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Sid Bharadwaj, the first buyer in line at Tesla Motors' Bellevue Square store, has his selfie taken after putting down a $1,000 deposit for a Model 3 electric car. (Credit: Sid Bharadwaj / Tesla Motors)
Sid Bharadwaj, the first buyer in line at Tesla Motors’ Bellevue Square store, has his picture taken after putting down a $1,000 deposit for a Model 3 electric car. (Credit: Sid Bharadwaj / Tesla Motors)

BELLEVUE, Wash. – As the clock counted down to the big reveal for the Tesla Model 3 electric sedan, would-be buyers lined up by the hundreds today to put down a deposit, sight unseen.

The phenomenon was reminiscent of the hullabaloo that typically accompanies Apple’s launch of a new iPhone.

The Model 3 is way more expensive than an iPhone: List price, before tax incentives, is expected to be around $35,000. But that’s low for a Tesla, and that’s the point. All those folks who have been salivating over a $70,000 Model S sedan or an $80,000 Model X SUV are finally seeing something in a lower price range.

“Here we go!” a Tesla Motors employee shouted as the doors opened at 9:30 a.m. PT at the automaker’s store in Bellevue Square.

The first in line was Sid Bharadwaj, a public utility district worker who said he showed up at the mall at 4 a.m. to get a good place. Boeing engineer Bill Koch was right behind him.

Koch wanted to make sure he got in on the tax incentives for buying an electric car. “You want to be up high as high on the list as you can,” he told GeekWire.

But Bharadwaj said it wasn’t all about the money. “Most important, we have to support electric cars,” he said.

Others in line agreed. “When we have children, or grandchildren, we can say we were one of the first people there,” said Hareesh Gottipati, a Microsoft database engineer.

Tesla buyers
Would-be buyers line up in front of Tesla Motors’ store at Bellevue Square. (GeekWire photo by Alan Boyle)
Waiting for Tesla
Minutes before the doors opened at Tesla Motors’ Bellevue Square store, Jeana Kim took her place at the end of the line. Buyers continued to arrive. (GeekWire photo by Alan Boyle)

More than 500 places back, Seattle attorney Jeana Kim waited her turn.

“I’ve got two hours here,” she said. “I’ll see how quickly things move, and if I can’t see the store by then, I’ll just go to work.”

Similarly long lines were reported elsewhere, with some hard-core fans camping out overnight. The Seattle Times said the queue stretched for three blocks at Tesla’s South Lake Union location in Seattle, and the lines looked even longer at locales like Century City, Calif., where Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk paid a visit:

Musk has joked that he wanted to name the company’s latest offering the Model E, so that Tesla’s lines would spell out S-E-X. But Ford holds the rights to use the Model E moniker, so Model 3 was the next best thing. (In Tesla’s logo, the 3 looks like a III on its side, which comes teasingly close to an “E.”)

It can be argued that sex is all about the reveal, and that’s where Musk is a master: Details about the Model 3, including photos of the production model, have been held back until a webcast at 8:30 p.m. PT.

Even then, not everything will be revealed as it will be when the car goes into production in late 2017. Musk made that clear on the eve of unveiling:

The four-door electric sedan is said to get about 200 miles to a charge. To bring the cost down to the $35,000 range, it’s likely to be smaller and simpler than the Model S. But it’s expected to boast the under-the-hood software smarts that have become one of Tesla’s trademark moves.

At least that’s what the folks who waited in line were expecting. Tesla is taking reservations at its stores around the world for a refundable deposit of $1,000. Online sales begin when the unveiling gets under way at 8:30 p.m. Current Tesla owners get a priority on the list, then in-person signups, then the online buyers.

The process went quickly for the first buyers in Bellevue. Bharadwaj used his credit card to put down one deposit for himself, and another for a co-worker who couldn’t make the 4 a.m. roll call. Another couple, Jerome and Lauren Rodica of Mill Creek, Wash., zoomed through the process and had their picture taken in just a few minutes.

“We made history!” Lauren said afterward.

“Hopefully we’ll get it quickly and enjoy the ride,” Jerome said.

The Rodicas realize they won’t get the car overnight. Tesla’s target time frame of late 2017 for the start of production suggests that the first cars may not be delivered until 2018. Deliveries will begin on the West Coast and work their way eastward. For details, check Tesla’s website. And if the schedule shifts to the right, don’t complain too loudly.

Tesla is counting on strong advance sales to help the company reach profitability, more than a decade after its founding. The move should expand Tesla’s market from luxury cars toward the range of the electric-car spectrum where you find offerings such as the Chevy Volt, Ford Focus Electric and Nissan Leaf.

Among the enticements are the tax incentives for electric cars – but there’s a catch: The full federal tax credit of $7,500 applies only to the first 200,000 cars from a given manufacturer. After that, the tax rules start phasing out the credit. That’s why Koch was so keen to be in line early.

If the Model 3 is as successful as Tesla hopes, the economic calculations behind the purchase may become less attractive than they are now. But buying a Tesla has never been purely about the economic calculations, has it?

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