Drive flashback: The electric car that inspired two blokes (not Elon) to start Tesla


Story first published 27 July, 2001.

The common perception of electric cars as little slow-lane devices has been shattered by a new US-made sizzler that, in standing-start sprints, makes toast of Porsches and Ferraris.

Californian maker AC Propulsion is taking orders for its 150kW tzero. Deliveries will start next year – at a price that sits between the two performance badges.

Its sticker of $US80,000 ($AU155,000) might take some of the gloss from the lightweight fibreglass and composite sports two-seater.

The performance claim isn’t an idle one, however.


A tzero took on and triumphed over a Ferrari F355, a Corvette and a Porsche Carrera 4 in a series of impromptu eighth-mile (200m) drag races on tracks in northern California.

The head-to-head speed contests took place during a weekend in California’s Silicon Valley to demonstrate the tzero to entrepreneurs and investors.

As word of the visit spread, the scripted demonstrations took on a new dimension when a Ferrari owner challenged the tzero to a short drag race.

In AC Propulsion’s report of the duel, the tzero, with company vice-president Alec Brooks at the wheel, led from the start and won by eight car lengths. A Chevrolet Corvette C5 met the same fate.

A potential investor from Sweden, taking the wheel of the tzero, challenged his friend and business partner in a new Porsche Carrera Cabriolet. The Porsche won that shootout… the Swede having forgotten to release the handbrake.

In heavy rain the following day, the tzero’s sole challenger was an all-wheel-drive Porsche Carrera 4. This time the handbrake was released and the tzero again was victorious.

The Silicon Valley speedster accelerates from rest to 100km/h in 4.1 seconds, on to a standing 400 metres time of 13.2 sec.

Cruising at about 95 km/h, the tzero’s claimed range is 160km. A built-in charger enables it to be plugged into a normal power socket for recharging.

A neat accessory is a ‘hybrid trailer’, towed behind the car to provide 20kW of on-the-road charging assistance.

AC Propulsion was founded in 1992 by Alan Cocconi, a former engineering consultant to General Motors. He helped to develop the drive and solar-tracking systems of the GM SunRaycer, the winner of the first Darwin to Adelaide World Solar Challenge in 1987.

The tzero has been under development for four years. Only now, with the installation of a smaller, more efficient drivetrain, is it ready for production.

Its electric motor, fed by 28 lead-acid batteries, drives the rear wheels.


Trim is spartan. Its racing-style carbon-fibre seats are trimmed in leather, there is a heater but no air-conditioning.

In warm weather, the makers helpfully point out, the windows can be removed and stowed in the boot. Don’t try that with your Ferrari…

The tzero’s performance caught the attention of a young Californian entrepreneur, inspired by the possibilities of an electric sports car that could harness the power of electricity and blend it with world-beating performance.

After visiting AC Propulsion’s headquarters and seeing first-hand the three tzero’s the company had built, Martin Eberhard (pictured, below) was inspired and started hatching a plan to start his own electric car company. The seed of an idea was born and on 1 July, 2003, Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning, co-founded Tesla Motors.


The new company’s first car was to be a sports car, based on AC Propulsion’s tzero roadster. Tesla went so far as to borrow one of tzero’s three prototypes to use as a test mule, transplanting lithium-ion battery tech in place of the donor car’s lead-acid set up.

Additionally, Tesla licensed AC Propulsion’s proprietary powertrain but when that was found unsuitable for what the new EV start-up wanted to achieve, was ditched in favour of an in-house designed setup.

While Tesla forged on with developing its Roadster, AC Propulsion turned its energies to designing and producing drive systems, battery management technology and vehicle management systems for OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), something it continues to do today.

Tesla, meanwhile, is the global leader in electric vehicle production and is, by market capitalisation, the world’s biggest car company, while its self-styled ‘techno king’, Elon Musk, is the world’s richest person, having joined the fledgling company in 2004.

And what of the tzero? AC Propulsion built three in total. One remains with the company, a second is owned privately while the third, sadly, perished when it went up in flames in 2017.

Rob Margeit

Rob Margeit has been an automotive journalist for over 20 years, covering both motorsport and the car industry. Rob joined CarAdvice in 2016 after a long career at Australian Consolidated Press. Rob covers automotive news and car reviews while also writing in-depth feature articles on historically significant cars and auto manufacturers. He also loves discovering obscure models and researching their genesis and history.

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