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Tesla devotees a breed apart

By Patrick May, McClatchy/Tribune news

5:35 PM EDT, September 10, 2010

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Venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson was skimming the information packet for his Tesla Motors board of directors meeting last year when he hit pay dirt about page 50. Spotting details for the Model S sedan that the electric-car company had on the drawing boards, he knew he had to have one.

Better yet, he had to have the first one.

"The policy was that only after the car was officially on sale and the price had been set could anybody reserve a Model S," Jurvetson said last month, recalling that board meeting in early 2009. "They were about to open the meeting, so without saying a word I whip out my wallet, where I always keep one check, fill it out for the full price of the car, and then toss it across the table. Everyone was stunned."

Especially Tesla CEO Elon Musk, the guy across the table.

"Elon looked surprised," Jurvetson said. "Then he said, 'Well, I guess you get the first car.'"

Jurvetson had plopped himself at the head of a bustling queue of electric-car devotees all dying to be in one place: the bleeding edge. More than 2,200 people — starting with Musk in the No. 2 spot — have lined up behind him, laying down deposits ($5,000 for a regular Model S that will go for $49,000, or $40,000 for an as-yet-unpriced super-loaded Signature Edition), and settling in for the long wait until the cars come out in 2012.

Reservation lines are also forming for the Nissan Leaf, where the $99 deposit required is decidedly more blue-collar. And thousands more have put their names on the "Want List" for the Chevy Volt. But Tesla's fans, many already driving the company's groundbreaking $109,000 Roadster, are a particularly fanatical bunch. And they're putting serious money down in the face of huge obstacles an unproven car company must overcome before its sedan puts rubber to the road.

They do it for love of electric cars, or hatred of Big Oil, or for a chance to be a roadway rock star. And sometimes, they do it against their better judgment.

"I admit it wasn't the most logical move to make," said software engineer Joey Mink (No. 691 in line). Deep down, he knows he should have used that $5,000 to upgrade the windows in his northern Virginia house. But "we decided, 'What the heck.' Tesla said we could always get our deposit back, unless the company goes under, I guess. We've started putting money aside for the car. So for now, the home improvements will have to wait."

The Model S queue is thick with tree-hugging gear heads. Going electric means weaning the world off its oil addiction. And many of those in line call themselves EVangelists, already using their electric vehicles to spread the gospel every time they pull out of their driveway. Rob Stelling, a clinical lab technician from Napa, Calif., used to carry around a FAQ flier to hand to folks who'd stop to ask him about his electric Toyota RAV4.

Stelling (No. 81 on the Signature Edition list) used the money he made from selling the Toyota to a "St. Louis investment company bigwig" to reserve his slice of heaven. "The day they started selling the Model S, we walked into the Menlo Park (Calif.) store at 10 a.m. with $40,000 cash in my wife's purse," he said. "It was in large packs of $100 bills. That got their attention."

So why not just buy a regular Model S?

"Because it's a showoff car and I'm a showoff," Stelling said. "I'll have people drooling over my Model S Signature Edition."

For others wait-listed, that oil addiction has been replaced by an obsession with an EV ride that Tesla fans describe as "sweet" and "sexy".. "A spin around the block in the Roadster was the kicker for me," Mink said. "It was like nothing I'd ever experienced. The only noise the car made was this space-shuttle-y whine. It was screaming, but silently."

THE TESLA EXPERIENCE

Here's how some Tesla fans who have reserved a Model S describe the electric-vehicle driving experience:

—James Morrison, Seattle software developer: "When you accelerate in a Tesla Roadster it sounds like the 'Star Trek' Enterprise taking off in warp speed. It's the coolest, most futuristic sound you can imagine. There's only one gear, so you don't get that pause between gears. It just keeps accelerating without ever stopping."

—Evan Fusco, Missouri emergency room doctor: "It's fast and sexy and as advanced as you can get. It's just a sweet ride."

—Joey Mink, software engineer from northern Virginia: The Roadster ride "was like nothing I'd ever experienced. The only noise the car made was this space-shuttle-y whine. It was screaming, but silently."