer battery knows that what Tesla is doing isn't cheap. Now add the cost of lightweight, space-age materials like the carbon-fiber body that such performance and range rely on and you've got a price tag of around $90,000.

How much demand exists for an electric sports car is anyone's guess, though one skeptical analyst suggests that in such a rarefied atmosphere the answer is "not much." Yet Tesla's dreams are nothing if not big. The company is setting up a small studio in the Detroit suburbs and hopes to have a team of as many as 60 engineers and designers in place by year's end. They'll work on creating a more mainstream sedan or crossover vehicle, one that would yield even greater range, but with a more affordable price of $40,000 or so. Sales could push into the tens of thousands.

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