Take an In-Depth Tour of the Original Tesla Roadster
If you drive a Tesla today, you can thank the Tesla Roadster for making it possible.
Tesla’s first car had to be an exclusive, pricey, limited-production sports car. Auto manufacturing relies on high-volume production to keep costs low, but it takes a lot of cash to build the factories needed to build high-volume cars. Tesla did not have access to that kind of cash as a startup in the 2000s. So it went low volume, built the Roadster, and used that success to pave the way for the high-volume models we know and love today.
Unfortunately, only 2,500 Roadsters were produced. They’re rare enough that not many Tesla fans will have an opportunity to get up close and personal with one. The Roadster is a great car with some clever engineering and a lot of interesting features, including some that foreshadowed the future of Tesla’s technology.
Current Automotive co-founder Seneca Giese worked at Tesla from 2009 to 2018. His first role was selling Roadsters and he’s spent more than 30,000 miles behind the wheel of various Roadsters. He’s a real expert on the car and gives an excellent walk-around.
Tesla Roadster Exterior
The earliest Roadsters had all of their body panels, including the bumpers, built out of carbon fiber. This expensive ultra-light material was crucial for maximizing the range and counteracting extra weight from the battery pack. Over time, Tesla was able to improve battery tech and use less carbon fiber—increasing range while reducing cost.
All Roadsters came with a soft top that could be rolled up and placed into a surprisingly spacious trunk. The car’s electric architecture is also beneath the rear lid.
The Roadster’s battery pack does not sit underneath the floor of the car as is common of all newer electric vehicle platforms. The battery instead sits behind the occupants’ backs vertically, from the floor of the car up to the top. Underneath the housing, the pack is divided into eleven sheets with about 800 cells each. Behind the battery pack is the Power Electronics Module (PEM), which is akin to the brain of the car. Roadster’s PEM contains the on-board charger, which converts AC electricity from the grid into DC electricity for the battery.
To the right of both of these units is a coolant reservoir that cycles the liquid coolant through the battery pack and other onboard electronics. Tesla vehicles are always tracking battery pack temperature, even when the car is parked and on standby. If needed, the computer will turn on the cooling system to keep the pack from overheating while parked. You can actually hear the coolant circulating in the Roadster if the car is parked in a quiet place.
Sadly, the Roadster is a little too small for a frunk. More electronics are placed underneath the forward-opening carbon fiber front hood, including AC condenser fans, power brake booster, and the emergency line first responders cut to make the car safe if they are responding to an accident.
Tesla Roadster Charging
Roadsters use a unique four-pin charging connector, as the car was designed before the J1772 charging standard was released. The connector is big and bulky, with heavy-gauge wires and connector housings for safety. It saw a couple of revisions over the four-year production life of the Roadster, becoming smaller and lighter each time.
When you open up the manual charge port door, a white helper light comes on. You then need to line up a guide-pin on the connector with a track on the charge port, rotate the connector along the track, and push forward on a locking mechanism to begin charging. There is a multi-colored indicator light to confirm the car is charging or tell you a fault has occurred.
Inside the car, four charging modes are accessible on the Vehicle Display Screen—a small screen in the center of the car that feels like a prototype of the big screens to come in future Tesla vehicles. The image below is a scan from an original Tesla document describing the modes.
Storage Mode holds the state of charge at about 40% and manages battery temperature to almost eliminate battery degradation. Roadsters going any extended period of time without being driven should be set to this mode.
Standard Mode charges the battery to 90 percent, leaving the remaining 10 percent empty. It also keeps the bottom 10 percent in reserve, allowing the driver a usable capacity of 80 percent. This lower-intensity charging cycle reduces battery degradation in comparison to a full charge. This is the mode to use for regularly driven Roadsters.
Range Mode opens up the top and bottom 10 percent, allowing access to 100 percent of battery capacity for maximum range. It also uses the car’s AC system to keep the battery at a lower, more efficient temperature.
Performance Mode also charges the battery to 100 percent but keeps the bottom 10 percent in reserve—drivers have access to 90 percent of battery capacity. Performance mode also raises battery temperature to increase power output, much like Ludicrous Mode does on newer Tesla performance cars.
Additionally, you can configure scheduled charging to take advantage of cheaper electricity rates for charging at off-peak usage times—a feature now common on most electric vehicles. It also reduces the amount of power the car will draw to avoid blowing a breaker, and allows you to enter in an electricity cost so the car can calculate the cost of each charge.
Tesla Roadster Interior
The Roadster’s Vehicle Display Screen may be sized more like an iPod than an iPad, but it’s still the central place for controlling important functions of the electric vehicle. Beyond charging, its most important menus display driving information.
When driving, the screen defaults to displaying battery charge level and ideal vehicle range based on EPA conditions but has other readouts available. They include:
Energy Meter: Displays your watt hour per mile (wh/mi) energy consumption, very similar to the energy consumption graphs viewable in all later Tesla vehicles.
Trip Meter: Shows distance traveled, travel time, and energy used.
Performance Statistics: Realtime display of horsepower and torque output and experienced g-forces.
Temperature Gauges: Realtime display of battery, motor, and Power Electronics Module temperatures.
Clock: A clock.
There’s a lot of functionality packed into that small screen. Maybe Tesla would have liked to make it larger, but the automaker was working with the bones of the small and sporty Lotus Elise, so there isn’t very much room inside the cockpit.
The small space led to a couple of other cleverly hidden features. The owner’s manual is tucked into a tight compartment underneath the passenger’s seat and the car’s lone cupholder sits underneath the center console and slides out into the passenger side. If you have a passenger, they become your cupholder. A small dock in front of the gear selector features an old-school 30-pin connector for classic handheld Apple devices.
Unlike later Tesla vehicles, the Roadster does feature a (mostly) traditional gauge cluster. There were two versions of the gauge cluster over the years—the first one on Roadster 1.5 had a separate tachometer and speedometer. This is a holdover from the original two-speed gearbox planned for the car.
On Roadster versions 2.0 and 2.5, the tachometer is doubled up with the speedometer, since the Roadster’s single-speed transmission setup means motor RPM tracks constantly with speed. Zero RPM equals zero mph, while 14,000 RPM is the redline at Roadster’s top speed of about 125 mph. Next to the speed/tachometer is another gauge that is unique to electric vehicles: the power meter. It tracks how much energy is being discharged to drive or recharged back into the pack during regenerative braking.
The gauge cluster also features a very basic digital display with odometer, battery charge level, and estimated range based on energy use from the last 40 miles driven. Range estimation is not an exact science, so drivers can compare this number with the ideal EPA estimate on the Vehicle Display Screen to get an idea of the worst/best case range scenarios.
This is very similar to how it works on modern Tesla vehicles. There’s only one range display for simplicity, but it estimates your range based on the last 30 miles of driving.
From the important central screen to the practice of updating tech and lowering costs, the Roadster really foreshadowed Tesla’s unique approach to the mass-production auto business. It also gave Tesla the experience, credibility, and financial ability to launch the production Model S and every model thereafter.
The Roadster is a special EV, not just because it’s an utterly unique sports car, but because of the place it holds in Tesla’s history.