From the September 2020 issue of Car and Driver by Andrew Lawrence.
Six years ago, Rich Benoit was an unrepentant petrol head who had just taken delivery of his dream ride. He felt secure with that purchase—an unblemished second-hand Chevrolet Corvette Z06—up until his buddy Chad Hrencecin called from a new job at a Tesla service center and bragged, "I have a car that'll blow yours out of the water." Benoit was converted the instant the go pedal pinned him to the seat in that Model S and then blown away all over again after learning the EV's six-figure price. A proud cheapskate and hoarder, Benoit figured there had to be a deep discount out there somewhere. He never imagined his bargain quest would lead him down a rabbit hole too deep to climb out of.
Today, the 37-year-old father of three doesn't just drive a Tesla. He drives a Model S built with his own two hands—a sleek P85+ Frankensteinian monster cobbled together from salvaged cars inside a drafty two-bay garage underneath his Salem, Massachusetts, home. A career IT expert, Benoit has no formal training in auto repair or electrical engineering. He had fixed up only one car before undertaking that maiden Tesla resurrection in 2016. And yet, when he was through, Benoit didn't hesitate to sell the family minivan and foist the refurbished rig on his wife for daily duty.
Many projects later, Benoit—better known as Rich Rebuilds to his 770,000-odd YouTube subscribers—is one of the most prominent voices among EV enthusiasts; he's the one who single-handedly turned junked Teslas into a seller's market. (The first Model S shell he rescued from an auction yard for $14,000 would fetch about two times that now.) He clings to this reputation despite betraying less passion for sustainability than for the freedom to repair and repurpose Tesla products.
You see, you can buy a Tesla, but you'll struggle to break free of the company's orbit even after you've handed over your money. The company owns the retail and repair channels, and it controls sales of many parts as if they were state secrets. With its ability to monitor and update vehicles over the air, Tesla can extend and shorten a car's battery range, cut off its access to the Supercharger network, and learn of its behavior in fatal wrecks to deflect blame from the company, all without ever touching or seeing the car.
Benoit's first Tesla rebuild began as a cheap way to own an expensive car, but he quickly ran into roadblocks set up by the world's most possessive car company. It was purely an accident that he became the loudest voice and most visible resource for Tesla owners fighting for the right to service their cars outside of the company's repair centers. "When people used to say, 'You're very influential,' I never really got how," Benoit says. "I'm not a mechanic. I can't weld. But now I appreciate that it's part of the charm."
Benoit got into the teardown arts at age seven, deconstructing fake Rolexes that his electrical engineer father brought back from business trips to Asia, a pricey toy submarine, and even the fancy hi-fi that gleamed from the living room like the sword in the stone. His mother, Lisa Jones, tells us: "He was always saying he could fix things. When he was about eight, he told my sister he could fix her VCR. Well, he pulled it apart, put it back together, and had parts left over. And everything was under his bed. He puts everything that he can't figure out under his bed."
When Benoit wasn't dismantling the wiring in his mom's Geo Metro and leaving her stranded in the driveway, he was moving the Metro around the driveway, "practicing how to reverse," as the 11-year-old explained it to his stunned parents at the time. But even with the benefit of trial and error and, in time, access to Dad's raft of specialty tools, Benoit was far more tentative about tinkering with his first car, a 2004 Dodge SRT-4. He stopped at painting the valve cover and replacing the air intake.
Then a wrecked Honda CBR600RR motorcycle caught his eye. After replacing the plastics and exhaust, he told himself, "I could go bigger." He plunked down $14,000 on a Chrysler 300C SRT8 that had been crumpled from a front-end collision and quickly found himself in over his head. "I had no idea what—what's a radiator?" he says. Operating without a service manual, Benoit took a few years to work through his ignorance and, later, celebrated his breakthrough with a fresh coat of silver paint and 20-inch rims.
Finally, in 2014, he sold the 300C and applied the proceeds toward that Z06. Then Hrencecin came by with that unforgettable Model S. Before he knew it, Benoit was bidding on a flood-damaged, fish-laden Model S shell he would name Dolores.
He assumed the project would be a cinch without any of the usual gasoline bits and bobs to get in the way. "It was probably the dumbest, best decision I ever made," he says. Wearing lineman gloves, Benoit broke down the car with electrically isolated tools bought after he consulted the car's emergency response guide to dealing with high voltage. The more he dismantled the Tesla, though, the more a sense of unease blanketed him like one of his trademark hoodies.
Tesla wasn't any help. Until September 2018, the company stonewalled salvage owners, citing the considerable risk of electrocution. Benoit took photos and video to document the process, and he turned to the Tesla Motors Club message board in hopes of receiving support from enthusiasts. "No one knew I'm Black," says Benoit, who used an avatar of a grizzled and cautious-smiling white man—the guy from a meme called Hide the Pain Harold. "But in one photo or video, I think my hand was visible on the fringe. It set off a frenzy. Mods had to jump in and delete stuff after someone made a racist comment." It was just a small taste of what internet fame would bring.
Benoit started posting videos to YouTube only after running out of storage space on his phone. His first upload was a six-second clip of him dumping out a dehumidifier tank full of the water that had once saturated his Tesla's cabin. He never expected people would actually watch the digital bread crumbs of a madman's assembly process. When he discovered, to his horror, that his Model S had in fact been dredged out of saltwater, a not-insignificant number of his viewers clamored for him to throw in the towel. But he couldn't take any of the negativity to heart. His friends and family—his wife, in particular—were rooting for him. And then a month after that first YouTube upload, Google mailed him a check for $100. "I couldn't believe this new world," Benoit says.
So he doubled down, shelling out $14,500 for a second wrecked Tesla (name: Slim Shady) that donated its interior and drivetrain components to Dolores. He charmed resellers into telling him Model S VINs and corresponding owner names and then tried to use that info to buy parts from Tesla. Service reps quickly saw through this hustle and cut him off per the company's policy at the time forbidding sales to salvage owners. "It wasn't anything personal," says Chris Salvo, one of those obstinate techs. "There was nothing I could do." Undeterred, Benoit used the address history in Slim Shady's nav system to track down the previous owner, who sold him the key fob he needed to operate the car.
YouTube viewers found themselves won over by Benoit's mordant wit, wild tangents, and overall willingness to poke fun at himself. To that last point, whenever he fails at something, Benoit underscores his defeat with a snippet of himself or his teenage daughter struggle-playing sappy classics on a recorder. "It's just something that I find absolutely hilarious," he cracks.
Videos aside, Benoit reckons he clocked at least 500 hours of labor over the course of six months on that first Tesla. The result was a red-trimmed, roof-racked, black-on-black beast that, to the untrained eye, seemed as if it were delivered from the factory by way of a custom garage. Today Dolores wears a matte-gray wrap, an updated front fascia, and shimmering black Vorsteiner 21-inch wheels. And when Benoit took the car for a glide around Salem, he looked for all the world like the proudest father there ever was. "It's such a wild experience, building this damn car," he says. "I'd put it in a museum."
Were he to do that, Dolores's exhibit caption would have to read: "Likely the least expensive running Tesla in 2020." After stripping the cars and selling off the parts—the bulk of which were stored in the basement, not under the bed—Benoit puts the net cost of his Tesla at $6500. Granted, that doesn't include all the labor he put into the thing, but he considers that hobby time.
Not surprisingly, this bargain build spurred Benoit to take on even more ambitious projects: He upgraded another Model S from 75D to P100D Ludicrous spec. He took a $60,000 bath on a flooded Model X before purchasing a certified pre-owned one to reprieve Dolores from family-hauling duty. Then he surprised his viewers by purchasing a squashed BMW i8 off a Long Island yard for $28,000 and had it back on the road in three days with another $6600 in labor and parts. (Turns out, when you call BMW for support, all it asks is, "Cash or card?")
As Benoit's projects and online demands increased, his honey-do list got longer and his vacation days ran dry. When he received an invite to appear on Joe Rogan's insanely popular podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, his boss refused to give him any more time off, so Benoit quit. Soon after, he was in Rogan's L.A. studio, sitting in the same seat where a joint-puffing Elon Musk put his government security clearances at risk seven months earlier. The week before that, Benoit was in San Francisco helping a YouTuber named Simone Giertz convert a factory-fresh Model 3 into an electric El Camino called Truckla. When the video documenting that transformation went viral, it just further confirmed to Benoit that he was on the right path. "I knew that I'd be making less on YouTube than in IT, but I didn't care," he says. "I also have a rental property that I now have to, like, call people to fix stuff. That used to interest me. No longer. Now that I have all these projects and I'm making badass shit, I'm in a weird place where my work is also what I love."
Tesla can't be too thrilled with Benoit. Unlike the many Tesla zealots on YouTube, Benoit doesn't drink or serve the company Kool-Aid. He has wrenched on enough of the brand's cars to know what doesn't work and why, and he isn't scared to call out Tesla for, say, engineering its infotainment display with a flash chip that's doomed to fail from overuse and brick the system. (Tesla now offers a $2500 infotainment upgrade with more reliable hardware for owners of early cars.) Nor is Benoit shy about criticizing Tesla for keeping select parts from third-party mechanics and weekend wrenchers, particularly considering that its service centers are overburdened as it is. As more out-of-warranty cars hit the used market, the problem seems likely to get worse. Massachusetts has just three Tesla service centers, all within the Boston area (which has some 15,000 Tesla drivers alone). That leaves "the hill people" (Benoit's words) outside the metro area to fend for themselves.
Benoit derives a lot of the courage in his convictions from Massachusetts's Right to Repair law—a pioneering 2013 statute that requires manufacturers to give vehicle owners and independent shops the same access to tools and repair documentation as dealers. But Tesla isn't held to the same standard, as the law was framed around the access franchised dealers receive, and Tesla owns its service centers. A bill in the legislature and a ballot measure up for a vote this November could change that. If either passes, any manufacturer selling vehicles in Massachusetts will have to provide owners with direct access to all diagnostic information that their car transmits wirelessly. Armed with that information, consumers will have more power to take their cars to third-party shops or make repairs themselves.
In the meantime, Benoit is stepping up his commitment to the cause. Last summer, he opened a proper EV repair shop with Hrencecin, the buddy who arranged Benoit's fateful first test drive, and Salvo, the former Tesla service tech. They built a two-bay 1000-square-foot shop in the backyard of Salvo's stepdad's New Hampshire home and called it the Electrified Garage. Bringing a combined 14 years' worth of experience, Salvo and Hrencecin run the shop and tackle repairs while Benoit handles PR. The partners had hoped to finance the shop's construction through a crowdfunding campaign. "We thought, Rich has 300,000 followers, so if everyone gives us a buck, we'll be in good shape," Salvo says. But when that effort netted only $13,000, Benoit invested his six-figure YouTube profits to launch the business. Since its grand opening in June 2019, the Electrified Garage has been booked solid. During the coronavirus quarantine, they retrofitted municipal vehicles from Austin, Texas, with aftermarket hybrid systems. Before that, a customer had towed a salvaged Tesla there from Mexico.
While it would be nice if this plucky business grew into a "nonevil Jiffy Lube," as Benoit says, he isn't in it for the potential IPO. "I mean, if I can make some of my money back later, that'd be cool," he says. "And I dropped an insane amount of money on that shop. But I did it because I wanted to build something." That something is a place that not only does good work but also educates owners and other mechanics to make that work more accessible—the kind of place Tesla doesn't want to exist.
One of the perks of partnering with the Electrified Garage is being able to roll Dolores onto the lift for a checkup. Every time Salvo and Hrencecin inspect the car, they discover something: rat damage, wrong bolts, a missing HEPA filter. "He was missing some bolts that hold the battery into the car," says Salvo, noting Benoit's habit for keeping Dolores's seams "finger loose." "Thankfully, there are, like, 40, so missing a few isn't the end of the world," he says. "Honestly, I don't know how he managed to build the car on the ground by himself. We call him a cat. He should've been dead nine times over at this point."
It all makes for primo YouTube content and a devoted, if eccentric, demographic of mostly white, mostly male viewers. "I'd love to reach more African Americans," Benoit says, "but I'm not sure how." If there's a downside, it's that the "fan mail" can be disturbing. There are the racist comments, of course. And then there was that one time he had to call the cops after a package arrived at his home containing a stillborn Great Dane puppy in a jar of formaldehyde. As he does with most things, he brushed that off.
Really, Benoit could not appear to be having more fun taking Tesla cars apart and Tesla corporate to task. That's not to say the empire never strikes back. In February, Benoit found his Supercharger access cut off in a broader crackdown on salvage-car owners. Tesla also booted him from its customer-referral program with an email that said, "We believe the actions you have taken on your YouTube channel are in bad faith toward the company and contrary to the intent of the program."
He has begun to drift away from straight rebuilds to Top Gear–style skunkworks. He's especially proud of a sharp-edged ATV that takes design cues from the Tesla Cybertruck. He converted a Chevy Spark EV into a pizza-delivery car complete with a warming oven. The BMW i8 video, which has about 1.8 million views as of press time, suggests he may be onto something. "Remember: I'm a car enthusiast, not an EV enthusiast," Benoit says.
He feels like he could do more, be more—like a standup comedian or an action star, the kind of entertainer who he describes as "insanely overpaid and underdelivers on everything." As amusing as it is to imagine Benoit mailing in a scene with the Rock in a future Fast & Furious installment, remember that his Tesla tinkering started as a goof. There's nothing in the script that says he couldn't go bigger. Rebuilding, after all, is what he does best.