A brief history of Tesla: inside the Petersen Museum retrospective | CAR Magazine

A brief history of Tesla: inside the Petersen Museum retrospective

Published: 29 November 2022 Updated: 29 November 2022

► Inside Tesla at the Petersen Museum 
► The short but incredible story of Tesla
► From Roadster to Cybertruck and more

Tesla’s history is one of the shortest and most dramatic in the car industry: a Californian start-up that many rubbished, but whose focus and relentless innovation accelerated the world’s adoption of electric vehicles at a time when many thought the combustion engine was invincible.

To mark the opening of a retrospective at the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles, CAR magazine snuck in for a tour around the Inside Tesla: Supercharging The Electric Revolution exhibition to see first-hand the cars and prototypes, plans and vision that powered the dream.

Read on for a quick stroll around the highlights of the show, which runs from 20 November 2022 to 22 October 2023 at the Mullin Family Grand Salon downstairs in the basement of the Petersen Museum.

Where it all began: the origins of Tesla

A rare one, this: the only surviving AC Propulsion tzero – the early electric car from 1997 that caught the eye of one Elon Musk. It was based around the Piontek Sportech kit car and fitted with an electric drivetrain but only three were built. The sports car graduated from lead-acid batteries to lithium-ion cells and there was even a Long Ranger genset trailer (above) that packed a petrol-powered Kawasaki generator to act as a range extender. It was this kind of innovation that piqued the interest of Elon Musk; the team behind the AC Propulsion tzero introduced him to Tesla Motors co-founder Martin Eberhard and within a year Musk provided seed funding to expand Tesla’s electric car ambitions. The adventure began.

The 2002 Lotus Elise Tesla ‘Mule 1’

Can you believe it was all the way back in 2002 – two decades ago – that Tesla Motors created its first working prototype? The Californian start-up turned to Hethel to work up a test hack, after some early experiments with the AC Propulsion tzero. The black design model behind is the clay for what went on to become the Tesla Roadster that entered production in 2008, based around the Elise bonded aluminium tub but given a style all of its own.

Our 2008 Tesla Roadster review

Fast forward to the original 2013 Tesla Model S prototype

The original Roadster was only ever the warm-up act for Tesla’s wider ambitions. The Petersen Museum has borrowed many cars from Tesla’s own archive and private collectors to tell the full story. And so here is the original Model S prototype. Musk had hired automotive designer Franz von Holzhausen and requested ‘the safest, most functional, best-looking and most aerodynamically efficient car in the world… with seating for seven, the lowest centre of gravity of any car and the ability to accelerate from 0-60mph quicker than any sedan.’ Quite a tall order, then… At launch, it was fair to say that most of those objectives aims were achieved. Different headlamp and details abound on this early styling model.

Tesla Model S review

Tesla’s S3XY line-up

The Inside Tesla exhibition focuses on some models more than others. There’s significantly less detail on cars like the Model X, for instance. But you can pore over every vehicle and the line-up along the back wall of the Mullin Family Grand Salon showcases the full range – tellingly in the Model S, 3, X, Y formation that reveals just how juvenile some of Musk’s product planning is. Also a chance to get up close and personal with the next Roadster (white car fifth from left). A much-delayed pipe dream or the next hottest thing to hail from California? It certainly looks sleek and alluring still. We just wish they’d get on and build it.

Tesla Semi: keep on truckin’

Cast your mind back to 2017. Five short years ago and Tesla had made quite a name for itself with the Model S and X. And then went and showed this: the Tesla Semi ‘Alpha’ prototype. Musk argued that trucks account for 18% of all vehicle emissions and needed to be cleaned up, so he deployed his considerable R&D resources to design this sleek, all-electric lorry. Still stuck in development half a decade later, Tesla insists that logistics companies will benefit from $200,000 fuel savings over three years and that the Semi will be capable of 65mph fully laden and enjoy a range of 300-500 miles. Only a scale model can fit inside the Petersen, but a full-size Tesla Semi is parked outside by the main entrance.

The 2019 Cybertruck moment Tesla went full sci-fi

By now, Musk was on a roll. Observers couldn’t tell what he would do next – and the answer was perhaps the craziest moment in the company’s history yet, the shocking Tesla Cybertruck unveiled in 2019 at a rowdy world debut more akin to a smartphone launch than a motor show reveal. From its counterculture name to its angular design, this pick-up refused to follow convention and it’s still a jolting experience to pore over this concept car today.

The angular stainless steel bodywork is at once breathtaking, bonkers but also dreamy. The pick-up’s sharp edges and panel gaps, not to mention unfinished undercarriage, just seem a long way from production reality. Props to Tesla for bringing along the CyberQuad bike too. This duo look like they’ve just escaped from a filmset around the corner in Hollywood…

That sledgehammer

Hats off to Tesla: it understands the power of legends and storytelling. Rather than sweep a PR gaffe under the table, here are the sledgehammer and steel ball used to showcase the indestructible Cybertruck’s smash-proof glass at its 2019 launch. Musk took a swing at the pick-up and the glass failed. You can see both on display at the Petersen right now (albeit in a glass box, presumably to stop onlookers trying to recreate the moment). 

On to the biggest sellers: the Tesla Model Y

One of the joys of a show like this is the care and attention of the exhibits: this exploded view of the Model Y is fascinating, allowing a sneak peek into the guts of Tesla’s latest model, suspended in mid-air…

A crashed Model Y

… as well as the smashed-up remains of a crash test vehicle. Tesla’s always excelled in American safety tests and this crumpled heap shows why. Its strong passenger safety cells and skateboard chassis confirm that Teslas are robust.

The engine room

Kudos to the museum for telling the technical story of Tesla in such vivid detail. This exhibit showcases four eras of electric motor, with drive units from 2012, 2015, 2021’s Plaid super motor and the latest 2022 unit. The drive units reveal how Tesla packages the electric motor, controller and transmission to transfer power from the motor to the wheels. The improved packaging over time is quite something – and neighbouring stalls explain in great detail how Superchargers work and showcase the solar roof tile tech.

Soft cell: Tesla’s latest battery tech on show

One of Tesla’s key achievements has been its battery technology. Installations show the very latest 4680 structural battery pack first used in the Model Y in 2022 – the cells are part of the car’s structure, linking the front and rear underbodies into one unit. Tesla claims this brings greater rigidity, reduces the number of parts and reduces the manufacturing footprint by half. Intriguing…

Battery tech explained

Tesla merch galore

Winningly, there is plenty of the lunacy the EV brand is famous for on show at the Petersen. The electric spark shaped tequila bottles. The Tesla underwear. Crazy expensive Tesla surfboards. The mind of Elon Musk knows no limits. Ours just boggles…

To infinity… and beyond!

There’s a pleasing cadence and flow to the Inside Tesla show at the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles. You start at the beginning and wend your way through the early years, the scale-up period, the robots building the cars and whizz through the crescendo of the pre-pandemic years and the pulsing creativity of the most leftfield car brand on the planet. So it should come as no surprise that we end up underground and in space: the final stages showcase Musk’s boring machines, Hyperloop transport systems and SpaceX adventures. All neatly brought back on brand, by reminding us that an original Midnight Cherry Tesla Roadster was sent into orbit in 2018 for the test flight of the Heavy Rocket (playing David Bowie’s Space Oddity, obviously) and that Teslas are used to whizz under the LA Convention Center’s Loop.

This brief history of Tesla is a seriously slick and very engaging romp through the EV disruptor’s back story. It’s probably one for the fanboys and girls and misses a critical filter – but then it has been produced in association with Tesla itself and this explains the amazing resources on show. Approached with a less hagiographic mindset, Inside Tesla: Supercharging The Electric Revolution is still a world-class show. If you’re in California, go and visit.

Tesla reviews

By Tim Pollard

Group digital editorial director, car news magnet, crafter of words