First to Sixty: La Jamais Contente

Don Sherman
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Martyn Goddard

Flooring the accelerator delivers a low-voltage shock to the cerebellum. Creeping slowly from rest, there are relay clicks and a buzz of electricity hard at work as this horizontal rocket takes flight. Then the drive motors begin making soft mooing sounds. Only in France would a vehicle instrumental in sending horses to pasture sound like a contented cow.

Revelations are inevitable when you travel back more than a century to the dawn of speed records. One such revelation is that electric-car pioneer Camille Jenatzy earned so little lasting acclaim for his achievements.

This son of a wealthy Belgian rubber goods manufacturer was one of the first car enthusiasts and the designer, engineer, and driver of La Jamais Contente ("Never Satisfied"), the first car to top 60 mph. Fortunately, Jenatzy's concoction survived to inspire the replica I drove at Paris's Le Bourget airport.

Jenatzy, nicknamed Le Diable Rouge ("the red devil") because of his flaming red hair and beard, was the original speed demon. On a whim, he entered a local hill-climb in November 1898 and won with an average velocity of 16 mph. The rakish Jenatzy loved the taste of victory and soon concluded that racing was an excellent means of promoting the electric cars he was manufacturing for Parisian taxicab use.

Beaten three weeks later by an electric Jeantaud driven by a Frenchman, Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat, Jenatzy responded in kind at the Parc Agricole d'Achères, where Paris's sewage was dumped. The two rivals volleyed the land speed record upward from 39.2 mph (de Chasseloup-Laubat), to 41.4 mph (Jenatzy), to 43.7 mph (de Chasseloup-Laubat), to 49.9 mph (Jenatzy), to 57.6 mph (de Chasseloup-Laubat).

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