Elon Musk vs Jeremy Clarkson: The Beef That Accidentally Started the EV Revolution

It's getting hard to remember a world before Elon Musk, and Tesla wasn't the undisputed most buzzworthy name in the global auto industry, bar none. But jostle your memory just enough, and most gearheads of a certain age will be transported right back to season 12, episode 7 of Top Gear.
Musk vs Clarkson 8 photos
Photo: Tesla (Left Image) IMDB (Right Image)
Tesla RoadsterTesla RoadsterTesla RoadsterTesla RoadsterTesla RoadsterTesla RoadsterTesla Roadster
On that momentous day, the biggest and most popular motoring show in the world showcased the original Tesla Roadster. To say this unassuming review helped change the course of automotive history wouldn't be all that much hyperbole when you get into the real nuts and bolts of the affair.

For those not in the loop (it's bound to be not all that many considering what kind of website we're running), Jeremy Clarkson is a bit like the petrolhead messiah. When Jezza speaks about cars, gearheads listen. No matter how inflammatory and bombastic what comes out of his face hole might be.

Be it Top Gear on the BBC or Grand Tour on Amazon Prime. This six-foot-five, loudmouth, and now elderly motoring presenter isn't afraid to throw his considerable weight around. And that quirk of his was about to become quite abrasive to the other central figure in this story, Mr. Elon Musk.

Around the time Top Gear was reaching its arguable quality zenith, the South African entrepreneur was completing the finishing touches on his brand new creation. An all-electric, drop-top sports car with the chassis from a Lotus Elise, lithium-ion batteries, and the potential to be something very special indeed.

Tesla Roadster
Photo: BBC
In its early days, the Roadster project was little more than a dream in the head of Elon Musk. It was only after securing some very lucrative funding from some California investors he had the cash on hand to make it a reality. Some arguments ensued on what the final Tesla Roadster design would incorporate.

Musk initially wished to give the car a two-speed automatic gearbox. Musk hoped this would give the Roadster a more organic and exhilarating driving experience. But when that failed to be reliable, a less complicated one-speed gearbox was implemented. Further troubles with the wheelbase, chassis stiffness, and other headache-inducing snafus took three years of solid development before a prototype was ready for field-testing.

But by late 2007, Tesla was ready to present their prototype to the world's biggest car program, as well as the industry's harshest critic. It all came to a head in episode seven of the show's 12th season on December 14th, 2008. Things seemed to be going well enough at first. An opening dissertation by Clarkson about "brown rice eco-cars" must have set the bar pretty low in his own eyes.

But after the Tesla trounced its basis, Lotus Elise, Clarkson starts to get serious in a drag race. Zero to 60 times of 3.9 seconds consistently was nothing to sneeze at in 2008, and it still isn't today. But Jeremy Clarkson isn't the most polarizing man in motoring for no reason. He could contrive and loudly blurt out the downsides of a painting of puppies, waterfalls, and rainbows.

Tesla Roadster
Photo: BBC
His first problem with the Tesla Roadster came with its handling. Going so far to say the light carbon fiber body with all the extra weight of batteries was a bit like his own figure. "Thin at one end, thinning at the other, and then sort of with a big, fat bit in the middle." Meaning, of course, that the petrol-powered Lotus overtook the Tesla in tight bends.

But as far as Clarkson jabs go, this was something like a mild tickling. The real stinging bits that made Elon Musk's blood boil were still to come. Firstly, Clarkson maintained that it would take as long as 16 hours to charge from a standard U.K. house outlet. A far cry from a couple of hours or so of time anticipated.

Clarkson was quick to point out that the electricity from this plug was more than likely derived from power stations burning old-fashioned dino-juice. Then, spectacularly, both Teslas on the shoot that day broke down. Multiple times, in fact, both at the same time on one occasion. It's been said that seeing footage of his beloved Roadster pushed into the pits sent Elon Musk into a rage.

Tesla's PR team officially retorted most of the claims made by Clarkson during his scathing but sensationally entertaining review. A spokesperson for the Tesla insinuated that neither of the two Roasters on hand ever needed to be pushed into the garage. Either during a supposed brake failure incident or when one Roadster ran out of juice. Tesla maintains that the charge level on the lithium-ion battery pack never dipped below 20% of its advertised 200-mile range (321 km).

Tesla Roadster
Photo: IMDB
These responses were the grounds for a libel lawsuit filed by Musk's legal team working on behalf of Tesla. Formal papers of intention to file suit were submitted to U.K. courts in March 2011. The case was ultimately dismissed in favor of the BBC. Implying that Clarkson's comments were not just bald-faced lies, as Tesla had accused.

Tesla's legal team tried again to file suit in October 2011. The motion was once again rejected by the courts in 2013. No matter what Tesla tried to do, they couldn't prove any malicious intent on the part of Jeremy Clarkson. Perhaps if Tesla had been keen watchers of Top Gear, they'd know every human on Earth is equal in Clarkson's scorn. It would have been best just to take it all in stride in hindsight.

Meanwhile, Clarkson became a founding member of Tesla's unofficial journalist black-list. An alleged group of journalists from all manner of different backgrounds and publications that Tesla no longer cooperate with or facilitate reviews for.

No sooner was Clarkson gone from the BBC in controversy did Tesla offer the new faces of Top Gear a review of their Model-X SUV. As if just to make it plain for all to see, the Elon Musk and Jeremy Clarkson rivalry was all too real. While on location for Grand Tour in 2017, Clarkson told the Daily Beast. “I’ve got no ax to grind. He’s the only one who ever behaved in such a petulant way—most industry bosses are a lot more grown up.”

Tesla Roadster
Photo: Google Creative Commons
But if not for Top Gear, if not for Jeremy Clarkson. Would Tesla have had its big break? We know for a fact that many outsides of the enthusiast circles had not heard of Tesla before the BBC came knocking. By the end of that show, people at least knew their name; it was just enough momentum to be a catalyst towards superstardom.

Do we owe the whole EV revolution to this review? Or are we giving a crusty, old motoring journalist with no filter between his mouth and his brain way too much credit? We'll let the comments section below be the judge of that.
If you liked the article, please follow us:  Google News icon Google News Youtube Instagram X (Twitter)

Would you like AUTOEVOLUTION to send you notifications?

You will only receive our top stories