The first true automobile long distance road trip in 1888 fired peoples’ imaginations as nothing had ever done before. Public interest rapidly turned from the bicycle to the automobile, and everything automotive was exciting and new. During the decade following the introduction of the first car, early automotive innovators were working furiously to bring the promise and the dream of the automobile into reality.
There was no limit to the creative solutions and inventions that were tried in the development of workable – and salable – automobiles. All this effort came to a head at the very end of the 19th century with one of the greatest racing rivalries at the dawning of the automobile age. And it was all brought about by the quest for speed.
The Chasseloup-Laubat family were French aristocrats headed by a patriarch who was a minister in the government of Napolean III. His two sons had a keen interest in this new invention, the automobile, and had the resources and the connections to pursue it. One son, the Marquis de Chasseloup-Laubat, helped found the Automobile Club of France in 1895, and his younger brother Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat was a well-known racing car driver with a determined and competitive spirit. The two brothers were active champions of electric cars, and in 1898 they found their entry into history.
Competitions between racing cars sell regular cars today, and it was no different 118 years ago. At that time electric motors seemed like the most promising way to power automobiles, and two companies were the strongest rivals in Europe: the French company Jeantaud and the Belgian company Jenatzy. The French magazine La France Automobile independently organized speed trials to create further interest in these new-fangled automobiles (and of course to boost sales of their publication). Jeantaud answered the challenge.
December 18, 1898 was a cold, gloomy, wet day in the French countryside just north of Paris. Thanks to the Emperor Napoleon there were many arrow-straight roads that he had built in the region, and the organizers of the competition chose one of these roads near Acheres for the trials. It was to be a test of all-out top speed. The bad weather was fortunate in a way, because the road and its surroundings were all but deserted – except for the official timing authorities and Count Chasseloup-Laubat with his 36 horsepower Jeantaud electric car. It was in fact state-of-the-art, and the very first automobile in history with a steering wheel.
The car received its final preparations and the Count was off! The Archeres track was set up for a flying kilometer run in one direction only, which the Count was able to cover in 57 seconds. The timekeepers had only primitive instruments with which to record the results, and they were likely focused on getting out of the weather as much as recording the elapsed time. But, at the end of the run, they had the official results. Count Chasseloup-Laubat entered history as the person who set the first World’s Land Speed Record. His speed? 39.24 miles per hour!
The news caused a sensation. Count Chasseloup-Laubat was christened “The Electric Count” by the press, and he received accolades wherever he went. The Jeantaud automobile undoubtedly gained popular recognition and sales increases as well.
Belgian car manufacturer Camile Jenatzy was not about to let his rival upstage his company, however. Competitive human nature being what it is, Jenatzy challenged Jeantaud and the Electric Count to a “duel” and both arrived in Archeres a month later to settle who had the fastest car. Jenatzy, known as “The Red Devil” for the color of his beard, was also a champion of the electric car and brought a CGA Dogcart automobile for the contest. It is not known how the contestants chose who would go first, but Jenatzy won the honor and so was able to make history as well. On January 17, 1899, Jenatzy became the first person to break a World’s Land Speed Record, achieving 41.41 miles per hour.
Then it was the Count’s turn. He drove his meticulously prepared car with the confidence that comes with experience and regained the record once again by going 43.6 miles per hour. The competition ended at that point when the batteries in both cars gave out. In the end, “The Red Devil” had held the record for a few minutes, but “The Electric Count” took the record home.
This quest for speed became a running battle between these two sportsmen, and the record went back and forth from man to man several more times. Ten days later, on January 27, Jenatzy again broke the record in the Dogcart with a speed of 49.932 mph. Then on March 4 the Electric Count brought his Jeantaud that had been rebuilt and modified with a body designed with primitive streamlining. It may have made the difference, because he again captured the record at 57.65 mph. But it wouldn’t last.
Jenatzy was determined not to be outdone. He upped the ante yet again with a purpose-built electric “streamliner” that employed all of the high technology available at the time. He used exotic lightweight materials in its construction, and built the car with dual batteries and two electric motors that together produced nearly 70 horsepower! Jenatzy named this car Jamais Contente, which means Never Satisfied. On April 29 Jenatzy reclaimed the top speed record with a measured speed of 65.79 mph and also became the first person to break the 100 kilometers per hour milestone. This record stood for almost three years when it was finally broken by a steam powered vehicle in1902!
These two companies and men are timeless examples of the human need to compete and excel. In only four months the World Land Speed Record for automobiles changed hands six times! Their rivalry created history. As each tried to outdo the other, and perhaps without their realizing it, they helped build and shape the very foundations of the coming automobile age!
Count Gaston Chasseloup-Laubat died in 1903 at the age of 37 after a 2 year illness.
Camile Jenatzy died in 1913 in a hunting accident. He was playing a prank on his friends by hiding behind a bush and making beastly noises to frighten them. One of the party shot him, believing him to be an animal. Jenatzy bled to death on his way to the hospital, fulfilling his prediction that he would die in a Mercedes.
-William Hoffer, Director of Marketing, Grundy Insurance