What comes to mind when you think of a drive-in? Maybe it’s a memory of sitting in your parents’ car, nodding off in the backseat during a mediocre film about talking hamsters? Perhaps trips to the drive-in became a pandemic habit? Or maybe, upon hearing the word drive-in, you immediately think of the Grease fantasy. You know, the worlds of Stand By Me, Back to the Future, and Happy Days.
A made-up, middle-class white America where the lawns are green, the poodle skirts are long, capitalism works for everyone, changing yourself to fit in makes people happy, Elvis’s pelvis is the greatest threat to the country’s way of life, and everyone worth speaking about is possessed of the ultimate symbol of American freedom: their very own car.
The reality of the 1950s was rife with Cold War anxiety, the near collapse of the IRS, civil rights activism and its often-violent blowback, government-sponsored mind control experiments, and plenty of crazy cool, politically radical beatniks dressed in black turtlenecks and berets. But nostalgia is a funny thing, and rose-colored glasses are easier to wear than ones with an accurate prescription for the world. That being said, these restaurants and theaters really were egalitarian hangouts where people of all economic backgrounds could stop for a milkshake or a science fiction double feature before getting back on their drive down the Great American Highway. There’s a reason they’ve endured as a symbol of good clean American fun.
It’s ironic, then, that the richest man in the world would decide that 2022, a time when only 50% of US adults are likely to make more than their parents, is the right moment to open a drive-in movie theater and diner complete with carhops on roller skates. And yet, Elon Musk, ever attempting to be the main character, intends to do just that. It will not come as a surprise that he tweeted about the idea.
In 2018, long before the drive-in theater resurgence brought on by the pandemic, Musk wrote: “Gonna put an old school drive-in, roller skates & rock restaurant at one of the new Tesla Supercharger locations in LA.” Four years later, that restaurant is becoming a reality.
On May 19 of this year, Electrek reported that Tesla had filed trademark applications to use its branding at a retro-futuristic rest stop and submitted ambitious plans to the city of Los Angeles. Musk is taking over what is now a Shakey’s Pizza on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, planning to demolish it and build a two-story, 24-hour, 9,300 square foot Tesla-branded Supercharger diner with a drive-in theater and a rooftop bar. It’s worth noting that he has claimed this before, applying for permits for a previous iteration of the diner in the city of Santa Monica in March of 2018, but this time, the project appears to be much further along.
Once it’s open, the drive-in will host over 200 patrons at a time, and they’ll have the chance to visit a Jetson’s-esque hybrid indoor/outdoor restaurant with booths, barstools, and vaguely midcentury-modern architecture. They’ll charge their cars at one of the 34 on-site charging stations. Surrounded by dense bamboo landscape screens to close it off from the street, the drive-in theater’s two screens will show 30-minute short features designed to last about as long as a meal and a full charge, according to its building permit application. George Blakenship, Tesla’s former vice president of store design and development, described it in Forbes as a “‘food truck’ with a Cybertruck design. Think diner with a ‘Spaceballs Plaid’ interior.”
Plus, Musk said that if you’re driving a Tesla when you visit—why wouldn’t you be—you will automatically receive the menu on the touchscreen in your car.
Several factors align for the self-styled “real-life Tony Stark” to make his move into the restaurant space: his brother Kimbal Musk runs a restaurant group that seems poised to operate the diner, charging an EV takes longer than filling up a gas tank, and many of Tesla’s charging stations already include convenience stores. There’s even one in Germany that has a swimming pool.
To be clear, though, Elon Musk is not opening this restaurant because he’s genuinely interested in serving food. Elon Musk does not care about food. The billionaire who has won the unofficial Worst Member of the .1% Award time and again has gone on record in the past saying that if he could not eat, he would do just that. Musk once apologized for eating during an interview with Esquire, and the reporter commented that, “although he eats hungrily, he never succeeds in making his food look appetizing. On his white plate is a turkey leg, a sad bouquet of broccoli, a mound of black beans, and he eats them like an astronaut might eat his rations, with an air of hurried functionality.” Musk even claims to have challenged himself to spend a dollar a day on food when he was a teenager. As his ex-girlfriend Grimes put it, “Bro does not live like a billionaire.”
Musk cares about the fantasy, the fun, the flashy “look at me” of it all.
The CEO, who was fascinated with America long before he ever lived here, has made it clear that while the Tesla drive-in will look “futuristic,” it will come with a dash or two of the vibes that Vincent Vega endures while eating inside a stylized car at Jackrabbit Slim’s in Pulp Fiction. Think “wax museum with a pulse.” I wouldn’t put it past Elon to dress his waitstaff like Marilyn Monroe.
By projecting a 1950s aesthetic, and thus the period’s implied values, into the future, Musk is showing his hand. Because if Elon Musk is tapping into a rose-colored past by opening this nostalgia-laden sci-fi diner, how imaginary is his vision of the future?
If he’s to be believed, all of his current companies are philanthropic efforts that just so happen to make him astronomically wealthy. But a quick assessment of the facts calls this idea into question.
Musk is an exploitative force. Over 500 Tesla and SpaceX employees have contracted COVID-19 while on the job since 2020. Thousands of current and former Tesla employees are suing for back pay over alleged labor law violations. Ex-factory workers have described Tesla’s plants as “modern-day sweatshops” rife with underreported injuries. The company is currently facing several lawsuits from employees and investors alike alleging a toxic work environment, racial discrimination, and sexual harassment.
But it doesn’t stop there. Because in Musk’s vision of the future, problems with solutions that already exist will be solved by him, with exciting “new” technologies.
Elon Musk hates sitting in traffic, but he also thinks public transportation is “a pain in the ass.” The solution? Reinvent the bus stop, obviously. If The Boring Company’s proof of concept in Las Vegas is any indication, his plan is to bore tunnels under major cities so that Teslas can shuttle a whopping five people at a time through the ground at 35 miles per hour. Even if he pulls off his eventual idea to fill these tunnels with high-capacity self-driving electric cars, there is a train-sized elephant in this room.
Electric trains are the most climate-friendly form of transportation. Musk has claimed he’s developing something resembling one, but the Hyperloop, which would supposedly whisk people from San Francisco to Los Angeles in a miraculous 35 minutes, was impossible to take seriously even before it came out that he never actually planned on building it. According to a recent piece in Time, Musk “admitted to his biographer Ashlee Vance that Hyperloop was all about trying to get legislators to cancel plans for high-speed rail in California.”
The grueling, compromise-laden work of building public transit is not anywhere near as sexy as tweeting about how your company is “doing the most to solve climate change.” That’s a big claim to make, especially given that Tesla owes much of its success to government incentives and only opened Supercharger locations to other electric vehicles in 2021.
If trains are the most climate-friendly option, then Musk isn’t trying to combat climate change so much as hold onto the nostalgia of car culture as freedom, appealing to American individualism while assuring us that his solution is the best one because more cars make him more money.
Speaking of car culture, let’s drive our high-end electric vehicle (complete with Candy Crush on a giant screen) down a highway toward the history of fast food. Why has the drive-in endured as an indelible symbol of Americana? Why do we get misty-eyed about the idea of teenagers smoking cigarettes, wearing leather jackets and artfully leaning on souped-up hot rods while snacking on chili-fries and a Coke?
Every generation is prone to romanticize their youth, and the Baby Boomers have foisted on the rest of the country their nostalgia for their own childhoods, situated as they were in the heat of midcentury America’s wild abundance. I’d posit that there’s another science fiction-themed “drive-in” at Disneyworld because during the ‘50s America had a thriving middle class.
In the ‘50s and ‘60s, the post-war economic boom led Americans to live lives they could never have imagined as young people. Men who had grown up amid the Great Depression, people who worked in factories or on Dust Bowl-era farms, were suddenly possessed of housewives and 2.5 children, plus new, electrified homes with picket fences and a two-car garage. They could even take the occasional vacation. Mad Men once described this generation as astronauts for its rapid economic ascendancy.
Cars, in particular, became the calling card of American freedom. Our cities were built around them; the Interstate Highway system was constructed to bring them to all corners of the country. By 1960, 80% of American families owned at least one car, and 14% owned two or more. They were ubiquitous and sexy, a convenient way to get around and express yourself, and, on occasion, a place to have a good meal, a mobile living room.
Drive-in movie theaters and restaurants were born out of this car culture boom, cheap spots on the outskirts of town where huge groups of people could kick back without worrying if the kids were too rowdy or if you and your date were too cozy for the rest of the theater. Drive-in restaurants serving everything from tamales to oysters to the archetypical cheeseburger and fries played up the novelty of being served car-side with brightly-colored neon signs and whimsical architecture. By 1958, there were 4,000 drive-in theaters throughout the US, and the largest of them could hold a shocking 3,000 cars.
Lingering 1950s nostalgia is rooted in this idea of an America where the impossible seemed possible, progress was inevitable, everyone always had enough if they had a full-time job, and the universe was your oyster. Musk isn’t playing with symbols of the ‘50s because he wants Tesla to bring back that egalitarian vision of the past. He wants to borrow it as decoration at his rest stop for the rich.
Why? Because Musk derives much of his personal philosophy from the blindly optimistic high-tech fantasies that defined mid-century science fiction. Musk once tweeted that Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series (1942–50) is “fundamental to the creation of SpaceX.” He has won awards from both the National Space Society and the Heinlein Prize Trust for his real-world implementation of libertarian, technocratic ideas gleaned from Robert Heinlein books like Starship Troopers (1959) and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966). He even cites Douglas Adams as his “favorite philosopher.”
This is ironic given that unlike Musk’s other favorite authors, Adams was not just anticapitalist but also deeply aware of the “ordinary, humble, flawed human being,” the archetypical reader who Virginia Woolf dubbed “Mrs. Brown.” In The Evening Rocket, Jill Lepore’s brilliant podcast about Musk’s “extravagant, extreme, extraterrestrial capitalism,” she describes his hamfisted attempts to live out the lives of his favorite science fiction protagonists, polymathic men traversing brutal galactic empires full of daring heroes and brain-eating insects. Lepore highlights Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown,” in which she laments that many writers of Heinlein and Asimov’s ilk lost track of “how the subject of all novels”—and indeed the consumer of all products—is this normal, unremarkable, everyday person. Musk has likewise lost track of the everyday patron of the drive-in.
Adams’s work is famously sarcastic, and he wrote in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that: “Far back in the mists of ancient time, in the great and glorious days of the former galactic empire, life was wild, rich and, on the whole, tax-free. Many men, of course, became extremely rich, but this was perfectly natural and nothing to be ashamed of because no one was really poor, at least, no one worth speaking of.” Taken seriously, that line just about sums up Musk’s teleological nostalgia, his fundamental misinterpretation of the books and histories he draws such inspiration from. Did you ever see the movie Elysium? Get ready for the world’s most exclusive gated community—on Mars.
Mrs. Brown is no one worth speaking of. She is the proverbial reader, Jane Doe, the unremarkable layperson. In theory, she is the customer Musk means to describe when he says everyone. But the thing about Mrs. Brown is that she doesn’t get a ticket to go where no man has gone before. She’s the carhop in short shorts, teetering on roller skates while she curses under her breath about the rich asshole who waltzes in from time to time telling journalists how he’s saving the world. She’s stuck back on earth, cleaning the Tesla drive-in’s bathroom before riding the bus home to her gaggle of roommates, pretending to be anywhere else but here.
Mrs. Brown is exhausted at the end of the day, but she can’t afford to eat at work, so she throws some leftovers in the microwave before collapsing into bed, trying to distract herself from the pile of bills on her desk, headphones firmly lodged in her ears as she indulges in a world ever so different from her reality—perhaps The Left Hand of Darkness or How Long ‘til Black Future Month. She’ll have to get up and do it all again in the morning, fake smile, roller skates and all.
Meanwhile, her billionaire overlord is building his house on a literal other planet.
Elon Musk is creating a future based on the imaginings of the past without caring about the practical solutions of the present. He says he’s a champion for climate change, an inspiring genius bringing optimistic solutions to the masses. But by opening this drive-in catering to a single class of car-owner, he’s reminding us that what he’s really building is an adolescent, exclusionary technocracy.
When it comes to science fiction or mundane fact, you need to pay attention to Mrs. Brown. Because if she gets left behind, what exactly is the point of your future?