It’s hard to believe, but it’s been nearly 20 years since Tesla formed into its current business and changed how the world views electric vehicles. What were once sporadic novelties for home builders to a failed attempt by a major manufacturer, Tesla showed that not only can EVs be seen as “cool vehicles,” but also that the vehicle is far more than a simple appliance to get you drive from point a to b. It can even be something that could possibly get you there without your inputs as your grandparents and great-grandparents were promised when they were younger. The Petersen Automotive Museum’s latest exhibit, “Inside Tesla: Supercharging the Electric Revolution,” is a celebration of Tesla’s achievements, a look inside its technology, and even a look back at EVs before Tesla to see where we’ve come over the last century.
“This is a wide variety of Tesla products,” said Autumn Nyiri, the Petersen’s Associate Curator and the person responsible for bringing this exhibit together, “and the biggest amalgamation of Tesla products at one time.” The main attractions of the exhibit are the concepts and testing mules that lead to the cars that EV fans long for today. It also features the developing technologies that have gone into making Tesla a leading, cutting edge company when it comes to the Software Defined Vehicle (SDV) as well as an EV manufacturer. “We’ve got robots, deconstructed batteries, and other manufacturing equipment,” Autumn also pointed out.
Of course, with all the news surrounding Elon Musk—especially on his more controversial topics like his handling of Twitter—you might be asking if this exhibit is a little too well timed. Here’s a secret about museum exhibits—art or automotive—that you might not be aware of: these don’t happen overnight or even in the span of a month. “I think we’ve been in the planning stages for about a year,” replied Autumn when we asked about why this exhibit was coming out now. “Initially we met with a small team from Tesla that was lead by Franz von Holzhausen. Originally, we were talking about doing a small installation in our Legends Garage in our Vault with just some unseen Tesla prototypes.”
Obviously, that plan changed as the Legends Garage is occupied by a certain Porsche aficionado, Magnus Walker, and his collection. “As we were in talks,” Autumn continued, “we realized that this story is so phenomenal in automotive history that it really needed a larger space and we wanted to explore Tesla beyond just the range of its products and its impact on the automotive space.” From the Legends Garage talks, the team at the Petersen and Tesla concluded that it needed to be in the largest space available: The Mullin Grand Salon.
The First Thing on the First Floor
Found on the first floor, The Mullin is a massive space where you were able to once find the Bond In Motion collection, an exhibit on the cars that made the James Bond franchise what it’s known for. That exhibit was just concluded back in October and is now filled with Tesla automobiles, prototypes, pieces, and more.
Part of that “more” is immediately greets you as you walk in, a 1908 Columbia Electric Victoria Phaeton. It tells the story of the” heyday and hard times” of the electric vehicle, according to Autumn. Columbia was owned by several companies including the Electric Car Company in 1899 and one of North America’s earliest automotive brands. It not only built gasoline powered cars, but also battery electric vehicles using crude lead-acid batteries.
The Victoria Phaeton was based off the Columbia hansom and powered by twin electric motors, but they were only found on the rear of the vehicle. So, not quite the 1900s equivalent of the Tesla Model S Plaid, but Columbia has since been viewed as the Tesla of that era. Much like today, the buyers of those early EVs were looking for something far quieter than the popping, banging, and quite smelly ICE of the early 20th century. Ultimately, ICE took over as the Ford Model T not only made automobiles more accessible to the general public, but also helped spur the dominant form of ICE-powered vehicles in the gasoline burning engine.
Early Days of Tesla
The next vehicle we get to see is the Model S prototype from 2009 that would go on to define what Tesla was all about today, but it was a far different looking car then. “One of the premises of the exhibition is that the Model S is one of the most influential vehicles since the Model T,” says Autumn. It was practical since it could fit more than just two people, but was also cutting edge as it featured technologies that we’re only just now accepting as normal. It also brought electric vehicles to a wider audience thanks to its size, relatively normal proportions, and impressive performance.
Another influence that drove Elon Musk towards Tesla was the AC Propulsion tzero vehicle. Originally, this car was a hand built sports car that used lead-acid batteries. It was only until Martin Eberhard, one of the original founders of Tesla and prior to Elon Musk’s investment, requested that Tom Gage—who was CEO of AC Propulsion—to use lithium ion batteries instead and put it into production after driving it.
The switch not only gained additional range for the tzero, but also made it over 500 lbs lighter than its lead-acid version. JB Straubel—who would go on to be the Chief Technical Officer of Tesla—told Elon Musk about it and, subsequently, took one for a test drive. While Musk tried to convince Gage to put it into production, Gage wouldn’t follow through and instead concentrated on their EV converted Scion xB.
Musk then went on to invest heavily into the startup of Tesla and build a prototype of the Roadster that used lithium ion batteries and an AC Propulsion power and drivetrain. Only three tzeros were ever built and the Petersen Museum has two of them, one in the Tesla exhibit and one in the Alternating Currents exhibition on the second floor.
Speaking of early Roadsters, on display is a Lotus Elise test mule that would go on to shape the eventual first product for Tesla, an all-electric sports car. Just like the production Roadster, this Elise was converted using an AC Propulsion powertrain and lithium ion batteries. At the time, the whole idea of the Roadster was to mass produce AC Propulsion’s powertrain under license and utilize its then unique designs on reductive charging by combining the AC inverter and charging system into a single unit.
Further testing, however, led to Tesla creating its own motors, drivetrain and electronics while using the licensed technology from AC. It also allowed Tesla to use more of the original Elise frame as using the power and drivetrain from AC only allowed about 7 percent of the original Elise to remain, according to Musk.
From that test mule came the actual production Tesla Roadster and the one in the exhibit is the very first Roadster produced (with VIN F001, also known as “P1”) in 2006 and owned by Elon Musk. No, the 2010 Roadster sent into space wasn’t miraculously returned to Earth, that Roadster was another Musk owned and commuted daily to Tesla’s HQ when both he and it were located in California.
The Roadsters were also based off of Lotus Elise “gliders” that were sold under license to Tesla. It was also the first vehicle to use all technology produced and designed in house by Tesla, as the design changes for production required a clean sheet approach from the original licensed technology and equipment from AC Propulsion.
A Revisit of the 2013 COTY
This 2013 Model S is special to us here at MotorTrend. This is the very car that was flown to New York for the New York International Auto Show as we unveiled that it was the 2013 Car of the Year.
It’s amazing to see that it’s still around, but it is a historic car as it was the first all-electric vehicle to win the award in the 64 years prior to that point. As we highlighted when it won: “The mere fact the Tesla Model S exists at all is a testament to innovation and entrepreneurship, the very qualities that once made the American automobile industry the largest, richest, and most powerful in the world, that the 11 judges unanimously voted the first vehicle designed from the wheels up by a fledgling automaker the 2013 MotorTrend Car of the Year should be cause for celebration. America can still make things. Great things.”
Nearly 20 years later, and Tesla is still a highly valued, American made vehicle and proving our point. However, there are more competitors now and MotorTrend has since awarded a second EV as Car of the Year in 2022 as well as an EV SUV of the Year for 2023.
While there are many production related machinery on display at the Tesla exhibit, the one key viewing for anyone is to see the structural battery pack that’s now used on the Model Y. This along with the ability to press large structures of the Model Y are showing a potential future development for EVs as manufacturers look for ways to not only protect the batteries, but also do so without encroaching on the interior space.
It’s also a showcase of the latest battery development from Tesla, the 4680 battery round cell. The current production version of the 4680 is still produced much like the 18650 round cells used in earlier Teslas. The eventual version, and potentially coming into full swing in 2023, is not only larger, but also a radically different “tabless” design with current collectors makes the transfer of electrons more efficient between anode and cathode to its reliance on dry battery electrodes on the anode to work as a semi-solid state battery chemistry.
While the main story is about Tesla, when looking at the exhibit you can’t help but feel that this is also a look at what made Tesla great and made other OEMs step up. Without Tesla, EVs would still be a novelty, self-driving wouldn’t have made the strides it has, and the idea of the Software Defined Vehicles would probably still just be vaporware at this point. “I think that, for the average person who just wants to see great cars, there’s great cars to be seen,” said Autumn, “but people who are really into the nitty gritty of Tesla and electric mobility, there’s something there as well that explores those innovations.”
Upon viewing the exhibit, one very important aspect shows throughout, Tesla is more than Elon Musk. While he provided the cashflow to make the company happen, at the end of the day you must separate the man from such an innovative company. It’s no different in how we put aside the controversial issues with Henry Ford during World War II and saw Ford Motor Company beyond him.
Regardless, if you’re a huge Tesla fan, you can’t claim that title without visiting the Petersen Automotive Museum when it opens. If you’re not, it’s still an interesting look behind the assembly and design involved in modern automotive manufacturing. The exhibit goes live to the public on November 20 and right on time for the 2022 LA Auto Show.
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