The Tesla Roadster marked the start of the modern electric vehicle revolution. A tiny startup effort to transform the Lotus Elise into something that could prove the concept of battery-powered sports cars yielded what is, today, the world's most valuable car company run by the world's richest man. You might agree, then, that pristine Roadsters don't deserve to be left to rot away in a shipping container on the coast of Shanghai, never to be found for over a decade.  

That’s why Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur Dan O’Dowd took it upon himself to rescue the three lost Roadsters from China—even though he himself is such a critic of some aspects of Tesla's technology, he's paid for Super Bowl ads calling for boycotts of its cars

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The original Tesla Roadster is a collector's item.

The Tesla Roadster heralded a new era of zero-emissions transportation. It proved that electric cars can look gorgeous, travel at blistering speeds, and cover over 200 miles on a single charge. But Tesla only made a couple thousand units, which now makes them quite exclusive.

O’Dowd is the CEO of Green Hills Software, which makes secure operating systems for Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter jets, the Boeing B1-B nuclear bomber, and NASA’s Orion exploration vehicle among others.

Outside the office, he’s busy curating his $380 million coin treasure known as the “Tyrant Collection,” which includes coins dating back to the first century BC. And speaking of tyrants, he even owns a nearly intact tyrannosaurus rex skull, which he displays at his offices. 

2010 Tesla Roadster Dan O'Dowd

When none of these things occupy him, he wages a war against what he claims are pervasive safety issues with Tesla’s Full Self-Driving software. O'Dowd runs The Dawn Project, a consumer advocacy group that for two years in a row has run regional Super Bowl ads showing various clips and experiments that purport to underscore the weaknesses of FSD. (The group has gotten a cease-and-desist letter from Tesla, and also a slap on the wrist from the National Transportation Safety Board.) For the safety tests and his public criticism of FSD—which has its fair share of critics and supporters alike—Tesla CEO Elon Musk once called him “an unpaid intern on our QA team.” 

But that doesn't mean O'Dowd dislikes the cars themselves. Far from it. He owns eight Teslas, including five Roadsters, a 2012 Model S, and two Model 3s.

And more recently, he went out of his way to save a trio of lost, time-capsule Roadsters from a somewhat heartbreaking fate. 

Dan O'Dowd Tesla Roadsters

What Exactly Happened With The Roadsters?

Of the 2,450 Roadsters that Tesla manufactured between 2008 and 2012, about 1,500 are estimated to exist in the U.S. It’s an endangered species, and in a few years, it will be regarded as an automotive time capsule—one that takes you back to the dawn of EVs.

But not all of them have ended up in good situations over the years.

Last year, InsideEVs and several other outlets ran a story about three abandoned Roadsters that were shipped to China in 2010. Gruber Motors, which specializes in repairing Teslas, reported that the original buyer was a Chinese car company’s R&D center.

It was assumed that the three Roadsters were purchased for reverse engineering. But the company went bankrupt, which meant it could no longer disassemble or take care of them.

“There were three cars, but there was also another car which is in parts,” O’Dowd told InsideEVs in an interview. “Part of the story is that the storage charges were not paid [in China]. They were probably impounded for that reason.”

For nearly 12 years after they reached China, the Roadsters went unnoticed. Two of them were painted in the Very Orange color and one came in Radiant Red.

The port office manager who was in charge of the containers passed away, and the keys were lost; new ones were ordered later. The three Roadsters remained unregistered, but when Gruber Motors put them up for auction last year, the initial bid was $2 million for all three cars. But that didn’t go through. Ultimately O’Dowd got his hands on them for about $800,000.

Tesla Roadster China Dan O'Dowd1

“I put a condition that you must deliver them to the U.S. The cars were still in Shanghai. I said I was not going to fight the Chinese government or whoever was in charge to bring them to the U.S.,” O’Dowd said.

When the Chinese company finally shipped them back, Carl Medlock of Medlock and Sons—an independent shop specializing in Tesla repairs—inspected them to ensure everything was in order before O’Dowd committed to buy them.

The two Roadsters O’Dowd bought in 2010 are also painted in Radiant Red, and that brings his Roadster collection alone to five. Besides the two Tesla Model 3s which he purchased for FSD safety testing, a Model S has been his wife’s daily driver for the past 11 years.

It's a bonafide Tesla family—just one that happens to dislike FSD.

Tesla Roadster China Dan O'Dowd4

What Motivated Him?

It may sound incongruent that a guy willing to pay out of pocket to run ads against FSD during the biggest sporting event in America would drive the same cars daily, or go out of his way to save these lost Roadsters. 

O’Dowd has an almost childlike admiration for Tesla's original effort.

“It’s all I’ve driven for the last 13 years," he said in an excited voice. "I like them so much. The most fun part of my day is commuting. I can commute from my house to the office in 10 minutes. But I take the long way home which takes 40 minutes." 

In the late 2000s and early 2010s, the Roadster was a sought-after electric sportscar among Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and the early adopter tech-bro crowd. It became so popular that a few years after its production ended, it turned into a collector's item.

Tesla Roadster China Dan O'Dowd2

It was also never cheap. The original MSRP of the first Roadster was about $98,000. Subsequent model-year cars cost well over $100,000. 

“Every Silicon Valley billionaire had to have one," he said. "I thought this was iconic. Every car collector worth his mettle must have one of these. And it’s a great car. Not a junkie that you wouldn’t want to drive."

He bought two because sometimes one was in a shop for repairs. Eventually, he said, he worries there won’t be any parts available. So having more cars would ensure spare parts to keep at least one or two running.

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“From a collector's point of view, they are in mint condition,” he said. When Medlock and Sons brought them to their workshop, they looked vibrant, but probably needed some basic make-up.

The batteries are naturally dead, they have about 100 miles on the odometers (clocked by Tesla in post-production testing), and there are cracks due to aging on the hood and side panels that you’d expect on a 12-year-old car. 

What’s Next For The Roadsters? 

The rescue operation was successful. But O’Dowd has no plans of immaculately restoring them to their original shiny state.

“If you modify something, it starts losing value, which is why we’re planning to do as little as possible," he said.

One of the orange Roadsters has a small bump on its hood because of how tightly it was packaged inside the container. The bump might get repaired. But O'Dowd could also leave it as it is, depending on where the Roadsters ultimately land. O’Dowd has no plans of driving them; he already has enough Teslas at home for that.

“We’re still thinking about it. That’s the question. What do we do with them? We can lend them to car museums, and request them not to break them,” O’Dowd giggled. “I can put them on display at some other place, but right now, it’s an open question,” he added.

More recently, O’Dowd expressed his love for Roadsters and juxtaposed it with contempt for FSD in a post on X, to which Musk responded with a cryptic question mark. 


Five minutes later, Musk dropped the big news about the new Roadster being a Tesla and SpaceX collaboration. The next Roadster being a rocket science project somewhat intrigued O'Dowd.

“I would probably buy it, but I haven’t put down a deposit because of how long it takes for these projects to be realized,” he said.

Having said that, the three Roadsters from China are finally in safe and secure hands. Their enthusiastic new owner is doing everything he can to ensure that they're immortal. If the car museum plan doesn't go through, the Roadsters might end up at his own home.

“I can put them in my lobby next to Samson, my T-Rex,” he laughed.

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