Tesla Before It Was Tesla, and Even Before That

Seventeen years ago on a sunny fall day, we were testing our usual phalanx of cars at the old drag strip at California Speedway when the future of transportation rolled onto the tarmac. It was a bright yellow two-seat roadster and on its side was written, “tzero,” the mathematical point at which it all begins.

Earlier, I’d gotten a call from Tom Gage, president and CEO of AC Propulsion, asking if we had any track time coming up and whether they could track test a car they’d been working on. I’d written about AC Propulsion before and all the cool and interesting things they were working on. It seemed everyone there had a PhD from CalTech and I liked hanging out with people like that, so I was glad for the opportunity to hang out some more. I couldn’t have known, however, that the thing they were bringing out would eventually become the first Tesla, the company that is now the world’s most valuable carmaker.

They had a truckload of CalTech geniuses with them, including company founder Alan Cocconi, the king-brains behind everything. As a consultant for Aerovironment, Cocconi had worked on the GM SunRaycer solar car that won the 1987 World Solar Challenge race across Australia. He also worked on the GM Impact electric concept car that would itself become the EV1. And then he help build another Aerovironment project, the flying mechanical pterosaur that starred in the IMAX feature film, On The Wing. To even grasp how anyone could make a real-life-looking, 18-foot-wingspan physically accurate pterosaur and make it fly is beyond me, as was the circuitry Cocconi soldered together to make the AC drivetrain of the SunRaycer/EV1/tzero.

So it was cool to be there to see at least one of those creations, the tzero electric roadster. There was even a Hollywood star present in the person of actor Tony Shalhoub, who played Monk and other lovable roles and who was one of several Hollywood types interested in EVs very early on (Tom Hanks was another ACP customer, but let’s not descend into name dropping here).

We put all our test equipment on the tzero and ran it down the track. ACP had said it would do a 3.7 0-60, but we got a 4.1. Cocconi said it was a software glitch in the traction control, that he fixed and told us he got the claimed 3.7 afterwards. The 0-60 figure you see nowadays for the car is 3.6 seconds. (The older I get, the faster I was.) Regardless, those are remarkable for a production-intent electric car in those days.

The AC Propulsion connection is fairly well known among the Teslarati, and we’ll get back to that and the ascension of Tesla in a second. First, let’s go farther back. What might not be known is where the tzero itself came from. And for that we go to Brighton, Michigan, to an engineer named Dave Piontek who was innocently building sports cars in his garage way back in the ‘80s and had no idea the part he’d play in automotive history.

Piontek was building a cute two-seat carbon fiber/Kevlar roadster he called the Sportech. It was powered by your choice of a couple different Suzuki GSX-R motorcycle engines. With a curb weight of 1,100 pounds, and with as much as 250 hp, it had an absurd power-to-weight ratio of 4.4 pounds per hp.

“It was a hell of a lot of fun,” said the now-retired Piontek when we caught up with him by phone driving his motor home around Florida. “I completed the original car in 1989 and I took it to the Detroit Autorama and got quite a bit of attention there. It won an award for design and originality. I painted it in my garage, I literally did probably 90% of the work myself. For a one-man band, it was pretty impressive.”

The only thing he didn’t do was design the swoopy, neo-Italian-looking body.

“I’m an engineer, OK, you ever see an engineer with a sense of style?”

With no budget he brought in “two kids who had just graduated from CCS” in Detroit who were working where he was at the Ford Design Center. Using discarded chunks of modeling clay that Ford was going to throw away or donate to CCS, the kids made the body. Piontek then brought in “a couple of guys from the plastic shop at Ford who were moonlighting,” and they made the fiberglass mold. Piontek had already engineered the chassis, so with all that in order, he started building car bodies. To get the engines, he turned to his brother, another exec at Ford, who had been tinkering on his own time with Suzuki motorcycle engines. The brother took an 1100-cc engine and “punched it out” to 1325 ccs. Put all that together and voila—sports car!

“I’m an engineer, OK, you ever see an engineer with a sense of style?”

The first one was 1,235 pounds because Piontek says, “I kind of over-designed the chassis.” Adding nitrous to the engine for another 25 hp countered the weight.

“That car hauled ass!” he said.

Piontek registered it for the street in Michigan, drove it to work, drove it all over. When he got a little more money, he’d build another one. In all he built seven cars, the last one was titled in 2004.

Alright, you’re saying, how does this lead to Tesla?

One of Piontek’s Sportechs was acquired by Dr. John Fagan, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Oklahoma. Fagan was the kind of professor you wish you’d had in college. He was making all kinds of cool cars and getting students involved, and ultimately he was racing some of his creations in a series made just for EVs. Fagan was given a Piontek Sportech from the Hawaiian Electric Company. It had a motorcycle engine in it, which he replaced with an electric motor and controller from AC Propulsion. This would have been in about 1997 or so. AC Propulsion was specializing in ultra-efficient motors, controllers, inverters, and all those other electrical engineering things that make an EV go. In an era where any electric car was referred to as “a glorified golf cart,” AC Propulsion was selling highly efficient hot rod drivetrains.

“They were designing new power electronics with the integrated charger and an induction motor to go along with it,” said AC Propulsion’s VP of Engineering Paul Carosa. “The idea was to just focus on development of the drive system, particularly and especially with this idea of the integrated battery charger, which was pretty unique. It’s still kind of unique, actually, there might be somebody doing it, but it’s not really widespread. The concept basically reutilizes a lot of inverter components, you know, the IGBTs and motor windings to make a high-power battery charger, repurposes them and makes them dual purpose, to function on the electronics and the motor. At that time it was 20 kilowatts—20 kilowatts was much higher than anybody was doing at that time.”

It was one of these hot-rodded AC Propulsion drivetrains that Fagan put into his Piontek Sportech.

“We put in one of AC Propulsion’s drives,” Fagan said. “It was a badass drive. That thing had about three quarters the torque of a Tesla today.”

Fagan loved it and saw the car’s potential. He tried to promote the car and get a manufacturer to build it, but ultimately didn’t find anyone willing. Eventually Hawaiian Electric wanted their Piontek back and that was the last Fagan saw of the Sportech.

However, back at AC Propulsion, Alan Cocconi and Paul Carosa and team saw what Fagan had done and were intrigued. Or maybe they were already working on it, but they got a Piontek Sportech from Piontek (his company was called Fun Car Company) and put their own drivetrain in it and (drumroll) that was the first tzero.

Problem was it had lead acid batteries and was heavy and didn’t go very far. So they used the basic Sportech-looking car to build two more cars, eventually replacing the steel frame with a stainless steel frame (the better to resist battery acid) and replaced the lead acid batteries with lithium-ion batteries, in 18650 configuration. And that was the car I saw at California Speedway in 2003. It was lacking interior amenities, fit and finish, and a lot of other things that a mass-produced, modern day car would have. It likely wouldn’t have passed any crash-test standards anywhere in the world, either, but it launched quicker than almost anything made and was nimble and tossable and basically felt like a race car, or at least a very lightweight sports car. It needed sorting in the suspension deptartment; it was too easy to get to oversteer, and even after we played around with camber and tire pressures, it still needed some sorting. But that’s what engineers do, and they eventually figured it out.

“It was a badass drive. That thing had about three quarters the torque of a Tesla today.”

At almost this exact same time, a Silicon Valley engineer and entrepreneur named Martin Eberhard, flush with money from selling an early eBook reader, had just gone through a divorce and was looking for a sports car, as one does at those times.

“I thought I might go and buy an electric car,” he said in a 2019 CNBC interview. “But they were no longer available, they were actually being taken off the market.”

If you’ll recall, this was right after the California Zero-Emission Vehicle Mandate had been axed. The ZEV mandate would have required tens of thousands of electric cars be sold in California. A lawsuit by California car dealers saw to it that the ZEV Mandate was gutted, made moot. So large carmakers all pretty much stopped developing electric cars, and they stopped hiring small firms like AC Propulsion to do consulting and contract work. GM even famously crushed all remaining EV1s in an Old Testament-style purge.

So Eberhard looked around to see what was left. It had to be an EV because after he’d researched well-to-wheel efficiencies, he’d determined an EV was by far the most efficient, no matter how you sliced it. And the only car that remotely fit his 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.

“I got the impression he just wanted to learn as much as he could,” said Tom Gage, who was president and CEO of AC Propulsion at the time. “So he started helping us out. He put some money into the company. And that’s the time when we were converting the tzero to lithium-ion, and he copied us on that.”

AC Propulsion had loaded the tzero with lithium-ion batteries and it seemed to be working.

“We had just finished it and we drove it up to a Sears Point where they were having the Challenge Bibendum,” said Gage. “We drove it up there and, it was just a series of tests. They give points for something like that. But we got the most points with the tzero. Most of the OEM entries that were there were electrics or diesels and hybrids and all kinds of different stuff.”

So AC Propulsion’s tzero won the Challenge Bibendum, sort of.

“Well, we declared ourselves to have the highest points total,” Gage said. “They weren’t actually awarding trophies.”

And then came a reckoning.

“That was when we sort of had a showdown. Martin said, ‘I want to buy one.’ And I said, ‘We can’t, we’re not going to build anymore.’ And he said, words to the effect of, ‘Well, if you won’t build me one, I’ll start my own car company. That’s how Tesla got started.”

This is where the accounts differ, both in the press and in the recollections of the participants. Ultimately Tesla did indeed get started, but there was a lot of work involved.

“We were having a series of events mostly in Silicon Valley where Martin was,” recalled Gage. “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. I said he should talk to Martin and I put them in touch by email. And so I think I’ve learned since then, that he may have already been talking to (one of the future Tesla co-founders) JB Straubel. So I don’t know how the whole thing came together. But obviously Elon got involved and started putting money in.”

That was later. Before Elon came on board, Eberhard had to get a car company going. It soon became apparent that the Piontek Sportech was not going to be the kind of car to get DOT, NHTSA, and FMVSS approval. Eberhard realized he had to partner with an established manufacturer.

“We went to LA Auto Show 2003 and forced ourselves upon the Lotus people,” Eberhard said.

The Lotus people said to come to their HQ in Hethel, England. A deal was worked out that would result in the first production Tesla roadster. But even that still had some AC Propulsion in it.

“They licensed AC Propulsion’s motor and inverter technology,” said Gage. “But really, I think in some ways, what they got most value from was just the concept of using cylindrical (18650) cells. And that wasn’t even part of the license agreement. That was just what Martin had picked up from working with us. But yeah, they took out a license and paid us some upfront money and some royalties, and then they, after a while said, ‘No, we’re not going to pay more royalties because we changed the design’ or something like that. And it was a bit of a tussle. But nothing really ever happened.”

On July 1, 2003, Tesla Motors was incorporated. In 2004 Elon Musk became chairman of the board. On July 19, 2006, the production roadster was unveiled to the press and select potential buyers in an airplane hangar in Santa Monica. After that, as they say, yada yada yada, and Tesla became the most valuable car company in the world.

Still, I think someone ought to fund a little bronze plaque to go on the wall of Dave Piontek’s garage in Brighton, Michigan.

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