A lot of good material has been written on Camille Jenatzy. Jenatzy was one of the original heroes of motorsport. There is even some suggestion that he pioneered an early form of the four-wheel-drift. The Jenatzy family was originally Hungarian. However, they had lived in Belgium for nearly 110 years before Camille was born.
Camille Jenatzy was born to wealthy parents on November 4, 1898. His father had made a genuine fortune as the proprietor of Belgium’s first rubber factory. Camille Jenatzy did not follow in his father’s footsteps, exactly. He did attend civil engineering school; however, he was attracted by speed from the start. He raced bicycles, before falling in love with the automobile.
According to a contemporary, “None presented such a terrifying appearance in a car. Although reckless, daring and exciting to the utmost degree when racing, a more meek and mild-mannered individual when off the car could not be imagined.” He truly was a colorful character and an original hero of motorsport.
Setting the Stage
People may think that the electric vehicle started with the Prius and electric vehicle racing started with Formula E. They are wrong in this conclusion. Electric vehicles, in fact, date back to before the gasoline engine (but after the steam engine).
Charles Jeantaud built his initial electric vehicle in 1881. However, it was not until 1893 that he seriously began to manufacture electric vehicles. Generally, his cars were pure electrics and lasted only a short time until surpassed by the development of the gasoline engine.
However, around 1898, Jeantaud electrics were a formidable opponent for outright top speed. A Jeantaud electric, in the hands of one Comte de Chasseloup-Laubat, that held the world’s first land speed record. The Comte de Chasseloup-Laubat was also wealthy. He was a French aristocrat and son of an advisor to Napoleon III.
The Chanteloup Hill Climb
The Cantaloup hill climb may have been the first of its type. It was organized by La France Automobile. It was a short 1,800 meter hill climb. There were 54 competitors. Camille Jenatzy was one of the competitors.
Just before the hill climb, it rained heavily. The roads were muddy, slippery, and difficult to navigate. Even still, only three competitors failed to finish the course.
Yet, it was Camille Jenatzy who won, giving him his first taste of victory from the seat of an automobile. He raced the 1,800 meter course in 3:52 “on an electric vehicle of his own creation.” This translates to an average of 17 miles per hour. Second place went to Jamin on a Bollée two-cylinder tri-car.
The Acheres Meeting
According to Gerald Rose, the Acheres meeting “stands to the credit of La France Automobile, for it was from Mr. Paul Meyan that the proposal came to hold a meeting at some convenient spot where there was a deserted and open road, on which the cars could be let out to their highest speed without inconvenience to anyone.”
The idea was to establish a permanent record of the capabilities of the available cars. Also, there was a lot of bragging going on. It seems it is human nature to always think our car is faster than the next blokes’. They did so by setting up a procedure for timing a “flying kilometer.” The flying kilometer, in early years, was the de facto measure for land speed records.
Again, it was raining, and only a few times runs were established that day.
- Comte de Chasseloup-Laubat, Jeantaud. 39.3 mph.
- Loysel, Bollée, 35.5 mph.
- Giraud, Bollée, 33.6 mph.
- Rival, De Dion Tri., 30.5 mph.
Jenatzy was unable to attend this meeting. However, the next day, he wrote to Chasseloup-Laubat, the victor, challenging him to a timed throw down to see if he could defeat the standing record holder.
The Count accepted. They agreed on racing on January 17, 1899.
Challenging the Flying Kilometer
As challenger, on January 17, 1899, Camille Jenatzy ran first. He set a flying kilometer average of 41.4 miles per hour. This, therefore, was 2.1 mph faster than the Comte de Chasseloup-Laubat’s record.
But then, on the next run, the Count responded. He averaged 43.7 miles per hour over a flying kilometer. His pace may have even been better had his electric motor not burned out 200 yards from the completion of the timed kilometer.
La Jamais Contente
Only 10 days after his 43.7 mph run, they went out for another run. Camille Jenatzy ran 50 miles per hour. The Count de Chasseloup-Laubat experienced an electrical failure in his motor. He burned it up before he even started.
It seems the two dueling enthusiasts could not get enough; they returned to Acheres on March 4, 1899 for another run. The Count ran the flying kilometer at an average of 57.6 miles per hour. Remember, Chasseloup-Laubat was able to accomplish this in a stripped, but otherwise ordinary, Jeantaud electric car.
The speed bug had bitten Jenatzy hard. He was not to be defeated. And so, he went back to his garage and built a new car. It was called La Jamais Contente (“The Never Satisfied). The Jamais Contente was a thoroughbred top-speed runner. No emphasis, whatsoever, was placed on handling or other such trivial matters.
The power of the Jamais Contente was contained a series of batteries, which reportedly delivered 200 volts and 124 amperes. Informal estimates suggest that its two 25 kilowatt electric motors equated to about 68 horsepower. The cars batteries, however, pale in awesomeness to the look of the Jamais Contente. It was truly ahead of its time in adapting early principles of aerodynamics to a high-speed vehicle.
His first run on April 1, 1899, always at Acheres, was a complete failure. There was some debris in the road, so Jentazy received permission to shift the start point 200 meters down the road. However, he started his run before “the startled watch holders” could calculate the 200 meter shift on the other end. Being an early electric, it was only capable of one single run before being recharged.
Thus, they reconvened on April 29, 1899. At that time, Jenatzy ran the flying kilometer in 34 seconds. That translates to an average of 65.75 miles per hour. This not only set the record for the flying kilometer, but it also remained in the hands of Jenatzy for three more years.
/ Travis Turner of GPevolved.com
Encyclopedia of Auto Racing Greats, Cutter and Fendell (1973)
Mercedes and Auto Racing in the Belle Epoque: 1895 – 1915, Robert Dick (2005)
A Record of Motor Racing: 1894 – 1908, Gerald Rose (1949)
Triumph of the Red Devil: The Irish Gordon Bennett Cup Race – 1903, Brendan Lynch (2002)