But Tesla is no Ford, at least not yet. By the time it went public, Ford had already transformed the automobile industry from production techniques to technology to labor practices. It had flourished to become the world's biggest company, crashed, and risen again.
Tesla is a startup that so far has only lost money. Its $100,000 all-electric roadster is way cool but not exactly a Model T for the masses. Its competition is far better funded than Henry Ford's was.
And yet, the company has created a technology and an aura that caused investors on Tuesday to snap up 13.3 million shares and drive the price $6.89 a share above its $17 initial offering. That whopping 41 percent gain would be impressive anytime, but it was particularly eye-catching on a day when the broader Nasdaq plunged nearly 4 percent.
"The transition to using electricity as the energy source for our cars is just now starting, and Tesla is leading the way," says Paul Scott, vice president of Plug In America, a San Francisco advocacy group working to get plug-in cars into the market.
Tesla, which has sold just over 1,000 of its $109,000 roadsters, expects to begin selling a five-passenger Model S in 2012 for $57,400. With the federal tax credit for electric cars, the car would cost just under $50,000.
An even cheaper model is expected a couple of years later. Will that be enough to compete with Nissan's all-electric $25,000 Leaf (after tax credit) or GM's electric drive Volt (price not finalized), both of which debut later this year?
"There's uncertainty in the entire auto industry," says Bradley Berman, editor of HybridCars.com and PluginCars.com. "Great promise. Everything is moving in this direction [of electric power], but for any particular player there's a lot of risk."