It was both correct and costly

Sunday, February 25th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson “We only get to release our first car once,” Musk told Eberhard, Tesla’s CEO at the time, “so we want it to be as good as it can be.” Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon), how this played out:

One major design revision that Musk made was to insist that the door of the Roadster be enlarged. “In order to get in the car, you had to be a dwarf mountain climber or a master contortionist,” he says. “It was insane, farcical.” The six-foot-two-inch Musk found he had to swing his rather large butt into the seat, fold himself into nearly a fetal position, then try to swing his legs in. “If you’re going on a date, how is a woman even going to get in the car?” he asked. So he ordered that the bottom of the door’s frame be lowered three inches. The resulting redesign of the chassis meant that Tesla could not use the crash-test certification that Lotus had, which added $2 million to the production costs. Like many of Musk’s revisions, it was both correct and costly.

Musk also ordered that the seats be made wider. “My original idea was to use the same seat structures that Lotus used,” Eberhard says. “Otherwise, we would have to redo all the testing. But Elon felt that the seats were too narrow for his wife’s butt or something. I got a skinny butt, and I kind of miss the narrow seats.”

Musk also decided that the original Lotus headlights were ugly because they had no cover or shield. “It made the car look bug-eyed,” he says. “The lights are like the eyes of a car, and you have to have beautiful eyes.” That change would add another $ 500,000 to the production costs, he was told. But he was adamant. “If you’re buying a sports car, you’re buying it because it’s beautiful,” he told the team. “So this is not a small deal.”

Instead of the fiberglass composite material that Lotus used, Musk decided that the Roadster body should be made from stronger carbon fiber. That made it costlier to paint, but it also made it lighter while feeling more solid.


No detail was too small to escape Musk’s meddling. The Roadster originally had ordinary door handles, the kind that click open a latch. Musk insisted on electric handles that would operate with a simple touch. “Somebody who’s buying a Tesla Roadster will buy it whether it has ordinary door latches or electric ones,” Eberhard argued. “It’s not going to add a single unit to our sales.”


Eberhard finally got pushed to despair when, near the end of the design process, Musk decided that the dashboard was ugly. “This is a major issue and I’m deeply concerned that you do not recognize it as such,” Musk wrote. Eberhard tried to put him off, begging that they deal with the issue later. “I just don’t see a path — any path at all — to fixing it prior to start of production without a significant cost and schedule hit,” he wrote. “I stay up at night worrying about simply getting the car into production sometime in 2007…. For my own sanity’s sake and for the sanity of my team, I am not spending a lot of cycles thinking about the dashboard.”


By modifying so many elements, Tesla lost the cost advantages that came from simply using a crash-tested Lotus Elise body. It also added to the supply-chain complexity. Instead of being able to rely on Lotus’s existing suppliers, Tesla became responsible for finding new sources for hundreds of components, from the carbon fiber panels to the headlights. “I was driving the Lotus people crazy,” Musk says. “They kept asking me why I was being so hardcore about every little curve of this car. And what I told them was, ‘Because we have to make it beautiful.’”


  1. Michael van der Riet says:

    About 2,450 Tesla Roadsters were sold, which makes it a dud. Elon messed up big-time. Let’s hope that the Cybertruck does better than that.

  2. Freddo says:

    From Wikipedia:

    Musk co-led the third, $40 million round in May 2006 which saw investment from prominent entrepreneurs including Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and former eBay President Jeff Skoll.

    By January 2009, Tesla had raised $187 million and delivered 147 cars. Musk had contributed $70 million of his own money to the company.

    In June 2009, Tesla was approved to receive $465 million in interest-bearing loans from the United States Department of Energy.

    So by no means a commercial success, but it created enough visibility as a “green” product and connections with other well-connected to qualify for massive government funding. Exercise for those at home: what do we call this type of government (you can invent a new term if desired).

Leave a Reply