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DETROIT -- Elon Musk is a billionaire, not a rock star, but he was nonetheless mobbed when he met the press at the Detroit Auto Show last week. This is, of course, a glamorous story. A mega-rich young businessman — cofounder of PayPal and whose other enterprise involves space flight — sets out to build the sexy, range-friendly, high-performance sports car they said would never hit the road.

Actually, the very dirty white example on the show floor demonstrated that Teslas are not for display only. Tesla’s loyal employees took turns driving that example from Los Angeles to Detroit (with charging stops at RV parks and people’s houses) and didn’t even get around to washing it.

Tesla Motors has sold 1,000 Roadsters (capable of 0 to 60 in 3.9 seconds) for $109,000, and is poised to expand the company’s reach with the four-door and four-seat $57,400 (with an available $7,500 federal tax break) Model S in 2011. The company sold a 10 percent share to Daimler for $50 million, and also landed a $465 million low-interest loan from the Department of Energy to build production capacity for the Model S.

Musk admitted that 1,000 cars looks “small and humbling” when compared to giant automakers such as General Motors and Toyota, but it is “a huge milestone” for a small EV company, and indeed few others in the last 40 years (since the late 1960s battery-car revival) can claim that kind of volume.

“Sales are doing very well,” Musk told me. “The economy affects us obviously, but we’re comfortable producing the Roadster at levels of 700 to 1,000 annually.”

The half-priced Model S could quickly escalate Tesla’s sales volume, and Musk said it can break even at volumes of 8,000 to 10,000 annually. But the company will have to build them first. The one in existence, once silver and now Tesla red, gleamed on the show stand. Musk assured the press, however, that the car we were looking at is “not a static model, but a real car that’s capable of 100 mph.”

Tesla now has a dozen boutique-type stores in such cities as Los Angeles, London, Seattle, New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. It’s also trying to finalize a plant for the Model S, and Musk fielded some questions from MNN about toxic concerns at a possible brownfield site in Downey, Calif., (which also houses an active Hollywood movie studio). “All environmental questions will be resolved on any site we select,” Musk said. “We’ll do the due diligence.”

Musk hopes that Tesla Roadsters will one day become “collector’s items,” as the company goes on to produce vehicles for the mass market. It has just such a third model in the works, though the company’s chief designer, Franz von Holzhausen, told me that all hands were going full-tilt with the Model S right now. But there are definitely sketches in a notebook somewhere.

“It’s exciting,” Musk said. “We’re building an American brand.”

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