The Fastest Man on Earth

In 1898, magazine publisher M. Paul Meyan, who was also a founding member of the Automobile Club de France, persuaded the editor of La France Automobile to sponsor a timed hill climb competition at Chanteloup, 20 miles (32km) north of Paris. The event was held on 27 November 1898, over a tortuous course – more than a mile up a winding gradient as steep as one-in-twelve at certain points. Fifty-four cars turned up for the inaugural event.

Having seen what lay before them, seven pulled out on the spot leaving forty-seven drivers to fight for overall honours. The winning vehicle was driven by a Belgian named Camille Jenatzy, who had entered on impulse. His average speed was 17mph (27km/h) and the car was electric. In second place was a Bollee petrol-powered car.

Meyan was delighted by the time trial and the following week La France Automobile announced an international speed competition ‘at the request of one of our distinguished friends’. The distinguished friend was, in fact, the swashbuckling Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat, the younger brother of the Marquis de Chasseloup-Laubat, who had founded the Automobile Club de France with his friend the Count de Dion to indulge his passion for motor racing.

The date was set for 18 December but the course would be very different. The contest would be no hill climb. Instead, the contestants would fling their cars around a 1.2-mile (2,000m) stretch of the smoothest road in France in Acheres Park, between the towns of St Germain and Constans. Thanks to Napoleon, France was well blessed with long, straight roads, perfect for top-speed runs. The crowds that gathered that chilly morning would bear witness to history: the world’s first land-speed record attempt.

Count Gaston Chasseloup-Laubat was confident of victory. His chain driven rear-wheel drive Jentaud electric racer made 40bhp – an enormous amount of power for 1898 – and, with its aerodynamic torpedo-shaped body, nothing was expected to touch it. To record his glorious triumph, the organizers laid on six timekeepers, each holding a carefully synchronized stopwatch, and a meticulously measured and marked stretch of road. The strip was divided into two. The first kilometre was for setting a standing start record, while the second was for a flying start figure. To ensure absolute accuracy, the organizers doubled up with two timekeepers at the start, two after the first kilometre and two at the end.

Four cars arrived to take up the challenge. They included a de Dion tricycle and two Bollees, but all eyes were on the menacing electric car. Although the bodywork was shaped like a boat, Chasseloup-Laubat didn’t sit inside it. He actually perched on top of it, exposed to all manner of danger, with only his legs actually inside the tub. As the contenders prepared themselves the organizers explained the rules: all four would be timed over one standing kilometre and then, provided they were all still running, over the flying kilometre.

The Count was the last up and Paul Meyan himself gave the signal for the record attempt to begin. Hunched low over the horizontal steering wheel, Chasseloup-Laubat unleashed the full power of his car’s Fulmen batteries and it whistled up the track, bouncing precariously on its quarter and half-elliptic springs front/rear and terribly thin tyres on coach-type wheels.

The wait had been worth it. Chasseloup-Laubat cracked the kilometre in 57sec at an average speed of 39.34mph (63.13km/h) – shattering the record set just minutes earlier by a 3-litre Bollee by 6mph (9.6km/h). An electric car had shown itself to be superior to a noisy and smelly gasoline rival. The French were ecstatic and so was Charles Jeantaud. They had claimed an official record and Chasseloup-Laubat was hailed as the fastest man on earth.

Not everyone was so happy. News of the record enraged the winner of the Chanteloup hill-climb event, the Belgian inventor and electric car pioneer Camille Jenatzy.

Known to his friends as the Le Diable Rouge, or ‘Red Devil’, in honour of his formidable-looking ginger beard, Jenatzy came from a wealthy family. His father, Constant Jenatzy, was a successful manufacturer of rubber products and he had studied engineering. Jenatzy was a strong proponent of electric vehicles and had opened a manufacturing plant to build electric carriages and trucks for the fast emerging market in Paris. Following his success in the Chanteloup hill climb he was smitten by the thrill of motor racing.

When news of the French record reached him, Jenatzy responded with a challenge. In an open letter to La France Automobile he expressed dissatisfaction at not being at Acheres Park when Chasseloup-Laubat set his record time. Going further, he expressed certainty that had he been competing then a Belgian would hold the world record, not a French dandy. He was sure his car would have the legs on Chasseloup-Laubat’s Jentaud. Jenatzy asked if the count would be prepared to pit his electric racer against one of his own creation? Naturally, the count accepted.

The stage was set for an epic duel between the pre-eminent electric cars of the day with a new world record as the prize. What followed was a series of high profile face-offs between the two drivers. Their record-breaking runs also helped publicize the cars manufactured by Jeantaud and Jenatzy. The first took place on 17 January, 1899.

As the challenger, Jenatzy went first. His confidence appeared well place when his car broke the standing kilometre at a stunning speed of 41.42mph (66.65km/h), comfortably faster than the count’s car had managed a month earlier. Witnesses said the batteries in the Red Devil’s car were exhausted as it crossed the line – in the best tradition of great racing cars they only lasted as long as was necessary to finish. Nevertheless, the world record had been broken for the first time and Jenatzy was the man to have done it. His celebrations were short-lived, however.

Within minutes, the Frenchman saddled up and sent his car bowling down the road recording an elapsed time of 43.69mph (70.31km/h). Many in the crowd feared Chasseloup-Laubat would die in his pursuit of the record, the human body having never travelled so fast. The count survived but the motor in his Jeantaud didn’t – it was destroyed in the attempt.

Undaunted, Jenatzy vowed to return with an even more powerful electric car and wrest the record back for Belgium. Chasseloup-Laubat assured him he would defend French honour.

The Red Devil was true to his word and, when the bitter rivals next met at Acheres ten days later, Jenatzy took the honours (and the record) with a 49.92mph (80.33km/h) time. By this time, the battle for supremacy had become an international talking point. The Automobile Club de France appointed officials and marshals to scrutinize the trials and avoid any accusations of cheating.

With national honour at stake, Chasseloup-Laubat raised the bar to 57.60mph (92.69km/h) in March 1899. For his part, Jenatzy was confident he had a secret weapon, one that would put the count in his place once and for all. His car had a sophisticated chassis with semi-elliptic leaf springs front and rear. Its lightweight cigarshaped wind-cheating body was designed around the aerodynamic principles used by airship manufacturers – although any wind-cheating benefit was largely invalidated by the driver sitting in the air stream and by the exposed chassis beneath. It was fashioned from ‘partinium’ – a new metal alloy of aluminium, tungsten and magnesium invented by a Frenchman called Henri Partin – and powered by a pair of DC Postel-Vinay 33hp (25kW) motors. The Michelin brothers, Edouard and Andre, pitched in with special pneumatic tyres designed to run on the car’s 55cm (21.7in) wooden-spoked wheels.

Jenatzy was an early pioneer of aerodynamic streamlining

Certain that he had the beating of his bitter rival, Jenatzy named his new challenger La Jamais Contente (‘Never Satisfied’) perhaps after his own frame of mind. The high-speed battle commenced on 1 April, 1899. Perhaps it was over-confidence that led Jenatzy to start his first run too soon, or maybe he just couldn’t wait to try his new machine out.

Whatever the reason, La Jamais Contente whistled down the timed kilometre before the officials were ready. Jenatzy was certain he had broken the psychologically important 100km/h (62mph) barrier, but due to his impatience there was nothing to prove it. Worse still, he did not have the luxury of a second run, having no spare batteries to hand. Jenatzy had to watch as the count set a new time. The Red Devil had a notoriously fiery temper (in his obituary The New York Times said that he raced with ‘demonical fury’) so one can only imagine his confrontation with the embarrassed timekeepers. Humiliated and angry, he vowed to return.

He did so on 29 April when, in front of a large crowd (including the Count Chasseloup-Laubat) he raced his car down the track. When the run was finished, Jenatzy, who was still smarting from the embarrassment of the debacle earlier in the month, jumped down from the car and strode over to the flustered timekeepers who were still working out his speed. After the timepieces were double-checked they announced he had set a new record of more than 105km/h (65mph). Jenatzy was ecstatic – he had become the first man to break the 100km/h (62mph) barrier and had done so with ease.

La Jamais Contente was a remarkable vehicle for its time – a pioneer of electric propulsion, direct drive (to reduce friction losses the motor was directly mounted on the driven axle) and aerodynamics, although not everyone was impressed.

The author W. Worby Beaumont wrote with eery prescience:

This is without doubt a higher speed than any other human being has ever travelled on roads, but it was only for about three-quarters of a mile that it was maintained. This vehicle was of no use in any way as a guide for any other class of vehicle.

Beaumont’s prediction would prove to be correct – although that did not prevent other land-speed pioneers copying the bullet-shape of La Jamais Contente in a bid to grab the record for themselves. Jenatzy held the record for three years, until another Frenchman (Leon Serpollet) broke it in a steam-powered racer. However, his time for an electric car stood for more than half a century – a reflection, perhaps, of the electric vehicle’s spectacular fall from grace in the subsequent two decades.

The car was sponsored by Exide and the Merseyside and North Wales Electricity Board. However, that was to occur in the future. In 1899, electric cars were literally on top of the world.

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