According to Forbes, Elon Musk – entrepreneur, engineer, innovator, philanthropist, space invader, and e-trailblazer – is worth around $42 billion. He’s not the richest man in the world, but he’s definitely in the top 40. Which you would think would be really nice for him, but the South African-born businessman doesn’t seem overly bothered about his bank balance. The only things he seems to care about are making the world a better place, looking after his large family (he has five children from his first marriage), his partner, Grimes, and their delightful little son, X Æ A-Xii, oh, and cars.
And before you say it, no, not just electric cars. Despite being the CEO and driving force behind Tesla, 49-year-old Musk is a big fan of things on four-wheels (especially if they can also drive underwater) and over the years has had his fair share of cool cars (and planes). He hasn’t always driven them very well, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves…
Ford Model T (1920)
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The first attempt at a mass-produced car for the general public, Henry Ford‘s Model T was released in October 1908 and is considered the most influential car of the 20th century (much to the chagrin of the Renault Espace). This description probably explains why a friend of Musk’s gifted him a Model T, so the most influential car maker of the 21st century (we can argue about that later) had something to compare his Tesla creation too. Upon its release, the Model T cost just $850. For that money, you can buy half a Tesla Model S carbon fibre spoiler.
E-Type Jaguar Roadster (1967)
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Musk calls his E-Type Jaguar his first love and he fell for it at the age of 17. It was 1988, the year before he decided to move to Canada, and someone gave him a book of the greatest classic convertibles ever made. “The one I liked the best was the E-Type and I said, ‘Well, if I can ever afford it, that is the car I am going to get.’ And so that’s why I bought it.” Having launched his first company in 1995, a software business called Zip2, some of his venture capitalist investors gave Musk $40,000 and that was all the excuse he needed. He spent most of the money on an old E-Type and it was so unreliable it actually broke down on the drive back from the dealership. Not that it put Elon off… He still owns the Jaguar to this day.
Lotus Esprit, aka ‘Wet Nellie’ (1976)
“Ah, Mr Musk, we’ve been expecting you,” the auctioneers must have been thinking when Elon’s representative entered the bidding for this iconic piece of automotive James Bond memorabilia in 2013. And they weren’t disappointed. The modified Lotus Esprit, dubbed “Wet Nellie”, was created by a company in Florida and cost $100,000 and although it only served as an underwater prop (not a real amphibious car; you do realise The Spy Who Loved Me wasn’t a documentary?) it didn’t deter Musk from paying nearly $1 million for it. “It was amazing as a little kid in South Africa to watch James Bond drive his Lotus Esprit off a pier, press a button and have it transform into a submarine underwater,” said Musk. “I was disappointed to learn that it can’t actually transform. What I’m going to do is upgrade it with a Tesla electric powertrain and try to make it transform for real.” All together now… You must be joking, Elon. “I never joke about my work, GQ,” Musk didn’t say, but we wish he had.
BMW 320i (1978)
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You never forget your first car and Musk’s was a little beauty. This was the first iteration of the legendary BMW 3 Series and was unveiled at the Olympic Stadium in Munich in 1975. It was an instant hit in Europe – with that distinctive kidney grill and a punchy fuel-injected two-litre engine that could do 0-60mph in just over ten seconds and had a top speed of 112mph – but didn’t reach the United States until 1977. Musk bought one second hand for just $1,400 in 1994 and, truth be told, he got what he paid for. He kept the car for a few years until one day he allowed one his Zip2 interns to run a few errands in it and one of the wheels fell off. However, the Musk success story kept on rolling and when his first company was sold in 1999 he made $22m for his seven per cent share.
Aero L-39 Albatros (1994)
As well as a love of cars, when Musk felt the need, the need for speed, he opted for something with a little more… oomph. “Probably the most fun plane I have is a Russian fighter jet,” Musk said. “It has a Czech air frame, a Ukrainian engine, Russian avionics. It’s what they used to train their fighter pilots on, so it’s incredibly acrobatic.” The plane in question was an Aero L-39 Albatros designed in the 1960s by Aero Vodochody and introduced into the Czech military at the start of the 1970s. “Literally, it was just like in Top Gun,” he continued. “You’re no more than a couple of hundred feet above the ground, following the contour of the mountains. We came up to a mountain, did a vertical climb up the side of it, inverted. Turned upside down. Yeah, that was fun. It’s like a roller coaster. Only you go much farther up and down. But your butt hurts if you fly in it for more than an hour. The seats are really hard.” What an arse.
McLaren F1 (1997)
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“When my first company got bought, I had to decide between buying a house in Palo Alto or a McLaren F1 (best car ever in my opinion),” Musk Tweeted. “Was no contest. I bought the F1 and a small condo that was much cheaper than the car.” Of the 106 McLaren F1s ever made, number 067 was one of only seven imported to the US in 1997 and belonged to one very careless owner, Elon Musk. The three-seater hypercar was capable of 240mph (Elon claimed to have hit 215mph on a private runway) and Musk used his like a company car, often commuting from LA to San Francisco in it. Despite putting 11,000 miles on it, Musk was so confident he wouldn’t be one of those clichéd rich guys that buys a sports car and crashes it, he didn’t even bother getting insurance. Fast forward to 2000 and Musk was heading to an investment meeting with his friend Peter Thiel, when his passenger asked: “So, Elon… what can this thing do?” To which Musk replied: “Watch this.” In the subsequent accident, both men emerged unhurt, but the car sustained some heavy damage.
Fortunately for Musk he had founded a payment company called X.com, that merged with a company called Confinity, that subsequently became PayPal and was bought by eBay in 2002 netting Musk a whopping $165m. Which helped with the F1 repairs and Musk eventually sold the car in 2007… for a profit. “The McLaren is a great car,” Musk said in a 2013 interview. “It’s a work of art, a really beautiful piece of engineering, but I didn’t want people always writing that I have a high-performance gasoline sports car so I decided to sell it.”
Hamman BMW M5 (2006)
BMW-tuning specialist Hamman had its wicked way with an M5 and turned an already fabulous car into a thing of Bavarian wonder. By tinkering and de-limiting the five-litre V10 engine, Hamman was able to boost its output to 603bhp and up the M5’s top speed from a restricted 155mph to a staggering 199mph. Not bad for a four-seater “family” car. It was a car so mad that maybe it helped Musk come up with the idea for the “Ludicrous” mode he introduced for Tesla’s Model S.
Tesla Roadster (2008)
© Dan Tuffs/Shutterstock
In 2008, Tesla finally unveiled their first electric car, the Roadster (aka project Dark Star). Based on the chassis of a Lotus Elise, it used lithium-ion batteries, had a range of 227 miles, could accelerate from nought to 60mph in 3.7 seconds (at the time, that made its acceleration as fast as a Lamborghini Gallardo) and the first lucky owner of a Roadster was… Elon Musk. Musk used it as his daily drive for years, until he finally decided to give it a glorious sendoff. However, rather than advertise it on eBay, Elon had it loaded into his SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, stuck a dummy he named “Starman” in the passenger seat (with “Space Oddity” playing on the stereo), and launched it into space on 6 February 2018. “It’s just going to be out there in deep space for millions, maybe billions of years. Who knows?” Musk said. “Maybe discovered by some alien race that’ll be like, ‘What were they doing? Did they worship this car?’ Why did they have a little car in the car?’” If you are interested, the astro-Tesla even has its own entirely unofficial (and not very good) website charting its journey through space: whereisroadster.com.
Audi Q7 (2010)
Back when Elon had a very large young family (his first wife, Justine, gave birth to twins in 2004 and triplets in 2006), his Tesla company were concentrating on building a two-seater car so the Musks needed something bigger for their brood. He chose what was then one of the world’s most luxurious SUVs, the Audi Q7… and he wasn’t overly impressed (he loved the style, not the substance). When it launched in 2006, it was one of the largest, most refined off-roaders money could buy, but there was one significant problem: even though it had a third row of pop-up chairs (making it a fully-fledged seven-seater), access wasn’t easy. “The Audi Q7 is particularly horrendous,” said Musk. “Even in the best-case scenario, you need to be a dwarf mountain climber to get into the back seat.” With apologies to mountain climbers of any size, but he had a point. He also had a solution. When developing Tesla’s Model X, Musk specified that his SUV should feature falcon wing doors to enable easier access to the back seats, especially in tight parking spaces. So now, whenever Musk travels with the family or small groups of Sherpas, he doesn’t have any problems whatsoever.
Porsche 911 Turbo (2012)
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Musk always had a soft spot for 911s and who can blame him? The iconic and legendary sports car has been refined and perfected for decades and remains one the ultimate driver’s cars. For Musk, though, there was a small niggle with the 911 that he couldn’t quite get over: the gas-guzzling engine. So when Musk met ambitious engineer JB Straubel in 2003 to discuss their ideas for future tech, the topic that grabbed Musk’s attention was that of battery-powered cars. Straubel had been working with Alan Cocconi who had successfully made a prototype e-car (the T-Zero) and Musk was smitten. At first he tried to buy it, but when Cocconi refused, Musk asked him to turn his 911 into an EV. “Put a lithium-ion pack in my car,” Musk begged. “I have a Porsche. You can take the guts out of it and make it an electric. I’d be willing to pay you up to a quarter-million dollars.” Cocconi still wouldn’t bite, but he put Musk in touch with a couple of guys who had an e-car start-up of their own called Tesla. It cost Musk $30m to get involved and the rest is… sorry, we were talking about the Porsche 911, weren’t we. Oh, never mind.
Tesla Model S Performance (2019)
When asked which car he drives the most, Musk admitted it was his Tesla Model S. Described by Top Gear magazine as a “game-changer”, this four-door, five-seat EV is the benchmark for plug-in vehicles and the Performance model comes with “Ludicrous” mode – a launch system that can take the Model S from nought to 62mph in a rectal-worrying time of less than three seconds. But for Musk, the best may still be to come. According to Musk, Tesla is working on a powertrain upgrade that will take Ludicrous mode to the next level… “Plaid“. Nerds will recognise the reference from Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs. We can’t wait for it to arrive so that our brains will finally go to our feet.
Tesla Cybertruck (2020)
The next chapter in the Tesla story is the Cybertruck, Musk’s futuristic EV pick-up that looks like something RoboCop would have driven in 1987… but in a good way. With seating for six, a range of up to 500 miles, a body made of ultra-hard 30x cold-rolled stainless steel and armoured glass that can only be broken if hit by something very hard (at the launch event, a metal ball was hurled at the windscreen, shattering it instantly… much to Musk’s embarrassment), it could be Tesla’s most outlandish vehicle. And for those naysayers who claim the car is just more Elon hype, Musk actually drove the Cybertruck prototype to dinner at Nobu in Malibu late last year, with his partner, Grimes, so it looks like it is really happening. Good news for the 200,000 people who put down $100 deposits for the EV pick-up, and even better news for Tesla who raised $20m in the process.