The dawn of Electric speed

“Long relegated to the humble role of a tradesman’s hack for door-to-door deliveries of bread and milk, the future suddenly seems brighter for the electric car. It is being tipped as the ideal solution to the triple curse of noise, fumes and congestion wrought by the internal-combustion engine in overcrowded city centres the world over.

Britain, which boasts the highest national population of electric vehicles with over 55,000 of all types, has begun to supplement research by industry with hefty injections of financial aid from the Government. America, Japan and the major countries of Europe are all striving for the same breakthrough. The goal? A lightweight, rechargeable, zinc-air battery or-in the long term, maybe-a fuel cell which would give the electric car a decent speed and distance range, cutting down the crippling weight liability of it’s present power source.”

It’s amazing what you can find lying around in an antique bookshop in Scotland.

This is the start of an article in International Motor Racing book No.3, published back in 1969, written by Pat Gregory and titled: “When sparks flew AT A MILE-A-MINUTE”. It’s interesting how much of this still rings true today. (Except I guess for the fact that the UK now has approximately 80,000 light-duty plug in electric vehicles registered, even though it’s actually been pushed down to 6th in national EV population by the US and China among others.)

The main crux of the article, and the section that really captured my interest, was about the first recognised Land Speed records in the late 1800’s, which were fought in France between electric cars driven by two of the giants of the era: Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat of France, and Camile Jenatzy of Belgium. Both eccentric and fascinating characters, but largely forgotten compared to the 20th century stars that followed. I’d been previously unfamiliar with the story of their rivalry, so I felt it might be interesting and entertaining to recount it here for others, like me, who thought that Buemi vs. Di Grassi was the first electric rivalry the world had ever seen. The article describes the Count as follows:

Count Gaston in 1899. Two years earlier he made history by taking the first ever major city-to-city win for a steam engined car in the Marseille-La Turbie race.
Publicity photo of Count Gaston in his Jeantaud electric car, 1898.

“Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat was the sprig of one of the most ancient, most honourable and most distinguished families in the French ‘aristocracy’. He and his elder brother, the Marquis of the same name, embraced the delights of daring deeds mounted on a ‘Horseless Carriage’ with a zest and panache that quite eclipsed their ancestors’ prowess in other fields of battle. Count Gaston achieved countless feats of brilliance and bravado at the tiller of his French-built Jeantaud electric car, and he may understandably be pardoned for presuming that victory would again be his reward in a hill-climb at Chanteloup in 1898. However, he was to be thwarted in most decisive style by a certain Belgian called Camille Jenatzy who had begun designing the first of quite a number of not un-successful petrol and electric vehicles…”

Jenatzy by contrast came not from an aristocracy but was the son of a rubber manufacturer (rubber being a relatively novel industry back then) who had studied as an engineer with a keen and specific interest in electric traction automobiles. Whilst the French Count could afford to buy an EV off of a French manufacturer, the Belgian driver/engineer opted to design his own cars and use small companies to build and manufacture them; winning the Land Speed Record would secure his place amongst the thriving Parisian electric car market, and also settle the long-standing rivalry between Jenatzy and Jeantaud. (Not the incumbent FIA President, but the name of carriage maker Charles Jeantaud who’s electric cars it just so happened that Jenatzy’s arch rival raced in.)

Camile Jenatzy, nicknamed “el Diablo Rouge” (The Red Devil) on account of the striking colour of his beard and his reputation for risk and exuberance. This photo is from the early 1900’s.

“‘Impetuous dare-devil’ is how one motoring historian describes the flamboyant Jenatzy, whilst ‘Sammy’ Davis had this to say of him:

“Pale-faced, with a V-twin red beard, he was a thin, almost cadaverous-looking bundle of excitement. His idea seemed to be to open the throttle wide and then hang on regardless- a technique which landed him in more catastrophes than any man has a right to survive”

Jenatzy prepares for his run at Chanteloup hillclimb on November 27th 1898.

It was in the hillclimb at Chanteloup in late 1898 that Jenatzy in his custom modified and Brussels-built electric Fiacre (A.K.A. CGA Dogcart) bested all other competition in a burst of speed so furious that it actually ruined his car’s accumulators. The Count also took part in the event, but unfortunately humiliation would follow that day, and his indignity was not just restricted to the field of battle either…

“Count Gaston did his utmost to retrieve the honour of both France and the Chasseloup-Laubat’s. The chain on his Jeantaud broke twice and was repaired before he finally gave up, but even when he had conceded the contest the Fates still remained fickle. Whilst he was despondently coasting back down the hill, his chariot ran away with him, and he could only stop his precipitate rush by steering into the pavement and smashing his front axle.”

Count Gaston regained his honour in spectacular fashion in another Jeantaud entered by his brother (The Marquis, who also helped establish the Automobile club of France in 1895) into a speed trial organised by the magazine La France Automobile, which took place on a gloomy, damp day in Acheres, in the countryside just outside Paris, on a long stretch of road bisecting a sewage farm between Constans and St. Germain. After the loud and dust-blowing vehicles of other contenders, spectators and Judges treated their entry with a grain of salt. Imagine their surprise then, when the Count covered a flying kilometre in 57 seconds at a speed of 39.24 mph to establish the first ever officially record land speed record; extremely impressive given that back in 1898 no other car was recorded as having met that speed over the same distance. This bought great publicity and acclaim to Jeantaud as they had been building electric vehicles since 1881 and entering them into road races since 1896 without success, and this was their first triumph. Chasseloup-Laubat for his part received many accolades and was christened “The Electric Count” by the press.

Count Gaston at the wheel of the 36 horsepower Jeantaud Duc in Acheres, Yvelines, 17th of January 1899.

Jenatzy was absent from this speed trial, but the record achieved by the man nicknamed the “Electric Count” had not gone unnoticed by el Diablo Rouge, and so Jenatzy resolved to challenge Count Gaston to that most provocative of contests: a Speed duel (again at Acheres) on January 17th 1899, which the Count effervescently accepted. Once they arrived in the new year, Jenatzy didn’t wait long, setting a record of 41.42 mph speed in 54 seconds on the first run, (3 faster than the previous record, making him the first person to actually break a land speed record) but the French aristocrat responded brilliantly; in his run the Jeantaud snaked luridly across the road, threatening to crash or flip over and only just about prevented from doing so by De Chasseloup’s car control. With the finish line in sight, the electric motor peaked and suddenly burnt out in dramatic fashion, emitting a heap of sparks and blue smoke. But in this blaze of glory he had done enough, establishing a new record of 43.69 mph. Jenatzy naturally was disappointed after losing the record the same day he set it, and unwilling as he was to admit defeat, he immediately challenged the Count once more, and they were both entered for a rematch a mere 10 days later.

Jenatzy pilots the electric CGA Dogcart on January 17th, 1899.

This time Jenatzy, despite the age of his machinery, was cleverly able to modify it to fit extra batteries inside, which proved to be decisive on that freezing January morning. By the end of his run he’d managed to clock 49.9 MPH, a record that this time the Count would not eclipse, the motor burning out once again as the Jeantaud’s unreliability struck once again. Now, battle was well and truly joined and the goal started to shift from not just simply beating one another, but to being the first to break that mystical ‘mile-a-minute’ barrier.

“Both protagonists now had their blood up. Jenatzy was already working on the design of a new car, and his rival struggled to devise ways of coaxing still greater speeds out of the Jeantaud. The word ‘streamlining’ had not been coined and little or nothing was known about the science of aerodynamics. Indeed, only a few decades earlier medical science had gravely warned foolhardy autocarists that they ran the risks of endangering their lives as the exposed human would be unable to breathe at speeds above 60 MPH!”

The Jeantaud Duc Profilee, with it’s tapered nose, pointed tail and underparts swathed in taut canvas, makes it’s debut at Acheres, March 4th 1899.

De Chasseloup was not dissuaded by such warnings, and so he decided to pursue this line of development. They did not have an Adrian Newey or Gordon Murray available to perfect the art of reducing drag, but the Count and the Marquis did come up with subtle means of ‘wind-cheating’. In March 1899, vast crowds were reported to have flocked to Acheres to watch the reprofiled Jeantaud be towed (by a petrol car, apparently) to make it’s debut. They were not disappointed by what they saw, as the transformed car romped through the Kilometre in 38.8 seconds at a speed of 57.6 mph; more than 8 faster than Jenatzy. Everyone thought that this would be impossible to top…Everyone except for the Red Devil.

Jenatzy at the wheel of his exotic creation, “La Jamais Contente” (“Never satisfied”) in April 1899.

Jenatzy had been very busy creating a new electric automobile for the past two months which took it’s cues from Count Gaston’s ‘wind-cheating’ techniques, but to an even more logical extreme:

“The cigar-shaped body shell was specially constructed by Rothschild’s, the Paris coach-builders, from an early lightweight alloy called partinium. It was mounted on a wagon-like chassis with semi-eliptical springs all round, and wheel of quite small diameter fitted with fat Michelin pneumatic tyres. Every milimetre inside the ‘torpedo’ was stuffed with Fulmen accumulators supplying the power to a brace of large electric motors, each directly geared to drive one of the rear wheels. Any sort of gearbox was unnecessary. The power was merely regulated by a simple rheostat, with Jenatzy pushing a lever progressively over a ten-stud quadrant. In this odd-looking contraption the driver sat bolt upright with his body sprouting out of the shell at waist level.”

Jenatzy christened the car “La Jamais Contente”, and wowed everyone with it’s appearance at Acheres on April 1st, 1899. The date would prove to be prophetic, as in his haste the impatient and over-excited Belgian launched his machine down the road before the timekeepers had a chance to take up their positions; the run could not be recorded and the car’s batteries were entirely drained by the end of his untimed and invalid attempt. Fretting and fuming, Jenatzy was forced to abandon his runs for the day, no doubt to the relief of Count Gaston.

A painting of Jenatzy on his landmark run in Jemais Contente, April 29th 1899.

Jenatzy would not let this setback overcome him though. By April 29th, the Red Devil and Jamais Contente were back at Acheres and this time the Belgian would keep his right foot in check…

“His exploits were the talk of Paris, and vast throngs lined the road to witness his latest efforts. The crowds were so dense were so dense that the Chevallier Rene de Knyff, a famous driver in his own right, was prevented from starting the run. At last a passage was cleared, and Jenatzy, his thin frame crouched over the tiller, nervously opened-up his ‘throttle’. ‘Jemais Contente‘ seemed reluctant to gather speed. Pale and sweating, Jenatzy shoved hard on the lever of the rheostat. The odd Torpedo-on-wheels quivered as the power took full bite, and then hurtled into the flying kilometre. Flat out it bounded down the road, it’s motors whirring, cheered on it’s triumphal progress by the serried ranks of spectators. When the chronometers were checked it was found that Jenatzy had covered the stipulated distance in 65.79 mph. For the first time man had travelled a mile in less than a minute in an automobile. Jenatzy’s dream of attaining 100 kilometres an hour had come true.”

The Red Devil’s record stood for three more years, until it was beaten by W.K. Vanderbilt in the internal combustion engineed Mors. As the ICE began to dominate the racing world, the Belgian was forced to adapt; it seemed that electric vehicles were not the future he had hoped they would be after all. In terms of circuit racing, the towering triumph Jenatzy is best remembered for is the 1903 Gordon Bennett race in Dublin, Ireland, which he won by over 11 minutes whilst driving for Mercedes. (And you thought today’s Silver Arrows were dominant…)

A famous poster used by Bosch in it’s advertising since 1910, depitcts Jenatzy, who has now started wearing a scarlet overcoat and is perfecting his Dick Dastardly impression, winning races worldwide in his Mercedes thanks to a Bosch magneto ignition device.

Very sadly, both Chasseloup-Laubat and Jenatzy would both go on to lose their lives prematurely.

Jenatzy’s untimely end came in truly bizarre circumstances whilst out hunting on 1913, at the age of 45. The Red Devil played a practical joke on his friends by hiding in the shrubbery and impersonating a wild animal. The impression was so convincing that one of his party shot Jenatzy with their rifle. The Belgian bled to death en route to hospital; in a twisted irony he had fulfilled a prophesy he had made years earlier that he would perish whilst in a Mercedes; albeit not quite in the same manner which he had anticipated.

However, what happened to his old rival was both brief and even more heartbreaking. Count Gaston, utterly crushed and subdued, abandoned his Land Speed Record ambitions and withdrew completely from motorsport. The final bitter defeat at the hands of Jenatzy’s Jamais Contente in April 1899 was one he never truly recovered from. After a two-years long illness he died on November 20th 1903, aged 37 in Le Cannet, near Cannes, in agony and likely still believing himself a failure. In the same year, Jenatzy ceased manufacture of EV’s.

But what neither of them could have known was that 110 years after Jenatzy set his historic final land speed record, on the 25th of August 2009 on the Bonneville Salt flats, in Utah, USA, a new challenger would become the first electric vehicle to top 300 miles per hour. The car? The Venturi Buckeye Bullet. The car was even nicknamed as Venturi’s modern answer to Jemais Contente.


This rather neatly segways us onto Venturi’s other notable motorsport activity: Formula E.


A Frenchman and a Belgian competing against each other in purpose built electric racing cars…This seem awfully familiar. Dragon Racing’s Loic Duval and Jerome D’Ambrosio.

So why were Jenatzy and De Chasseloup important? In the course of 4 months, the record had gone from 39 mph, to over 65, changing 6 times in the process. In trying to beat one another, they not only captured the public’s imagination and changed perceptions about electric vehicles, they also created a golden age for Electric Vehicle development, one which we are only today starting to see re-emerge with the likes of Tesla and Mahindra going toe-to-toe with Renault, Audi and Citroen’s offerings, both in the showrooms and on the streets and racing circuits of the world. Without the engineering talent of Jenatzy, spurned on by the skill of Count Gaston in the Jeantaud, the EV would have been stuck in the dark ages; we would have no Formula E, no Electric GT and less clear alternatives to some of the problems of pollution caused by ICE’s. In my view we owe these two Pioneers a great debt for what we have today.

Because I love you people, I give you two videos: Both pretty self-explanatory.

The dawn of Electric speed