Belgian civil engineer, Camille Jenatzy, was an early believer in the adage that ‘racing improves the breed’.
Camille, who was born in 1865, advertised his electric cars by pitting them in competitions. He made his racing debut in 1898, winning a rain-soaked Chanteloup hill-climb by covering the 1,800m (1.1 mile) course at an average speed of 17mph (27km/h).
Jenatzy did not take part in the first speed trial held at Acheres, west of Paris, which set a new world land-speed record. When he heard the record had been set by the Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat behind the wheel of a car built by Jeantaud, his bitter manufacturing rival, Jenatzy challenged the dashing French count to a rematch.
The two men traded speed records throughout the winter of 1899 – a contest finally decided in Jenatzy’s favour when he became the first man to break the 100km/h (62mph) barrier – a record that would stand for three years.
Jenatzy’s love of speed exceeded his love of electric vehicles. Realizing an electric racer would never be viable over a long distance, he turned to petrol–electric hybrid powertrains and competed in the 1900 Gordon Bennett Cup in a Bolide hybrid of his own design. He also patented a magnetic clutch, used by Rochet–Schneider for a short time.
Jenatzy led something of a charmed life, walking away from several massive accidents, including a huge crash at the Circuit des Ardennes in 1902 when his car slewed off the track and into a ditch.
He drove for Mercedes in 1903 and would probably have won the Paris–Madrid race but for (of all things) a fly in the carburettor. Putting that disappointment behind him, the same year he won the Gordon Bennett Cup for Germany, coming home twelve minutes ahead of the second-place car.
The Belgian had a very successful racing career and retired from international events in 1908.
Jenatzy also had a wicked sense of humour and his fondness for practical jokes cost him his life. In 1913, during a hunting party with friends in the Ardennes, Jenatzy decided to frighten his fellow hunters by creeping up to their lodge, hiding behind a bush and imitating the grunt of an angry wild boar. His impression was rather too good. One of the fearful guests leaned out of the window and shot the practical joker dead.