Tesla owners are a talkative bunch. Rumour has it that the first thing a Tesla owner does when they collect their new car is tell someone about it. Then the second thing they do is tell someone else. Put simply, Tesla owners are keen to spread the gospel of electric car ownership and Teslas in particular – and encourage others to do the same.
They talk to each other lots, too, and hang off the every word of Tesla CEO Elon Musk via his social media feeds. So when he made the offer to let people see around Tesla’s famed factory in Fremont, California an orderly and silent queue of Teslas formed at the gates. Not everyone can go, though; it’s restricted to owners, friends and family, plus other selected guests, which today includes Auto Express.
Fremont is like many suburban cities on the edge of Silicon Valley – clean, busy and, but for the hills on one side and the San Francisco bay on the other, not especially picturesque. However, nestled at the foot of the hills is a 5.3 million-sq ft Mecca for electric car owners: the Tesla factory that builds Models S, X and 3.
It wasn’t always that way, as our tour guide Adam explains when he collects us from the factory store that handily provides an opportunity for fans to fill their front and rear boots with memorabilia (we join them with a $25 baseball cap).
The factory was built back in 1962 for GM and churned out such notables as the Chevrolet El Camino and Pontiac GTO. It shut in 2010 before being bought by Tesla, with the first Model S rolling off the production line in June 2012. Adam is one of a handful of knowledgeable and enthusiastic tour guides, and has been with Tesla for nine years starting out when there were just 400 employees. Today there are more than 10,000 in Fremont, plus nearly 5,000 contractors. At the start, the Tesla production line was rattling around inside a building that, when measured using the internationally recognised measurement of football pitches, equates to 62.
In spite of so many people being on the payroll, Adam seems to know many of them. And he certainly knows more about Tesla than just about anyone else.
Once we and our 22 other tour members are loaded onto the Tesla Tour Bringo, with Adam driving the tractor unit at the front, he leaps off with the enthusiasm of a game show host, running around the factory, picking up parts and pieces and explaining in some detail what they do and how they’re made.
Adam’s wearing gloves and sleeves that are reinforced with Kevlar to protect himself and any parts he might pick up. And he starts with an interesting demonstration alongside a giant Schuler stamping press; he picks up an aluminium door panel with just his finger to prove how light it is. Tesla has the largest stamping press in North America, weighing one sixth of the weight of the Eiffel Tower. Yet, but for the gentle rumble of machinery, you’d be hard pressed (ahem) to know what power is used to form the various body parts.
Tesla’s factory is pretty rare in making so much of its cars under one roof; many others bring in body panels, engines and the like, being more like an assembly plant. But all Teslas are built and painted in Fremont, with the paint factory under special scrutiny. According to Adam, Teslas are made to be so beautiful people will cross parking lots to see them.
The batteries come in from outside the factory with those for the Model 3 made at Tesla’s Gigafactory in Nevada, and some of my fellow tourists squeal with excitement when we pass a collection of battery packs ready to slot neatly into the cars.
Our Bringo then takes us past one of the workers’ refreshment zones, or beach cafes – named after local beaches. They offer free snacks and sodas, as well as Tesla’s own blend of coffee. There are quality reminders around the factory, reminding workers that ‘quality is everyone’s business’, and we pass some workers who are fixated on their job of hand-sanding some of the body panels.
Of course, there are robots doing their dances, too, including Wolverine and Iceman – two robots so strong they can lift entire cars with one robotic arm. There are other laser-guided robots around the final assembly line, too, all with a hint of Autopilot like the cars they’re helping to put together.
Every car is meticulously inspected before being tested and then on to more enthusiastic customers like the guy sitting next to me – a recent Model 3 owner who couldn’t be happier with his new car. Our tour finishes where it started, alongside some ironically placed old-style fuel pumps that sit next to a Tesla Supercharger, before we’re given another opportunity to spend some cash in the gift shop.
There were parts of the factory we didn’t get to see – including the temporary structure at the back of the plant being used to assemble Model 3s. It is, apparently, far more permanent than the ‘tent’ Elon Musk referred to on Twitter, and our experience has shown that quality is impressive on Tesla’s ‘baby’.
Tesla is a company that has always done things differently and even the factory is different from other car plants, with a real Californian vibe – not least in the refreshing warm air that circulates the place.
In some ways it seems less ordered and with less of a production line flow than other factories – the result of starting small and growing fast.
But as with every factory around the world, it has an atmosphere all of its own. It’s a place that you can’t fail to leave with a smile on your face and a better understanding of the Tesla goal: ‘to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy’.
Being different is what appeals to so many Tesla customers, and, as we found, what makes this new breed of car enthusiasts so evangelical about the brand.
If you enjoyed this Tesla factory feature, then why not check out some of our other features here…