Payne: To Hell (and Ohio) and back to pick up my Tesla Model 3

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Each step in my 31-month journey to buy a Tesla Model 3 has been an adventure. Delivery was no different.

Henry Payne deposited $1,000, along with 450,000 other customers, to get a first-row seat to the production of the first volume vehicle in the first viable auto startup in a lifetime. Payne's RWD, Obsidian Black Tesla Model 3 with 19-inch wheels and semi-autonomy cost $57,450 plus a $1,000 reservation order plus $2,500 down payment to configure. Total cost = $60,950.

Since configuring my car June 26 online, I waited through four months, multiple delivery date changes, an extra 30-day delay, and CEO Elon Musk smoking weed in a radio interview. Then I saddled up a 3-ton Nissan Armada rental mule to travel 200 miles to Cleveland to pick up a car Lansing bans from sale in Michigan.

"Delivery logistics hell," Musk calls it. Yet, waiting on the other side of the River Styx (well, Lake Erie) was a stunning, athletic Model 3 electric vehicle that is still the most fascinating car on sale today.

In April, 2016, I put down my $1,000 deposit along with 450,000 other customers to get a first-row seat to the production of the first volume vehicle in the first viable auto startup in my lifetime. Detroit News readers have been with me every step of the way.

I'm no eco-geek, but a race car-driving, gas-guzzling motorhead with multiple cars in his garage and a need for speed. When Musk introduced the 3, I coveted it as I have desired BMWs, Fords, and Porsches. And as a journalist, I was also intrigued by an entrepreneur that is the early 21st century's Henry Ford: driven, visionary, controversial.

Musk is also like other West Coast tech geniuses — Amazon's Bezos, Uber's Kalanick, Facebook's Zuckerberg — in redefining industries. But he is most like Apple's Steve Jobs in taking a fresh design approach to product. In this case, the car.

Henry Payne deposited $1,000, along with 450,000 other customers, to get a first-row seat to the production of the first volume vehicle in the first viable auto startup in a lifetime.

Deluged with more orders for the 3 than BMW sells across 14 model lines in a year, Tesla was not only promising a competitive luxury player in 18 months — but assembling it for delivery through its own, nascent dealer network. Dude, that's a tall order.

The fires of Tesla "production hell" — missed deadlines, problematic build quality, manufacturing tents — have been well documented. Delivery hell, where customers like me interact with Tesla, is a more variable climate.

After configuring my rear-wheel-drive, Obsidian Black-with-19-inch-wheels Model 3 in June, Tesla predicted the car would arrive between September and November. I was optimistic, however — based on deliveries to Michigan friends — that it could arrive in less than a month.

Six weeks crawled by. 

The signature, spare, Apple-like design of the Tesla Model 3 helps make it the most intriguing car on market today.

I called Las Vegas — Tesla dispatch central — on Aug. 8 for an update. Dispatch told me they had been deluged by orders at the end of July as Tesla ended free, LTE cell service. The new cost? $100 a year. Proof that even folks paying $50K for a car smell a deal.

But other smells were sowing concern. On Aug. 7, Musk tweeted in apparent violation of SEC rules that he was taking the company private. Tesla forums brimmed with customer tales of delivery dates gone awry. Tesla HQ was a revolving door of executive departures. Then Musk stunk up the joint (pun intended) in September with a pot-fueled interview.

Not the kind of news that inspires confidence in customers holding $50,000 luxury car orders. On Sept. 17, the call (well, text) finally came from Vegas:

Hey, Henry, this is Jackie from Tesla. I am reaching out about your Model 3 order. I am able to offer you delivery as soon as this month. Can I schedule you for September 27th?

That proved optimistic, too. After some delivery date ping-pong, my pick-up was pushed back to Oct. 26. A Tesla contractor told me the company's rush to meet third-quarter (Sept. 30) profit deadlines had jammed the pipelines.

In Jersey Oct. 18 for my son's wedding, I got a call from Robert at Tesla Cleveland. Can you pick up your car Monday the 22nd? I would be there, with insurance and the $57,450 balance in hand.

What happened to the promised, $35,000, affordable Model 3? It won't be delivered until early next year — assuming customers still want it after the federal $7,500 tax credit runs out this winter.

As chaotic as delivery hell was, the Tesla dealer process is a model of efficiency.

Tesla handed me the keys to a gratis Enterprise rental to make the one-way trek to Lyndhurst (outside Cleveland) to pick up the future of sustainable transportation. My ride? An ironic, ginormous Nissan Armada SUV. Half-a-tank of gas. Range: 200-something. Gas infrastructure everywhere. I made it in three hours flat.

Since Tesla dealers are factory stores, the dealer process is a formality. All cars on the lot are spoken for — delivered to customer spec. No haggling. Indeed, to help with the flood of September deliveries, the Cleveland store brought in existing Tesla owners to help with vehicle check out.

My salesman spent his time explaining the spaceship's tech-tastic features to me — automatic lane change, streaming audio services, regenerative braking, voice commands. We went over every inch of the car including build defects (Tesla quality still lags).

Before I rocketed home on 307 pound feet of electric torque, Tesla topped up the battery with 300 miles of range. Unlike the Armada, charging infrastructure for the 3 is spare.

Cooling my heels in the waiting room, I talked with another Tesla owner. He had first approached a Chevy dealer about buying a Bolt EV. The lot was littered with Bolts, but he said the salespeople were light on details and wouldn't negotiate price.

Frustrated, he sought out Tesla online and placed his order. "It's been a fantastic journey," he said. 

Detroit News auto critic Henry Payne charts his path back home from the Cleveland-Lyndhurst Tesla dealer in his new Model 3. The Model 3 is controlled from a large, 12-inch console screen.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.