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By 2030, you won’t be able to buy a new petrol or diesel in the UK; five years later even hybrids will be outlawed. Electricity is the future…
But it’s also the past. After all, there have been electric cars for as long as there have been cars: the first purpose-built Land Speed Record machine, the 1899 La Jamais Contente, ran on batteries.
The challenge for car makers is to convince us that there is more to the new technology than just going green.
And to do that they don’t have to look nearly so far back.
Today Tesla is a byword for the future, but early in the new millennium it was little more than background noise, an unknown newcomer with a bullish boss and some outlandish claims.
Somewhere between then and now sits the Tesla Roadster.
“It’s faster than a Ferrari and it’s more energy efficient than a Prius,” said Tesla evangelist Elon Musk.
“Why would you want any other sports car? I mean, really, why would you want any other sports car?
“Do you like being slow and killing the environment? I don’t get it.”
An early investor in Tesla, Musk became its chairman and driving force from 2004, yet the project was initiated by internet pioneers Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning.
Attracting investment from the likes of Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Tesla Motors was the ultimate millennial, but while its parents had plenty of ambition, they were pretty short on experience when it came to actually building a car.
Enter an unlikely partner from East Anglia.
Eberhard and Tarpenning saw the freshly Federalised Elise being promoted by legendary engineer Roger Becker at the 2004 LA Auto Show and realised it would be the perfect basis for their vehicle.
Never shy about liberating a few dollars from ambitious Americans, Lotus enthusiastically accepted the challenge.
‘We wanted the first Tesla car to handle like a proper sports car, so we approached Lotus Cars, known to make the finest-handling sports car on the road,’ said Eberhard, writing in his blog in July 2006.
‘For those of you who don’t know, the Lotus Elise’s chassis is a work of genius.’
In the succeeding years Tesla has tried to distance its Roadster from the Elise, suggesting that there is less than 10% parts commonality, but it only takes a glance to see the similarities.
The proportions, the ’screen, the roof, even the door mirrors are remarkably close.
“The project kicked off as a cut-and-shut Elise,” said Lotus project manager Tony Shute, “but it has some fairly fundamental changes.”
These included lowering the sills to aid entry; cutting the chassis side rails aft of the passenger compartment rather than stretch-bending them; adding 2in to the wheelbase and clothing it all in carbonfibre body panels produced by Sotira in France.
Yet even the styling was drawn at Hethel, by Lotus Design’s Barney Hatt.
‘In the beginning, I thought that we would carry over some of the Elise body panels… the cost of tooling so many parts seemed daunting,’ recalled Eberhard.
‘But Elon Musk pushed me not to be such a wimp.’
The result is still clearly an Elise variant, but cleverly disguised.
It’s cleaner and more modern than the slightly fussy S2: longer, less toy-like, with side repeater lights and polyurethane 2.5mph impact bumpers revealing its Federal focus.
Electric latches and bespoke front and rear lights remove any parts-bin associations.
Beneath that skin, a revised subframe housed the battery pack and football-sized three-phase induction motor, and strengthened suspension (albeit with the same geometry) to cope with the extra weight.
Sharing Elise technology made sense, both in the speed of bringing the car to production and compliance in its target market, the USA.
The airbags, ABS and crash structures had been approved, so these were carried over.
In July 2006, just three years after the firm’s foundation, the first Tesla was unveiled in an invitation-only event at Santa Monica Airport, California.
It took a public bow at the San Francisco Auto Show in November, wearing a $98,950 price-tag (around £50k), but the first owner – a certain E Musk – didn’t take delivery until February 2008.
Chassis were built and clothed on the same Hethel production line as the Elise and Exige, before engineless ‘gliders’ were shipped to San Carlos, California, to receive their Tesla-made Energy Storage System (ESS).
UK right-hand-drive cars arrived in 2010, and were completed in Norfolk.
There had been plenty of electric cars before and the Roadster was clearly a niche product, but it was also groundbreaking in its use of lithium ion technology and in offering a range in excess of 200 miles – Tesla claimed 244 miles from a full 3.5-hour charge.
As if that wasn’t enough to hit the headlines, early adopters included George Clooney and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
After becoming fascinated by electric cars, Lewis Black settled on the Tesla Roadster as the ultimate of the genre.
He and classic specialist Drew Wheeler have carved themselves a niche with the model, having between them had 11 through their hands in five years – not bad when there are only around 60 of the Roadster and slightly more potent Roadster Sport in the UK.
“They aren’t the easiest to sell because buyers have to know what they are getting,” explains Black.
“The car is really incredibly simple, but you do have to understand what’s going on beneath. Fortunately, there is a niche network of ex-Tesla mechanics across the world.”
Simple they may be, but that doesn’t make them cheap.
“There are three main problem areas,” says Black. “If you don’t charge the battery there is no failsafe, so it can ‘brick’ itself and it’s £20-30k for a replacement.
“Then there is the Powered Electronics Module (PEM), the ‘brain’ of the car, which is £4-10k depending on whether you go refurbished or new.
“Finally, if the sealing goes on the 400V controller up front, water can get in and it’s £1000-1500 to fix.”
“The UK market has been slow at catching on to these cars, but now all of a sudden the light is burning brightly,” reckons Wheeler.
“People are realising that this is the first true electric classic, and if you want one you’re fishing in a very small pool – especially if you want it in right-hand drive.
“For a one-owner Signature 250 I’d be looking at close to six figures now, and the market is showing no signs of slowing.”
One man who hopes that trend continues is Drew Ferguson, who sank his pension into this Lightning Green 2010 Roadster Sport in 2021.
It’s a Signature 250, one of the first 250 chassis, and replaced an Alpina B12 in Ferguson’s garage, which it shares with a BMW 3.0 CSL.
“I’d forgotten these even existed,” he recalls, “then I saw one in the office car park – ironically, when I was working for BP – and thought I ought to own one.”
“I’ve always liked things that are a bit different, a bit quirky,” he continues. “You hear horror stories about the PEM blowing up, so I did my research.
“I spent six months looking and talking to Lewis, and was seriously considering buying one with a bricked battery, then I saw this and just loved the colour.
“This was Tesla’s genesis, and the performance is just brutal. I’ve driven fast cars before but this is different: there’s no lag, you just put your foot into the carpet and overtake five cars without thinking.”
“Down an A- or B-road it’s incredibly quick, but it’s no good as a car: it’s a toy.”
Presumably that’s because of the dreaded range anxiety?
Not so, reckons Black: “They were estimated to have a 10-year lifespan, but a well-cared-for battery will only have lost 6-12% of its life.”
And that’s borne out by Ferguson’s own experience, too: “It’ll do 220 miles between top-ups, but I’m still not sure I’d do a long tour because it’s an old-style plug so you can’t just connect up to a Tesla fast-charger.
“That means you have to plan ahead for a longer journey.”
Ferguson has found that enthusiasm for the model is growing, and finds it easy to live with.
“The owners are great. If I have a problem then everyone will share information and try to help.
“The battery shouldn’t go tonto if you’re paying attention, and if you’re not paying attention this probably isn’t the car for you.
“I’ve downloaded an app to monitor it even when I’m away.”
An app to look after your classic?
It’s all sounding a bit virtual reality for my liking… Yet step aboard and the Tesla feels pleasingly analogue.
The cabin makes a decent fist of concealing its roots – where an Elise celebrates its extruded aluminium chassis, you’ll struggle to glimpse it beneath the leather and carpeting of the Tesla – but it’s still simple and feels spacious and comfortable.
The seats are wider, and heated because that uses less energy than a conventional heater blower.
There’s even a cupholder, electric windows, a glovebox and a bigger boot than you’ll find in any Elise – when you’ve thousands of batteries behind you, saving the last few grams becomes a bit less important.
A central touchscreen helps you monitor the state of the batteries, and ahead of the Momo wheel instead of a rev counter there’s a gauge recording power usage, from +40kW when recovering energy under braking to -200kW at full throttle.
Turn on, press ‘D’ for Drive, deploy all of that energy and, even if you expected it to be quick, the Roadster is still, if you’ll pardon the pun, electrifying.
You can hear your own sharp intake of breath over the eerie sound of gathering wind and road roar accompanied by little more than a whistle from the motor as 60 passes in 3.7 secs, 100mph in 11.1.
There isn’t even a gearchange to interrupt the flow: the two-speed ’box of the early cars soon made way for a single-speed Borg-Warner unit to cope with the torque.
“It doesn’t make a V8 rumble,” says Ferguson, “but floor it and there is an angry noise behind. It gives you a sense something big and important is happening. It’s not a silent experience.”
Just as associations with the Elise are beginning to fade, you arrive at a corner and the memories come flooding back.
The tactile little wheel writhes in your hands, sending messages from the slender 195/50 R16 front tyres direct to your brain as the car dives in with the puppy-like eagerness that makes the Lotus such an amiable companion.
Tesla – and indeed its owners – may want to distance the Roadster from the comparatively lowly Elise, yet it is the DNA of its donor that prevents the Roadster from feeling like an arcade game made real.
It encourages you to exploit that pace for more than just the cheap thrill of acceleration.
It’s not exactly the same, mind. Behind you there are 11 sheets of lithium-ion cells, 6831 of them, weighing 450kg.
That means a total some 40% heftier than a contemporary Elise, and you’re instantly aware of that sense of mass, particularly under braking when you start to realise why four-piston calipers are a popular upgrade.
In bends you can feel the mass shifting, pushing you through, but on the flipside there is far more sophistication to the ride.
Crashes and rattles are reduced, and the Tesla is quieter and more supple over bumps than even its revered petrol sibling – despite the manually adjustable suspension on this car being at its hardest setting.
For all its futuristic feel, the Tesla is in many ways an anachronism. Like the original iPhone, launched six months after the Roadster, much of its technology is already obsolete.
Yet it has an importance all of its own: it marks a moment in time, a changing of the guard. More than being the jumping-off point for a new wave, it also offers hope.
It proves that while electrification may not replace internal combustion in our hearts, it can still give the next generation of classic fans something to lust after.
Images: Will Williams
Thanks to Drew Wheeler Sports & Classics
Elises by another name
Lotus produced endless convoluted developments of the Elise in-house, from the 340R and 2-Eleven track-day specials to the Sport Elise racer and its road going Exige twin, the more luxurious Europa S and even a stretched, V8-powered GT1 Le Mans car.
But Tesla wasn’t the only outside innovator to see the potential of its versatile tub.
Here are seven variations on the theme.
Announced in 1999 as the Opel Speedster, the Martin Smith-designed Vauxhall VX220 was the most prolific Hethel spin-off: 5184 cars had 2.2-litre 145bhp Astra power, plus 941 from 2003 with a 197bhp 2-litre turbo.
Tuned for safer handling and comfort, it was torquier and more civilised but less exciting than the Elise (apart from the 60 run-out 217bhp VXRs).
Longer, lower and 215kg lighter than a VX220, the Eco-Speedster still had an Elise-based tub under its low-drag carbonfibre skin with a Cd of just 0.20.
Previewed at the ’02 Paris Salon and powered by a 112bhp, 1248cc common-rail diesel, this gullwing-doored streamliner set 17 FIA World Speed Records and could hit 160mph yet returned up to 113mpg.
Hennessey Venom GT
With a 1244bhp 7-litre twin-turbo V8 bolted to the back of an Exige chassis, this wild Texan coupe hit 270.49mph down the runway at Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 2014.
Only a production run of 29, one shy of the number needed to qualify with arbitrator Guinness, stopped it becoming the world’s fastest production car.
First seen in ’03 with a 135bhp K-series in an Elise chassis, this spectacular roadster had removable wings to create an open-wheeled track car, with race-style pushrod suspension.
It was reworked a year later with Toyota power and conventional wishbones, and was slated for limited production but a £60-80k price ensured it remained a one-off.
Dodge Circuit EV
Another electric vehicle, this time borrowing the stretched chassis (and thinly disguised body) of the Lotus Europa S.
Unveiled at the Detroit show in ’09, the Dodge Circuit EV featured a 265bhp electric motor and a lithium-ion battery pack, giving a 120mph maximum and a 150-200-mile range.
Although a working prototype was completed, the project was soon dropped.
Radford Type 62-2
Even as Elise production ends, new derivatives continue to appear.
The reborn Radford brand, backed by Ant Anstead and Jenson Button, will build just 62 carbonfibre coupés inspired by the Lotus Type 62 racer and sitting on an evolution of the Exige chassis.
It’s available in iconic Gold Leaf and JPS liveries, too, with 430-600bhp.
Surely the maddest of all, this Swiss creation was inspired by The Spy Who Loved Me and went from the 2008 Geneva Salon to 10m below the surface as a sports-car-cum-mini submarine.
With three electric motors – one for road use, the others driving twin props – it could muster 120kph on land, 6kph on the water’s surface and 3kph beneath the waves.
Tesla Roadster Sport
- Sold/number built 2008-’12/2450
- Construction riveted and bonded extruded aluminium chassis, carbonfibre body
- Engine three-phase, four-pole 400V AC induction electric motor
- Max power 288bhp @ 5-8000rpm
- Max torque 295lb ft @ 0-6000rpm
- Transmission single-speed, RWD
- Suspension independent, by double wishbones, coil springs, Bilstein monotube dampers, anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes ventilated discs, with servo and anti-lock
- Length 12ft 8in (3946mm)
- Width 6ft (1851mm)
- Height 3ft 8¼in (1126mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 8½in (2351mm)
- Weight 2767lb (1255kg)
- 0-60mph 3.7 secs
- Top speed 130mph
- Range 244 miles
- Price new £102,895
- Price now £65-85,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication