Why Does Tesla Get All the Love? It's Selling California, Not Cars

Yesterday, Tesla Motors fulfilled its stereotype as a Silicon Valley startup by botching the unveiling of its second major product launch, the four-door Model S sedan. The feverish response to the news--from Digg co-founder Kevin Rose leaking the pictures to the livecast's epic fail--says less about our hunger for attractive, electric vehicles or even our desire for that innovation to save the American automotive business and everything about our more than 150-year-old obsession with the Golden State, California. Tesla, in the grand tradition of HP, Disney, Mattel, and Apple, isn't selling cars. It's in the West Coast Cool business.   

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The Red Hot Chili Peppers said it best: If you want these kind of dreams / It's Californication.

Selling California has been going on since 1849. That's how everyone got over there in the first place. Go West, young man, and all that. After the gold rushes, Californians one-upped each other in competing to spawn the state's metropolitan centers out of dust and brush. Hollywood plunks most of its storylines (and its staff) in the state's Southland; the technology industry writes most of its billion-dollar code from the North. And of course, who could forget the California Raisins, clearly superior to Mexican raisins as they were?

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has tapped into that spirit more than any entrepreneur since Steve Jobs. The new Model S, and its predecessor the Roadster, were both designed in California. The little company is headquarted in San Carlos, on the southern end of the San Fransisco Bay. Its two brick-and-mortar dealerships are also on the left coast: There's one in the Bay Area city of Menlo Park, home to the famous VC drag strip Sandhill Road, and there is a second in West L.A., near Santa Monica. Inside, they feel like Apple Stores, which is no accident. Every Apple product boasts the tag "Designed in California," and Musk is pushing that same ethos.

Musk trumps Apple in one regard; Tesla's cars aren't just "designed" in California; they are California creations from start to finish. Or at least they will be once the factory's built. Tesla hopes to churn out tens of thousands of electric cars annually in a new Southern California plant. The factory was originally slated for New Mexico, until Governor Schwarzenegger offered better tax breaks and asked Tesla to oblige. And it's a good thing, too; a New Mexico-based factory just wouldn't have fit with Tesla's image.

The Governator is a friend of the company, another non-accident. Musk straddles the state's most identifiable exports: Hollywood and Tech. According to various sources, current rich and famous Tesla owners include LA resident Leo DiCaprio, who replaced his Prius with a Tesla Roadster; Dennis Haysbert of the TV show 24; Cameron Diaz; George Clooney; music impresario Will.i.am; inventor Dean Kamen; Matt Damon; Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin; as well as several execs from Yahoo and other digerati. Tesla has only made 250 Roadsters. That doesn't leave much oxygen for the smattering of non-famous millionaires who got their hands on one. But the Hollywood-Silicon Valley cachet of the Roadster is eventually going to sell a lot of Model S sedans.

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Musk and Tesla also understand the romance that California can evoke subconsciously in viewers. Most of the press shots of Tesla's first car, the Roadster, look as if they were taken on the Pacific Coast Highway. The ones that weren't shot by some beachside freeway show the Tesla parked outside what could easily be Steven Spielberg's mansion or Steve Jobs' summer retreat.

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Compare that with Toyota's runaway hybrid hit, the Prius. It gets some love, but not lust. Then again, it's action photos look like they were shot in rural Illinois, or maybe on the corporate campus of a pharmaceutical company.

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Even Tesla's direct competitors can't quite muster the same excitement from car buffs. Fisker Automotive, maker of the beautiful Karma electric four-door, to be released in 2010--doesn't have nearly the star-power. Daimler's Smart division has announced a plug-in version late last year, but really, who cares when you have a road monster like the Model S to drool over? GM's Chevy Volt gets its share of press, but only because the fate of the largest automaker in the country rests squarely on its success. 

So go ahead, join the Tesla ranks and buy a Model S when it's made available for about $57,000. This is the car you've been waiting for: Backed by a cast of boldface names that would put Vanity Fair's Oscar party to shame. This might also be the change you need, your motivator to leave the Chicago burbs or the mess of highways in the Northeast and head to Malibu. This is, as the Chili Peppers said, what you're craving.

Related: 25 Ways to Jump-Start the Auto Business

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