By Dan Neil

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Tesla Model S

On or about May 1, 2009, Elon Musk, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur and CEO of the electric car maker Tesla Motors, fired off an angry email to me regarding a story I had written in the pages of my then-employer.

I no longer have these emails, but as I recall, at issue was my public skepticism that a car such as the Model S could be built, within the technical specifications Mr. Musk laid out, before the end of 2012.

After many years writing about the car business, I have come to appreciate how difficult it is for an established manufacturer to build any car, even a conventional automobile relying on incumbent technologies.

Mr. Musk’s Model S was a radically different automotive vision — a premium sedan with an all-electric powertrain, potential seven-passenger seating, and a battery back that would serve as a stressed, that is, a load-bearing member of the chassis, and yet would be easily removed and replaced. That such a car should come in three years from a company that at the time didn’t even have an assembly hall seemed an impossible boast.

Mr. Musk then bet me $1 million that he would do it and, graciously acknowledging our rather different financial situations – he’s wealthy and I’m not – said the bet would be only $1,000 to me. In either case, he wrote, the winnings would go to the charity Doctors Without Borders. Seeing this as a rare opportunity to facilitate a $1 million donation to a worthy cause, I accepted.

Last week, Tesla Motors began customer deliveries of the Model S built at its facility in Fremont, Ca., a little over three years after our bet and a mere two years after Tesla bought the former GM/Toyota assembly hall. The new Model S is exactly the car he described, delivered six months before the end of 2012.

This morning I made a donation of $1,000 to Doctors Without Borders.

The Wall Street Journal, which I joined in February 2010, does not permit its journalists to engage in this kind of wagering, regardless of subject or beneficiary — even by critics and columnists like me who are paid to have and express their opinions. And that’s perfectly reasonable: You wouldn’t want a theater critic betting a play will succeed or fail. Moreover, it’s better for journalists to write about the story than to somehow become part of the story. However, since I undertook this obligation before my tenure at the WSJ, and since the outcome is a charitable contribution, the Journal allowed me to follow through.

So, I lost, and happily so. As a proponent of electric mobility, I have said many times that I wanted to lose the bet; in other words, I wanted Tesla to succeed. As a critic, I’ll reserve judgment on the Model S until I get a chance to drive it. Regardless, Mr. Musk and Tesla’s achievement – birthing a radically different kind of car, and essentially a brand-new car company, in three years – is nothing short of astonishing. And I congratulate him.

By Dan Neil