The first electric car in Europe

From the earliest days, the French were enthusiastic supporters of electric power. At the time, France was the world’s pre-eminent motor manufacturing nation, with literally dozens of car companies pandering to the whims of rich clients. One of the best known was Jeantaud, named after founder Charles Jeantaud, a coach-builder who made his first electric horseless carriage – fashioned from a Tilbury-style buggy – with the help of inventor Camille Faure.

His first successful electric car was launched in 1894. La Nature magazine described it as a two-seat carriage and said the batteries, which weighed a not inconsiderable 450kg (992lb), were mounted beneath the seat. The 4hp motor was slowed by leather brake shoes acting on solid tyres. The driver steered via a tiller. Jeantaud’s carriages used Fulmen accumulators that were protected by boxes. On a full charge the Jeantaud carriage was capable of an impressive 13mph (21km/h) top speed (about half that up a hill).

In 1895, Scientific American magazine quoted Jeantaud as saying:

‘The electric carriage has a future, and already in London there is a firm which displays a sign saying they are prepared to charge accumulators of all sizes at any hour of the day or night.’

By the turn of the century his business was thriving and a Jeantaud was highly prized among wealthy Parisians. Anyone who couldn’t afford their own Jeantaud could always experience one by hailing one of the company’s electric taxicabs, which plied for trade on the city’s streets and could carry two or three passengers. In a presentation to the prestigious Society of Civil Engineers of France, Jeantaud claimed the efficiency of electric cabs could solve the problem of travel in busy cities.

Jeantaud was keen to prove his vehicles in early competitions and a Jeantaud four-seater took part in the 1895 Paris–Bordeaux race, the only electric vehicle to enter. As the race involved a round trip of more than 700 miles (1,100km), the considerable problems of range had to be overcome. The company arranged for supplies of new batteries to be available at battery stations every 24 miles (15km), rather like a simple pit-stop.

Sadly, exhausted batteries proved to be the least of Charles Jeantaud’s problems. His car was ruled out of the race early on when it encountered axle trouble near Orleans. The company’s competition cars were more successful in other speed and distance tests when Jeantaud showed them to be capable of covering 37 miles (60km) in less than four hours.

Jeantaud’s cabs sat the driver up front – exposed to all weathers – while his passengers enjoyed a luxurious carriage behind. His two-seater phateon moved the driver high to the rear. The Frenchman was an innovator who experimented with separate motors driving the rear wheels and front wheel drive. According to Scientific American (November 1899), the latter used a single motor fixed in the centre of the chassis with a differential driving the two front wheels via bevel gearing. He was also an early pioneer of aerodynamics.

By the turn of the century, however, the internal combustion engine had developed to the point where it was a serious rival to the electric car. Determined not to see his vehicles eclipsed, Charles Jeantaud linked up with a dashing French racing driver and together they made history.

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