La Jamais Contente

I have a few things in common with Camille Jenatzy.

We both enjoy driving quickly, understand the merits of electric vehicles, his first land speed record attempt was done on my birthday (85 years removed), and he was known for his red beard—a trait I also share. Maybe I'm stretching just a little bit here, but his land speed record car, La Jamais Contente, means, "The Never Satisfied"—a name I could see myself applying to a vehicle. 

Born in Schaarbeek, Belgium, Jenatzy was the son of a rubber producer, and studied engineering. His interest in electric motors and going quickly led him down a path to building his very own land speed record machine.

Today, the outright land speed record takes a small army of experts and millions of dollars to have a shot at; in Jenatzy's day, rival carmakers issued duels and challenges to each other in order to drum up sales. With few manufacturers and even fewer speed limits—not to mention the fact cars were still a novelty, slow, and expensive—the most lauded vehicles were the fastest vehicles.

After Karl Benz, bankrolled by his wife, Bertha, invented the internal combustion engine, electric vehicle manufacturers quickly got the upper hand. Though both battery technology and electric motor technology was rudimentary, it had a lot of support from inventors who'd been inspired by the (recent, at that time) discovery and successful control of electricity.

This bode well for inventors like Jenatzy, who were able to steal a sliver of the spotlight in the years before gasoline roared into the lead. It also meant that, for a short time, investors and collaborators were willing to help. Working with noted coachbuilder Rothschild, they constructed a bullet-shaped pod that covered the batteries, Jenatzy's lower torso…and little else. Skinned in partinium, a light alloy of aluminum, tungsten, and magnesium, it's considered to be the first streamlined vehicle. Michelin supplied the tires—distinctly low profile and modern-looking compared to the carriage-like wheels vehicles used at that time.

As special as that is, Jenatzy's creation was the first vehicle to top 100 kilometres per hour (62+ mph)—of course, it was during a speed duel with rival manufacturer Jeantaud. Buy establishing a top speed of 105.882 km/h (65.792 mph), it was also the last electric car to hold the title. 

The same length as a modern Toyota Yaris, it weighed an incredible 1,450 kg (3,200 lbs). Output from the two electric traction motors was 50 kW (~67 horsepower).

A few record holders later, the famous Ford 999 was also designed to capture publicity by way of a land speed record trial, with Henry Ford taking five years to go just 42 km/h (26 mph) faster than Jenatzy. Progress was slow.

Jenatzy switched to a gasoline Mercedes in order to stay competitive in the following years, winning the 1903 Gordon Bennet Cup race in Ireland—incidentally, a race that saw the first use of the colour British Racing Green, on a Napier.

Finally, let's not forget that physicians of that time didn't believe the human body could endure speeds above 100 km/h—it was literally uncharted territory for the human race. We'd never gone faster. When interviewed about his feat, Jenantzy said:

"The car in which you travel seems to leave the ground and hurl itself forward like a projectile ricocheting along the ground. As for the driver, the muscles of his body and neck become rigid in resisting the pressure of the air; his gaze is steadfastly fixed about 200 yards ahead; his senses are on the alert."

If he hadn't died during a hunting accident as he "faked" animal noises, scaring his friends enough to mistakenly shoot him, I think with prose like that, Jenatzy would have made a fine car reviewer.