2012 Tesla Model S: Most Important New Car Since Ford Model T?

Follow Joel

Tesla Model S Alpha build

Tesla Model S Alpha build

Enlarge Photo

There's no denying that the Ford Model T is one of the most important cars of all time. It jump-started the auto industry as we now know it.

But Tesla is looking to change the automotive industry, and the new 2012 Model S just might be the most important new car since the Model T.

Let's start with the obvious: Tesla Motors [NSDQ:TSLA] is a U.S. company making all-electric cars from the ground up in America.

Who else is doing that right now? No one.

The company is a fever dream come to reality, funded by venture investors plus CEO Elon Musk's own personal piles of cash (thanks to eBay buying his early startup, PayPal).

The first Tesla Roadster was nothing more than a niche sports car, cobbled together with a Lotus chassis and some electronics connected to batteries.

Yes, I've driven a Tesla Roadster. It was fast, it was terrific, it was a low-volume niche sports car that was obviously put together by hand. Frankly, it was crude.

Now we have the 2012 Tesla Model S.

The new all-electric sport sedan can seat seven (when optioned with the rear jump seat), has a 17-inch touch screen in the center stack, and offers an EPA-rated range of 265 miles when you opt for the 85-kilowatt-hour battery pack.

It can outrun a brand new 2013 BMW M5 at a drag strip and hit 60 mph from a standstill in as little as 4 seconds (depending on which review you read). To say it is impressive would be putting it lightly.

Tesla is already working on its next vehicle, the Model X. Based on the same platform and powertrain as the Model S--with optional all-wheel drive added--the Model X will be a crossover with its own innovations. Cue the "falcon doors," Stage Right.

2014 Tesla Model X all-electric crossover with 'Falcon Doors' open

2014 Tesla Model X all-electric crossover with 'Falcon Doors' open

Enlarge Photo

We've heard Tesla has pushed back development of its next sports car so it can work on a BMW 3-Series competitor. Yes, a full-size sedan, a crossover, and a compact sports sedan will supposedly all be sitting in a Tesla dealership gallery near you.

Can Tesla do it? The honest answer is that we aren't sure yet.

But the reality is that Tesla has consistently beaten many naysayers' predictions. It managed to deliver the 2012 Model S on time, making Dan Neil lose a bet with Elon Musk.

While Tesla may not produce as many Model S cars this year as initially planned, we are told it's because the team wants to make sure quality control is up to snuff. We see that as a good reason to slow down the pace, if it improves product quality going forward.

So is the 2012 Tesla Model S the most important new car since the Ford Model T? Personally, I think it is.

2012 Tesla Model S, brief test drive, New York City, July 2012

2012 Tesla Model S, brief test drive, New York City, July 2012

Enlarge Photo

The Model S is an impressive feat of engineering and commitment. It could  change the automotive industry, and how we drive in the future.

Clearly the established automakers have taken note of Tesla beating the odds thus far, and will watch its every move closely.

But what do you think: Is the 2012 Tesla Model S the most important new car since the Ford Model T?

Leave us your thoughts in the comments below, or send us a tweet on Twitter, or post a comment on our Facebook fan page.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This opinion piece was contributed by High Gear Media's social media manager, Joel Feder. He owns a 1991 BMW M5 and has not, until recently, been a fan of any plug-in electric cars. We always enjoy the enthusiasm of new converts.


Follow GreenCarReports on Facebook and Twitter.

Follow Us

Comments (33)
  1. The comparison with the Model T is apposite but in fact it is the polar opposite of what the author intends.

    The Model T was not the first or best car at its time: it was the first mass produced car that made car ownership cheap enough to be practical.

    The Tesla S, however, only achieves great things (monstrous range) by using a monstrously expensive battery putting it way out of reach for a mass market.

    While it is technically interesting at the fringes, it's nothing the big auto makers couldn't build within a year if they chose to. They choose not to because selling 10,000 units a year doesn't interest them yet.

    We need a paradigm change for the use of cars or a true discontinuous jump in energy storage.

  2. You beat me too it. But your comment hadn't posted when I posted my commment :)

  3. "They choose not to because selling 10,000 units a year doesn't interest them yet."
    Not True: http://www.oddrob.com/corvetteStats.asp
    Show up to 1997 and only a few years beat 10k cars/year.

  4. Peter, simply not true; why use a link only until 1997? GM has averaged over 30k sales since 2000 and this is an apples to oranges comparison to begin with; the Corvette is established and can be sold in low quantities profitably. That's not the same for an all-new EV or PHEV.

    But in the end, it doesn't really matter long term, IMHO, since 10k sales now should mean 30k in 1-2 years, etc...

  5. "The Model T was not the first or best car at its time: it was the first mass produced car that made car ownership cheap enough to be practical."


    Might I suggest you do a little googling and check out the price of the first Model T when it was first released in 1908. Then find the average annual salary that year. Do a ratio. You'll find that the car was about 2.6 times the average salary. Do the same thing for a Model S. You'll find it is actually less. It took a few years for Ford to reduce the costs of the Model T.

    Tesla is trying to do the same by starting with a high priced, low volume proof of concept car. Then moving to a moderately priced, medium volume car, and hopefully later to an affordable, high volume car.

  6. Sure, there is an argument to be made here in this comparison.

    But isn't the comparison profoundly flawed? Didn't the Model T succeed because it was half the price of other cars and yet the Model S is twice the price of other cars?

  7. Tesla Model S is no car for the masses, point taken, but the author never said it was. He feels the radical change of Model S with the past is comparable to the magnitude with which the Model T changed the world of the automobile.
    I feel this the same discussion like "Model S is a better car than the BMW M5" because it beat the M5 in a race to 60MPH in a straight line. There are more qualities to a car than acceleration like there are more criteria to importance than affordability.

  8. Good comments. My guess is PHEVs make a much bigger impact than BEVs like Tesla is making. I doubt Tesla will become a major manufacturer of vehicles, like Ford.

  9. It's way too early to make that judgement. When Model S is adopted in large numbers by the mass market, we can revisit the question.

  10. The Ford Model T was a ground breaking car that did bring others to compete with it. And I do think the same goes for the Tesla Model S, it's so far ahead of the established auto makers they're going to want to compete because they don't want to have consumers wonder why they can't build an electric car that is as good as Tesla's. If you watch Revenge of the Electric Car, Bob Lutz admits on camera that he was shocked that a little auto maker like Tesla could build a more advanced electric car then the automotive giant GM.

  11. The point of this article is spot on from the following perspective. Ford re-defined personal transportation albeit by reducing costs by using an assembly line and paying his workers well enough that they could afford the car they produced. Likewise Tesla is re-defining personal transportation. First is is driving down operational costs which will include cost of energy, maintenance, and dealership associated fees. Secondly he is increase the value by aligned the vehicles function to our lifestyle. We are justing see the tip of the iceberg in terms of the advantages of EVS or ICE vehicles (i.e. max torque at zero speed, home charging, electrical energy storage for non-engine functions).

  12. Joel, A game changer is something that people buy. Any company with less that 10,000 cars sold per year (unsubsidized) is not a player.

  13. A game changer is something that fundamentally changes the public's perception. IOW a 'paradigm shift'. The Model S passes that test with flying colors. There is no rule in the book that says that a game changer always has to be a mass market product.

    Even if people end up buying a Nissan LEAF. The Model S is a halo car for all EV's.

  14. In 1984 Apple introduced the Macintosh with the first commercial graphical user interface for $2000. That would be over $5000 in today's dollars, and the computer did not do well initially. I think most people would consider Apple a "player" today. Toyota' Prius is another example, and the author is making a similar case for Tesla. It could happen and as I have one reserved, you can see whch way I'm betting.

  15. Hi James, I realize that often perceptions color reality. But would close to 14,000 pre-orders at from $5,000 dollars to $40,000 dollars deposited each make a difference? Just from curiosity on my part.

  16. There are more comments in this thread
  17. Yes, if it succeeds this is the 21st century Model T, not because it has the capability to bring electric motoring to the masses obviously but because it shows that:
    - EVs can have great range
    - EVs can have great performance
    - EVs can be cool
    - EV drivetrains are more flexible in their layout allowing for more interior space
    - with the right infrastructure electric motoring is getting close to ICE long range practicality so
    -BEVs have short term potential to be more than limited use city cars

    If it succeeds it could force the industry to change proving that BEVs do in fact have market potential, provided the right concept.

  18. I think Tesla S is significant in its own right. It will "shatter" some of the old idea of "EVs/Plugins" are slow, boring and no fun at all golf carts...

    As much as I love Tesla S and dislike Prius, I would say that Prius is more like a Model T that brought high MPG hybrids to extremely affordable level for the mass market. The Sales has shown that as well...

    Now, whoever can design a $20k Electric car that can go 200 miles per charge and very practical will be the first "electric Model T"...

  19. I agree with you completely Xiaolong.

    The Tesla Model S is more like a Packard or a Duesenberg than a Model T. The Model T of EVs hasn't been released yet. I hope for a $20-25K EV with a 200-300 mile range soon, so the EV market can really compete with ICE.

  20. going to have to 2nd and 3rd the inevitable comments that will be posted about this. the LEAF would be my model T. the S is too expensive and with less than 100 delivered are we not jumping the gun here? the LEAF has 100 million passenger miles on it, the S has a few thousand.

    I will say the S does show the world what can be possible and perhaps a glimpse of mainstream EVs 7 years from now, but ya have to get butts in the seats to pass on the real benefits of EV driving since it cannot be adequately explained and that is EXACTLY what the LEAF's intention is.

    remember; The impact of one satisfied owner is greater than 10 glowing car reviews

  21. No doubt Nissan had hoped the Leaf to be the new Model T but both in terms of its general (ICE platform based, limited range, questionably styled) concept as in terms of sales it just isn't the hugely influential vehicle it needs to be to measure itself with that icon of the industry.

  22. Give it another year...the big refresh for 2013 MY might put the Leaf into a lot more garages.

  23. Thanks Joel for a great article. Also, thanks to everyone for lots of solid comments. I agree that the Model S is ground breaking, game changing and may be the most important vehicle produced since the Ford Model T. However, I think a better comparison for the Model S is to a Duesenberg or a Packard, I.E. one of the early luxury and high performing autos that made EVERYONE want one. It will definitely be an inflection point on the EV adoption curve. One final comment and I've been wondering about this for a while, I'm not sure the big manufactures could have produced a car like the Model S. They are good at small iterative improvements based on what they've done before. I think the Model S could ONLY come from a new company. Thoughts?

  24. "They are good at small iterative improvements based on what they've done before. I think the Model S could ONLY come from a new company. Thoughts?"

    Great point Craig, the reason of course is risk. Model S could only come at this time from a group that bets the farm on it, and believes it is their bread and butter.

    Incumbent manufacturers would see the whole range of risks all too clearly, as a call to cease immediately. Plunging off a cliff with unknown EV's while cannibalizing your current lines of business means you won't sleep nights.

    For Musk and company plunging off that cliff also means that they don't sleep night, but additionally, if they don't land successfully they'll go hungry. With no other lines of business.

  25. Jeff,
    Not always the case for only a new car company could build a new, risky, revolutionary vehicle. A few recent examples include the second gen Prius which won Car of the Year in 2004 n is now the best selling vehicle family in CA this year. That Prius was far better then the first gen.

    And of course the obvious current risky venture, to some, is the tens of billions Nissan has and will continue to invest in the Leaf and its descendents. Look for the Leaf to be better next year with 25 percent more range, lower purchase price, and made in USA pride. Nissan wants the Leaf to be to EVs this decade as Prius was to hybrids last decade. It won't happen cause there is already some decent competition but the Leaf should do well.

  26. Yes it was risky introducing the Prius. Vs most new cars a Prius is a huge leap. Though in the universe of ICE cars what was done? An ICE car with a motor assist, a storage battery, ring gear and energy recapture. It was not so radical that Toyota couldn't use the Prius platform to update their conventional vehicle line. Exactly what Toyota did to monetize the platform by introducing the Echo, extending models based on the Prius platform.

    The Model S had no such fallback position. The Tesla staff had neither capability nor money to make a ICE car if the Model S didn't work out.

    The risk appeared for Toyota, as NOT having a Prius, when US makers had Govt. advanced vehicle money. They didn't any make cars, leaving Toyota a monopoly

  27. Is the risk differential of Toyota, a multi-billion dollar company with exceptionally deep pockets, building any radically different ICE car, comparable in any way to...tiny under financed Tesla building a car so radically different that is has no ICE, and considering financing options, no possibility of an ICE?

  28. Let's follow the alphabet, shall we. Cars introduced by Tesla. Model R, Model S (now for a brief interlude, heck even Lamborghini is doing it, Model X) next letter, lower cost more widely dispersed sport sedan titled Model T?

    So there we have it Model R, S and then T!!! By Design?

  29. or how about C for "compact"? as in C-Max, or Prius C...

    I can't wait for the $30k Tesla...

  30. I think I, if everything goes well, I may park it next to the Volt.

  31. Me too... :)

  32. The Model S is a game changer car. It's acquisition cost is high, but its long term affordability proposition is interesting. Purchasing the car + solar PV electricity for you home can save you around US$ 5000/yr in gas costs+electricity costs+car maintenance savings, you'll be able to recharge using solar electricity during the day and using the excess electricity sold to the grid you can buy that back in the discount electric rate (10PM-6AM). Besides Tesla claims the Model S battery will last 15 yrs, and the electric motor even longer. As long as you drive enough, the EV savings can be substantial, if you compare with the total cost of ICE cars.

    Fedex CEO stated recently that EVs are 80% cheaper than ICE vehicles to operate !

  33. I am a fan of the Tesla and enjoyed the article. However, I don't agree that the Model S could be considered similar to the Model T - it does many things well, but its price is too high for the mass market. I would say that the US does not yet have an EV equivalent to the Model T, though Tesla's Model X could be that car when it arrives.
    In Europe, however, I think Renault's Zoe could be that car now and I think the next 6-12 months are a very exciting time for the EV market on this side of the pond.

Commenting is closed for old articles.

Get FREE Dealer Quotes

From dealers near you

Find Green Cars


© 2015 Green Car Reports. All Rights Reserved. Green Car Reports is published by High Gear Media. Send us feedback. Stock photography by izmo, Inc.