Tesla Roadster with CA Clean Air Vehicle sticker  --  flickr user jurvetson

Tesla Roadster with CA Clean Air Vehicle sticker -- flickr user jurvetson

Whenever we're asked whether electric-car startup Tesla Motors will make it, we respond with our own question: What's the last carmaker started from scratch in the U.S. by entrepreneurs that's still with us, and when did it launch?

The answer is Chrysler, and the year was 1924. In other words, starting a car company is a tough, tough challenge. And it takes a whole lot of cash.

No Roadsters after 2011

The question of Tesla's survival cropped up again on Friday, when the Wired Autopia blog revealed that the company doesn't plan to sell its Tesla Roadster after 2011 due to tooling changes at the Lotus plant in Hethel, England, where the Roadster is assembled.

Thus far, Tesla has sold 937 Roadsters in 18 countries and built slightly more than 1,000. First deliveries took place at the end of 2008, and the company is now assembling up to 50 cars a week.

In the section of Tesla's initial public offering (IPO) paperwork that covered risks to the company, Tesla wrote that it won't replace the Roadster with a new model until "at least one year after the launch of the Model S, which is not expected to be in production until 2012."

Meaning, no income

The problem is simple: lack of cash flow. "We anticipate that we may generate limited, if any, revenue from selling electric vehicles after 2011 until the launch of the planned Model S,” Tesla says.

It admits that the launch "could be delayed for a number of reasons, and any such delays may be significant and would extend the period in which we would generate limited, if any, revenues from sales of our electric vehicles.”

Tesla says it has taken reservations for roughly 2,000 Model S electric sports sedans. The car is planned to be a four-door, five-passenger luxury sports sedan with a price of $57,400. After a $7,500 tax credit, the cost falls below $50,000.

tesla london store 001

tesla london store 001

"Briefly profitable"

Tesla is seeking to sell $100 million of common stock in its IPO, underwritten by Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan, and Deutsche Bank Securities. No date or pricing has been set for the offering.

Previous investors in Tesla include Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the founders of Google, along with five venture capital funds, including Draper Fisher Jurvetson. Last May, Mercedes-Benz parent the Daimler bought a 9-percent stake in Tesla, which valued Tesla at $550 million.

In the nine months ending September 30, Tesla's filing indicates it lost $31.5 million on revenue of $93.4 million. That was less than its loss of $57.3 million in the same nine months of 2008.

CEO Elon Musk has  told reporters the company was "briefly profitable" in mid-2009, which it had to be to qualify for the DoE loans. He termed the Model S expenses "quite significant and growing with each passing month.”

Is there enough cash?

In the grand scheme of things, the $100 million Tesla seeks from its IPO is not much for a car company. To fund the global renovation of its lineup and operations, for instance, Ford [NYSE:F] CEO Alan Mulally pledged all of Ford's asset to secure a $23.4 billion line of credit in 2006.

Tesla is hardly comparable to Ford, of course. But developing a single new vehicle for global sale routinely costs carmakers up to $1 billion for design, engineering, prototypes, durability testing, crash tests, and setting up supply chains.

2011 Coda Sedan prototype - side

2011 Coda Sedan prototype - side

2011 Coda Sedan prototype - front

2011 Coda Sedan prototype - front

2011 Coda Sedan prototype - rear

2011 Coda Sedan prototype - rear

Tesla's Mobile Service Ranger vehicle

Tesla's Mobile Service Ranger vehicle

Adapting one Chinese sedan: $100 million

Even cutting development costs by reusing an existing platform and outsourcing assembly--both of which Tesla did with its Roadster, adapting Lotus Elise components and hiring Lotus to build it--is hardly cheap.

Take startup Coda Automotive, for example, which plans to launch its $45,000 all-electric 2011 Coda Sedan late this year in California. To do so, Coda has re-engineered an existing compact sedan from China for electric drive, and to meet U.S. regulations and expectations.

Coda CEO Kevin Czinger told us that Coda will have spent more than $100 million by the time it brings its 2011 Sedan to market. Yet that's the total Tesla hopes to raise from its IPO.

$465 million from DoE

Tesla has now closed on $465 million of low-interest loans from the U.S. Department of Energy, announced last June along with larger sums to Ford and Nissan.

The money loaned to Tesla will finance design, engineering, and assembly of the Model S, along with renovation of a California plant to assemble lithium-ion battery packs for its cars and for sale to other carmakers.

Tesla has said the Model S will be a brand-new vehicle, on a purpose-built platform, to be assembled in a California plant that it has not yet finalized. Most observers are skeptical, assuming that the Model S will be built around components or a complete vehicle from investor Mercedes-Benz.

Can it keep the doors open?

But if Tesla has no income during 2012, while it rushes to get the Model S to market, the company will likely spend something like $150 million to keep the doors open and the lights on.

Assuming further losses during 2010 and 2011, whether it will have that much cash left to spend seems very much open to question.

And industry analysts are skeptical that the DoE's $465 million will be enough to design, engineer, test, and launch a brand-new electric car--especially one to meet the demanding requirements of luxury sports-sedan buyers--plus renovate a factory to build it in.

Tesla stays mum

Tesla has declined to comment on these issues to any media outlets, including GreenCarReports.com, citing the quiet period that will last until its IPO.

Any readers out there want to help us do a little forensic analysis of Tesla's financials? Drop us a note!

[Wired via Jalopnik; Tesla Motors Form S-1 via The New York Times; Automotive News (subscription required)]