Camille Jenatzy isn’t a household name today, a shame really, as the Belgian race car driver is etched into the automotive record books as the first person drive a car in excess of 100km/h, in the process setting a world land speed record. What’s more, he did it an electric car, one that he built himself.
Today, 100km/h is merely scratching the surface of most cars’ capabilities but in 1899, those types of speeds were unthinkable, certainly from that new-fangled invention, the automobile.
But, the advent of the motor car brought with it a new challenge – the pursuit of speed. And that chase for terminal velocity sparked the first great rivalry in automotive history.
Enter Jenatzy and his arch rival Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat who over the course of a four-month period between December 1898 and April, 1899 waged all-out war in the pursuit of speed in Achères, France.
Frenchman de Chasseloup-Laubat got the ball rolling in December 1898 when, in response to a competition hosted by French car magazine, La France Automobile, he completed a flying kilometre in his electric-powered Jeantaud in 57 seconds for an average speed of 63.13km/h, thus entering the record books as the first world land speed record holder in a car.
It took less than a month for our Belgian hero, Jenatzy, to respond, establishing a new mark of 66.66km/h in his electric GCA Dogcart on 17 January, 1899 as his nemesis de Chasseloup-Laubat watched on.
In a case of ‘hold my Kronenbourg 1664’, the de Chasseloup-Laubat was having none of it, hopping behind the wheel of his Jeantaud and promptly clocking a speed of 70.31km/h. Advantage, de Chasseloup-Laubat.
Jenatzy returned to Achères just 10 days later, puckered up, and hurtled his GCA Dogcart to a V-max of 80.35km/h.
It took de Chasseloup-Laubat several weeks to respond, time he spent turning his Jeantaud into what passed for a rudimentary streamlined car designed to go faster than ever before. On 4 March, 1899, de Chasseloup-Laubat was ready and in his new Jeantaud Duc Profilée, set a new benchmark of 92.78km/h.
Jenatzy, undeterred, went to work on his purpose-built chariot of speed. Dubbed La Jamais Contente (The Never Satisfied), Jenatzy’s creation featured a torpedo-shaped body crafted out partinium, a light alloy comprising aluminium, tungsten and magnesium. It looked sleek and aerodynamic, until Jenatzy sat in it, that is, his exposed body doing much to negate any aero benefits.
Two direct-drive Postel-Vinay electric motors mounted on the rear axle sent 50kW in total to the rear wheels. The wheels themselves featured another innovation.
Perhaps drawing on his father’s contacts (Constant Jenatzy was a well-known rubber manufacturer and merchant), the younger Jenatzy eschewed the solid rubberised wheels of previous attempts in favour of pneumatic tyres. Those inflatable tyres came courtesy of a couple of pioneering French brothers, Edouard and Andre Michelin. La Jamais Contente was ready for its record-breaking attempt.
Returning to Achères on 29 April, 1899, and with officials from the Automobile Club de France on hand to scrutinise and sanction the Belgian’s attempt, Jenatzy piloted his creation to an almost unfathomable 105.88km/h, easily eclipsing his arch rival’s 92.78km/h of just six weeks earlier.
It was a watershed moment, the first time in history a car of any kind had cracked the 100km/h mark.
When asked how he felt driving at such unthinkable speeds, Jenatzy replied: “The car in which you travel seems to leave the ground and hurl itself forward like a projectile ricocheting along the ground.
“As for the driver, the muscles of his body and neck become rigid in resisting the pressure of the air; his gaze is steadfastly fixed about 200 yards ahead; his senses are on the alert.”
It took almost three years for Jenatzy’s record to be broken, Frenchman Léon Serpollet recording 120.80km/h in a steam-powered car. His record stood for just a few months, eclipsed by American William K Vanderbilt, who drove his Mors to a top speed of 122.438km/h on 5 August, 1902.
Vanderbilt’s remains a significant moment, the first time a car featuring an internal combustion engine had held the world land speed record.
One can only wonder at what Jenatzy would make of the current land speed record of 1223.657km/h, or of the fact that even the slowest, cheapest cars on the market – bar a few exceptions – can reach speeds of 100km/h or more.
Jenatzy always predicted he would die behind the wheel of car, such was his love for motoring and the dangerous pursuit of speed. What he couldn’t have predicted was his untimely death in 1913 in a hunting accident.
Wanting to prank his friends and fellow hunters, Jenatzy hid behind a bush and made wild animal noises. He was, it seems, a little too good at imitating animals, his friend Alfred Madoux shooting Jenatzy, who died on the way to hospital from his injuries.
It was an ignoble end for a man who on that one glorious Spring day on the outskirts of Paris, became the first person break the 100km/h barrier in a car.
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