SALEM — Three years ago, in his driveway in Salem, Rich Benoit rigged some ropes and pulleys and did something that could modestly be described as a bad idea.
He pulled a 1,300-pound, 400-volt battery out of a Tesla that had been underwater.
And then, with no real clue of what he was doing, he opened it and tried to fix it.
“It was terrifying,” Benoit says now.
It was also the beginning of what has become one of the more interesting narratives in these early days of the modern era of the electric car, one that asks and answers a lot of questions and has turned the 36-year-old Benoit — a father of three who works in IT in Boston — into one of its early superstars.
The Tesla that started it all, a Model S that Benoit refers to as Delores, was purchased from a salvage yard after it had been caught in a flood in New Jersey. Benoit had a friend who owned a Model S, and the moment he pulled it into Benoit’s driveway to take him for a ride, Benoit was obsessed. The way it was whisper quiet. The impossible acceleration from zero to I-feel-like-I’m-on-a-roller-coaster-and-about-to-throw-up in an instant. The way he could feel all of the work that went into creating the vehicle, a history of progress that combined to create this feeling of the future.
“It was like a laptop on wheels,” he says. “The perfect mixture of my two things: tech and cars.”
He had to have one, but a new Model S starts at $76,000 and can run as high as $133,000. That wasn’t happening. So he purchased Delores for $14,000, with the idea that he was going to do something no amateur mechanic had done before. He was going to rebuild a Tesla.
“I felt like a trailblazer,” Benoit says of pulling everything in the car apart and figuring out how it worked. “We’re in a society where if you need to know something you Google it, but there was nothing out there, no one who knew how to fix them.”
It was the ultimate DIY project, with no guidance from Tesla. Benoit says the company skirts the state’s Right to Repair Initiative, which was passed by voters in 2012 and requires manufacturers to allow vehicle owners access to the same diagnostic and repair information made available to dealerships and authorized repair centers. “They get away with this because they don’t have any dealerships,” Benoit says. “You order your car online.”
Undeterred, Benoit stripped the car, tore out all of the ruined electronics, and pried out the seats, which had rusted in place, thanks to the saltwater. Then he contacted Tesla to order the parts he needed for the rebuild, and it was here that Benoit hit another obstacle, one that would define the arc of his story:
Tesla does not want anyone working on its cars besides Tesla, and it refused to sell Benoit the parts he wanted.
A Tesla representative, in a statement to the Globe, said “there are significant safety concerns when salvaged Teslas are repaired improperly or when Tesla parts are used outside of their original design intent, as these vehicles could pose a danger to both the mechanic and other drivers on the road.”
Benoit says he understands their point. He also believes that people should have a right to repair things they own. “That’s when I decided that the same thing that got me into this mess was going to get me out of it,” he says.
Benoit found another Model S that had been totaled in a collision but whose electronics and batteries were still good, bought it for a little more than he’d paid for Delores, and began the long process of turning two broken vehicles into one good one, figuring everything out as he went along and posting videos on a YouTube channel he’d created, Rich Rebuilds, to log his progress. The videos would sometimes get a few hundred views.
After more than a year of tinkering and of challenge after challenge, Benoit had proudly restored Delores nearly back to showroom quality, and in video #61, she passed state inspection.
Six days later, he posted video #62, in which he told the long story that answered the question everyone wanted to know: How much did this thing end up costing? The answer was $6,500 (after selling off a bunch of duplicate parts, including the entire shell of the second car).
“I gave the video the title ‘World’s Cheapest Tesla,’ and in the snap of a finger it had a million views,” he says.
Rich Rebuilds now has 423,000 subscribers on YouTube, and his ongoing video series, in which he continues to document his DIY work on Delores and other rebuilds, is approaching 40 million views. He still drives Delores and has worked on other rebuilds, but he spends most of his tinkering time helping other Tesla owners who don’t want to deal with, or wait for, Tesla. There have been complaints of long lines at the limited number of service centers — there are just two in Massachusetts, in Watertown and Dedham — and reports of parts shortages. The company, which has acknowledged these issues, recently announced it would be increasing its investment in its service system.
Which brings us to the next step in Benoit’s story: He is preparing to open the first repair shop on the East Coast dedicated to electric vehicles, with the goal of servicing vehicles while teaching owners how to care for the cars themselves. The shop is under construction in Seabrook, N.H., and he has enlisted a former Tesla mechanic to join him.
It has been a long, complicated, strange trip since he opened that waterlogged battery, wondering if he was about to electrocute himself. And despite all of the ups and downs, he insists he is not at war with Tesla. “Maybe I was for a few weeks after they wouldn’t sell me the parts,” he says. No, this is a love story, of how a man who says he has gas in his veins decided to go electric.
“I’ve always been a car guy. I’ve got a Corvette. I’ve got a truck. I’ve got a racecar. I’m not some tree-hugger,” he says. “But after driving [Delores] around every day, it has made me think this is how a car should be. I don’t get a strange feeling driving the Tesla anymore. I get it when I get back into a car powered by gasoline.”