Meet Tom Gage, the Man Who Could Have Founded Tesla (But Had Other Ideas)

MINI ME: Tom Gage behind the wheel of the Taiwan-built Yulon minivan. (Photo: Jim Motavalli).

Encountered in an Echo Park bistro, Tom Gage looks fit, relaxed, and not at all haunted by the fact that he didn't create the Tesla Roadster (and isn't Elon Musk, for that matter). Instead, he's moving forward, having put the electric drivetrains in BMW's quickly ramped Mini E program (600 cars around the world). Now he's focused on producing cars in China and Taiwan for an Asian market that he thinks might be accelerating faster than that of the U.S.

Gage's San Ditmas, Calif.-based company (founded in 1992) is called AC Propulsion, and its stock in trade is "advanced vehicle technologies," not building and selling cars. Nonetheless, between 1997 and 2003 the company (using a kit car as a base) built three Tzero prototypes, the second of which (featuring 6,800 lightweight lithium-ion batteries) was remarkably similar in concept to what became the Tesla Roadster.

"We wanted to make a car that exemplified high performance, and we did that," Gage said. "But the car we build had made no concessions to manufacturability or safety. We looked at the idea of producing it, but the hand assembly was beyond our capabilities at the time."

The Tzero made some noise for its blistering performance, with 60 mph coming up in just 3.6 seconds. But it wasn't headed for series production. And that's why AC welcomed the idea of licensing the Tzero to people who could take it forward. And that turned out to be Tesla's co-founders, first Martin Eberhard, and then Elon Musk (who had sold PayPal and founded Space X).

"I had approached Elon about investing in the eBox [a converted Scion xB sold by AC Propulsion]," Gage said. "Both Martin and Elon were involved, but Elon put far more money into what became Tesla."

I visited Tesla earlier in the week, and it's grown far beyond its AC beginnings. More on that later. But AC hasn't stood still, either, and Gage pulled up in a Taiwan-built Yulon minivan with AC Inside. Yulon is Taiwan's largest automaker, and it has an agreement to produce cars (including electrics) in a joint venture with mainland China.

Initially, only 50 of the electric minivans will be built. The prototype I built would probably pass European crash standards, Gage said, but not those of the U.S. It has a 100- or maybe 120-mile range. The 41-kilowatt-hour li-ion battery pack are Chinese-sourced, and produce 240 horsepower.

I was able to drive the hilly Echo Park neighborhood at the wheel of the van, which was impressive both in its styling (Honda inspired) and apparent level of fit and finish. Like the Mini E, it had a pronounced regen braking effect, but Gage was able to dial that out. The 240-horsepower in a relatively lightweight van produced really sprightly performance, even on the steep hills. See it here on video:

"Growth is in our plan," Gage said. "We have a factory in Shanghai, which operates as a 100 percent subsidiary of AC Propulsion. And we do think that a lot of our growth could be in the Chinese market, which could be huge for electric vehicles." Other joint ventures with Chinese companies are pending. Gage pointed out that China has overtaken the U.S. in annual car sales, and that discrepancy is likely to grow. "Their growth curve is up," he said.

Gage looks around the growing EV field, and says that Nissan (the Leaf), Toyota (with the RAV4, an upcoming collaboration with Tesla), and General Motors (the Volt) are most likely to succeed. "We built a car like the Volt," he said. "It worked great--most of the time."