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With Blowtorches And Spare Parts, Massachusetts Man Fills Tesla's Repair Void05:03
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Rich Benoit reaches inside a damaged Tesla he's working on in his garage. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Rich Benoit reaches inside a damaged Tesla he's working on in his garage. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

When I first met Rich Benoit, a Salem local who's been called the "Dr. Frankenstein of Teslas," it was snowing — hard. He and his car enthusiast friends were outside, taking a blowtorch to some Tesla battery cells they put in a toaster oven.

After the batteries exploded, they'd throw snow on them, and after a loud sizzle, the burnt batteries would still clock in at a few hundred degrees Fahrenheit.

The group was testing a new heat paste. It's fun and all, Benoit said, but they're trying to tackle a serious problem.

"As of late, there's been a lot of unfortunate Tesla fires, whether that be by accidental reasons, manufacturer defects," he said. "We're testing to see what are the things we can do to reduce the likelihood of fires."

In their toaster oven demonstration, it seemed the heat paste could withstand heat longer than the coolant Tesla puts in their batteries.

Benoit's friend Lee Malo administered the blow torch. He owns a European car repair shop in Gloucester, where he and Benoit do these types of experiments.

"And now I'd say we're a community of Rich's friends," he said. "All because of him getting into Tesla and doing a YouTube page."

Benoit's YouTube channel is called Rich Rebuilds, where he chronicles his journey of starting off with irreparable electric vehicles and making them work again. He also shows how Tesla is reluctant to help obtain parts if a car was totaled and taken off of a service list. Benoit said that frustrating reluctance from the company is why his DIY experimentation days are taking a backseat to a more legit endeavor.

He's opening a shop of his own called Electrified Garage, set to launch this spring in New Hampshire with the help of a few ex-Tesla employees. Benoit believes his boutique shop will be able to repair cars faster than Tesla can.

And he might be on to something.

In a conference call with investors in January, Tesla CEO Elon Musk alluded to demand for the electric car outweighing the company's ability to maintain them.

"We made a strategic error in the past, about not having service parts located at our service centers," Musk said. "Which basically meant it was impossible to have a fast turnaround on servicing a car. Even for a simple repair, it could take days."

Benoit said he's aware of even longer wait times.

"You could wait months before your car is fixed," he said. "And I said to myself, 'I'm good at this. I know how to do this. I have a team of guys that know how to do this too.' "

This is all happening without Tesla's explicit blessing. But that doesn't really mean anything to Benoit. He said the purpose of his shop is to fill the void Tesla hasn't.

"Why can't we disrupt their market?" he asked. "Now, we're coming in and saying, 'The small guy can do this as well as you can. Here's an alternative.' "

Benoit's had practice on about 10 Teslas, for which he salvaged workable parts from wreckage. He once took usable parts from the good half of a car in a rear-end collision and parts from the good half of a car in a front-end collision to make a whole working car.

"Over the years, over purchasing so many parts, I have quite the part collection," he said. "So there's no need for me to call Tesla probably ever again."

He takes me into a room behind his garage, which he calls "the lair." There's a three-tier floor-to-ceiling shrine of Tesla parts: AC compressors, batteries, display screens. He has nearly all the parts to make a Tesla Model S from scratch.

Then, Benoit takes me into his Model S — his first restoration.

If you've never been in a Tesla, the car is quiet. There's no engine idle hum. The only thing you can hear is the air conditioning. It's something Benoit said he'll never get used to. He said the car is so quiet he often sneaks up on deer.

"The only sound you hear is nothingness," Benoit said. "It's a weird experience, isn't it? It's kinda weird. This is where the future's going. It's just silence."

Benoit said opening his repair shop isn't about taking on Tesla. Instead, it's about giving people that mystifying feeling he gets when he turns on the engine.

Ultimately, Benoit said, his dream is to have his own electric car company — one that encourages people to repair and modify their own vehicles. But that's for later, in his vision of that silent future.

This segment aired on April 8, 2019.

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Quincy Walters Twitter Reporter
Quincy Walters is a general assignment reporter for WBUR.

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