The first Tesla, as we all know, was a heavily re-worked Lotus Elise transformed into something novel: An electric car that was fun, not just good for the environment. Tesla wanted to work with an established manufacturer on its first effort, but it wasn’t initially Lotus. The original plan was with the Scion xB.
I’ve been spending the past few days reading up on the EVs of my formative years growing up in California in the 1990s and early 2000s. These cars disappeared after automakers and their dealers sued the state to quit forcing them to do so, making them all one interesting dead end. Well, almost all of them dead-ended.
One of the outliers was the little yellow sports car of AC Propulsion, itself a brainchild of an engineer who helped develop the GM EV1. The AC Propulsion tzero, as it was called, wasn’t much more than a garage-build low-volume sports car with an EV conversion. It’s the kind of thing that you see in garages around the country these days, but it was the only game in town when Silicon Valley divorcee Martin Eberhard was looking for an electric sports car to fill his garage.
AC Propulsion couldn’t make money selling the tzero and quit on its production just when Eberhard came knocking, as Autoweek explains in a full history of the tzero’s genesis. Eberhard, snubbed, told AC Propulsion that if he couldn’t buy an electric sports car, he’d make one of his own. What came next was Tesla, with financial support of a young Elon Musk, flush with cash from selling PayPal.
That’s a tidy history, and a clean through-line from EVs past to EVs present. Too tidy if you ask me.
It could have all gone differently. AC Propulsion didn’t think a big-buck sports car was the way forward. AC Propulsion thought a mass-market, affordable EV was the right way ahead. Something funky but practical. Something that, well, was just a Scion xB, as Autoweek explains:
[T]he only car that remotely fit [Martin Eberhard’s] midlife-crisis electric sports car needs was the AC Propulsion tzero. So he went down to ACP with plans to buy one. Problem was, they weren’t selling. After building three tzeros and not making any money off them, Cocconi and company had decided that they should make something more practical than a two-seat roadster. When you consider the work required to bring a tzero up to government standards, it was maybe the right decision. ACP started converting Scion xBs to electric power, naming the product the eBox. (Tom Hanks bought one.) This is when Martin Eberhard came calling.
Again, just as Eberhard was looking to get in on an electric sports car, AC Propulsion was getting out of the game and into the eBox. AC Propulsion went so far as to lend Eberhard a tzero to use to drum up some funding. Eberhard did successfully rope in a Musk and his money for a sports car, but it was the eBox that AC Propulsion was pushing, per Autoweek:
“We were having a series of events mostly in Silicon Valley where Martin was,” recalled [Tom Gage, president and CEO of AC Propulsion]. “We lent him the tzero for about six months and he used it to go around to various VC (venture capital) companies, millionaires and billionaires, and used it to pitch his idea. We had one event at this restaurant in Woodside where Sergey Brin and Larry Page from Google were there, and we had sort of been talking to them, Martin and I had been talking to them, but they basically were in pre-liquidity, they didn’t have any cash to throw around at that time. So I think it was Sergey who said, ‘Talk to Elon, he’s got money,’ because he had just cashed out of PayPal. And so I went down to visit him at his rocket factory in Hawthorne. I was really trying to get him to invest in the eBox project, which was going fairly strong then. He said, ‘Nah, that car’s too squared-off.’ He was more interested in a sports car.
This is all to say that AC Propulsion tried to get Elon to back the eBox, but he didn’t like how it looked and funded the development of a sports car instead. What could have been a Tesla version of the Scion xB gave way to the Tesla version of the Lotus Elise, and Tesla is the desirable (and only very recently profitable) company that it is today.
I was surprised how much history has glossed over the eBox. Hell, I was surprised at how much this very website has glossed over the eBox. The last time we wrote about it was when it was new in 2006. The blog is so short I could include the whole thing here, but I’ll give just a brief excerpt:
Those masters of automotive electronica at AC Propulsion, the folks who brought you the TZero EV sportster, now offer something a bit more practical. Practically square, that is — the eBox. Based on the Scion xB (gee, really?), the eBox is powered by a 12-kw AC induction motor plugged into a lithium-ion battery pack, giving it a range of 140-180 miles on a charge. Performance is surprisingly spry; the company says it can go from zero to 60 in around seven seconds, nearly three seconds quicker than a stock xB.
These are desirable specs for what would be a desirable car today. The best-selling EV in Europe, for instance, is a hatchback like this, the Renault Zoe. The difference is that the Zoe costs under 30 grand before incentives and the eBox cost $80,000. It’s hard to justify that kind of spend on a hatchback to the same degree that it’s easy to justify on a two-door sports car.
It’s easy to understand how it was good for Tesla to start off with the Roadster from a business perspective. I just get the sense that business wasn’t Elon’s first concern. I think he just wanted something that he thought was cool. If he was a nerd for hatchbacks, maybe Tesla would look very different today.