PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- Back in 2006, with the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? still in theaters, an obscure Silicon Valley startup brought its first product to the Concours d’Elegance here, along with a message: The electric car is very much alive.
That company was Tesla Motors, and the car was its battery-powered Roadster, a modified Lotus Elise that raced from 0 to 60 mph in four seconds.
“We want to make a car that changes the way people think about electric cars,” Martin Eberhard, then Tesla’s CEO, told Automotive News that year.
Tesla has since managed to do that, which explains why another Silicon Valley startup, Renovo Motors, was in Pebble Beach this month, trying to re-create Tesla’s coming-out party in almost every way.
After four years of secrecy, Renovo unveiled a two-seater based on the Shelby Daytona, which it says can hit 60 mph in 3.4 seconds. Renovo has started taking orders for the $529,000 car, with deliveries scheduled for late 2015.
The similarities to Tesla’s launch strategy are no coincidence. As Tesla replaced the Roadster with the Model S, Renovo co-founders Christopher Heiser and Jason Stinson saw an opportunity to do for supercars what Tesla aims to do for mass-market cars.
“They’re doing a fantastic job, and we’re big fans of theirs,” Heiser said in an Aug. 15 interview. “We thought the biggest opportunity for us was to see what the EV can do from a high-performance perspective.”
Heiser and Stinson were watching Tesla even before the summer of 2006, when those first prospective Tesla buyers eyed the Roadster along the links at Pebble Beach. Heiser, now 39, was director of product management at online security firm Verisign. Stinson, now 46, was working on Pentium chips as a principal engineer at Intel Corp.
They met through a friend -- an early Tesla employee -- and bonded over a love of cars. Inspired by the company, they started Renovo in “stealth mode,” getting advice from some of Tesla’s engineers and building a plan for the company.
They kept the coupe project a secret to help Renovo avoid the fate of high-profile EV start-ups such as Fisker Automotive and Coda Automotive, which ended up in bankruptcy.
“There were a lot of EV companies that announced things that they thought they could do and didn’t achieve in the time that they thought -- or worse, they felt pressure to launch before they were ready,” Heiser said. “For the strategic development of the company and our team and everyone involved in the project, we wanted to make sure that we learned from those experiences.”
Operating in “stealth mode” wasn’t easy. It made it more difficult to sign up partners, though Renovo ultimately managed to buy parts from Tier 1 suppliers such as Bosch, Delphi and Mitsubishi.
Much to prove
The Renovo Coupe will be measured against some of the world’s most venerated supercar brands. Heiser and Stinson say they don’t necessarily need to make a better all-around product; their customers will be looking for a special experience, not an everyday driver.
“If you were to ask [Pagani CEO] Horacio Pagani or [McLaren Group CEO] Ron Dennis who builds the greatest supercar in the world, they would tell you with a straight face: ‘It’s me,’” Heiser said. “And so would [Ferrari Chairman] Luca di Montezemolo, and so would [Koenigsegg CEO] Christian von Koenigsegg. And I think that they do. I think that they do what they do better than anyone else on this planet.”
Like them, Renovo wants to do something very specific -- deliver the sound, feel and neck-snapping torque of a high-voltage battery pack -- better than anyone else.
That may sound like an implausible feat for a pair of former Silicon Valley tech executives. Renovo has eight employees and about a dozen contractors. None of them has a name that bigwigs in Detroit, Munich or Tokyo would recognize.
And Renovo’s founders know that, no matter what Tesla has accomplished, they still have much left to prove. Becoming a successful car company takes more than a unique powertrain and a nimble product-development style.
Renovo plans to offer “white glove” service to its first buyers, who mostly are expected to be Californians, as it learns from its first market entry. It’s not too different from how Tesla used the Roadster as a dry run for the Model S.
“If we want to be that kind of company, we have to show what we can do,” Heiser said, referring not only to Tesla, but also to mass-market automakers such as General Motors and Volkswagen. “Not just talk about it.”