Tesla Retrospective Revisits Elon Musk, the Stable Genius

Rarely seen prototype Teslas on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum recall the controversial CEO’s once world-beating vision
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As Elon Musk seemingly sets his $44 billion Twitter acquisition on fire, a new career-spanning retrospective of his work at Tesla Inc., the now-iconic brand that upended the auto industry by bringing electric vehicles firmly into the mainstream, is a reminder that Musk has also been a brilliant, future-focused entrepreneur successful in shattering boundaries for cars and even space travel.

“Inside Tesla: Supercharging the Electric Revolution,” opening Nov. 20 at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, is the most comprehensive gathering ever of Tesla prototypes, many drawn from the company’s rarely seen internal collection and including the futuristic Cybertruck, a polished metal monster of a pickup seemingly better suited for the apocalypse than city streets.

Tesla represented a revolution in electric vehicle technology that reached for the higher purpose of saving the planet while it helped make Musk the world’s wealthiest man. Beginning with the unveiling of the sporty Roadster in 2006, Tesla built on its initial success to add more-affordable sedans like the Models 3 and Y; in the Petersen parking lot, a prototype of the Tesla Semi, a Class 8 heavy-duty truck, speaks to Musk’s ambition to transform the carbon-spewing interstate trucking industry as well. The prototypes and production models are annotated with quotations from naysayers, including Forbes in 2011: “Electric cars are an extraordinarily bad idea.”

“This company literally changed the world and is continuing to change the world because of the fact that they changed the automotive industry,” says Bryan Stevens, the museum’s director of exhibitions. “There’s a big story here that’s worth telling as it’s happening.”

For members of the Tesla cult, the vehicles at the exhibit will be the main attraction, as ethereal futuristic music purrs quietly overhead, but there are also relics from Musk’s creation myth, including a replica of the ancient Commodore computer he used to create his first videogame as a pre-teen in South Africa, and artifacts from his early days as a tech entrepreneur. As the largest shareholder in PayPal, its sale to eBay netted Musk $175.8 million. Soon after, he founded SpaceX, in 2002. A replica of the Tesla Roadster that Musk blasted into space atop a SpaceX rocket in 2018 is accompanied by a monitor displaying the car’s current interplanetary trajectory.

A brilliant tech entrepreneur with confounding impulses that border on the self-destructive (see: lighting a spliff on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast, sending Tesla stock plummeting; the calamitous Twitter acquisition with its recent mass layoffs and departures, employee loyalty ultimatums, and re-platforming former President Donald Trump), Musk is at his best, the exhibit makes clear, when contemplating a future unencumbered by practicalities.

“Even the controversy contributes to a sense of intrigue,” says Stevens.

Aside from some fact-checking, Musk wasn’t involved with the Petersen exhibit, perhaps being preoccupied with other recent endeavors. But the museum holds out hope for a drive-by, presumably sans kitchen sink.

“We’d love for him to come through,” says Stevens, “but there’s no telling when that’ll be.”

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