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Elon Musk — to put it mildly — is a polarizing person. He has garnered plenty of negative attention with his Twitter takeover and renaming the social media site to “X.” Also, seemingly every week, Musk gets into an online fight with someone. Given his controversies, it can be easy to forget how he rose to fame and gained much of his massive wealth: becoming CEO of the electric car company Tesla. So, how did Tesla get its name? It’s a weird story.

The strange story of how Elon Musk and Tesla got the rights to the EV maker’s name

Elon Musk standing near Tesla vehicle, showing how customers cancel orders due to his Twitter drama
Elon Musk | Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images

Some might think Elon Musk came up with the name “Tesla” for the company, founded in 2003. The name is strongly associated with not only Musk but also the EV industry. Though most other automakers now offer electric vehicles, Tesla still dominates the market. 

However, the mercurial multibillionaire didn’t come up with the Tesla name himself. In addition, Musk and the company initially didn’t own the rights to the name. They had to go to unusual lengths to get it from someone who already owned the rights. 

Musk sent the ‘nicest guy’ at Tesla to charm the rights-holder into selling the name

In December 2018, Elon Musk shared the surprising story of how he and Tesla Motors got the EV maker’s name.

“We didn’t actually come up with the name ‘Tesla Motors.’ We didn’t own the name. A guy in Sacramento came up with the name and owned the name. And we had to buy it off him for $75,000,” Musk told journalist Lesley Stahl in a 60 Minutes interview.

Though Musk earned most of his wealth from Tesla, in the automaker’s early days, he was already wealthy from co-founding and selling his stake in the financial services company PayPal. So, paying $75,000 was only a tiny bump in the road to buying the rights to the name “Tesla.” 

However, doing so proved quite challenging, for the Sacramento man initially hesitated to sell the rights. “He really didn’t want to sell us the name,” Musk explained.

However, Musk employed a unique charm offensive to persuade the Sacramento man to change his mind: “I sent to the nicest guy at the company to just sit on his doorstep and not leave until he agreed to sell it to us.” He added, “The nicest, impossible-to-anger, nicest person.”

The unusual strategy was successful: “So, the guy said, ‘Fine, I’ll sell you the name.'”

Thus, the company bought the rights to the name, and Tesla would help transform the automotive industry by kicking off the EV revolution

Tesla Motors’ name is a tribute to Nikola Tesla

“Tesla” isn’t just a cool-sounding name picked randomly. It’s a nod to Nikola Tesla, the Serbian-American inventor and electrical engineer. Nikola Tesla had many innovations, but he’s best known for inventing the alternating current (AC) electricity supply system. Given Nikola Tesla’s importance in developing modern electricity technology, “Tesla Motors” is a fitting name. 

Also, a common question regarding the entrepreneur and inventor is, “Are Elon Musk and Nikola Tesla related?” The answer is no, they are not related. Contrary to rumors, Nikola Tesla is not Musk’s great-great-grandfather. However, Musk admires his work — and rightfully so. Born in 1856 in Croatia, Tesla made a significant impact on the world of electricity. Despite dying in poverty in 1943, his name lives on through the pioneering car company Tesla Motors.