First to Sixty: La Jamais Contente

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).

Crouched low in his racer, the fearless Belgian delivered the coup de grâce on April 29, 1899. Scrutinized by Automobile Club of France officials, Jenatzy whistled through the timing trap at 65.8 mph. When asked to describe the feeling of traveling faster than was commonly believed the human body could endure, Jenatzy later revealed: “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 two hundred yards ahead; his senses are on the alert.”

The cars fielded by Jenatzy and his rival pressed the limits of late-nineteenth-century technology. Both attempted to cut drag with aerodynamic bodywork. While the fastest machines extant were massive steam locomotives capable of sixty or more miles per hour, Jenatzy and de Chasseloup-Laubat were more likely inspired by the day’s airships, which resembled huge cigars. Attached to a wood and steel undercarriage, Jenatzy’s fuselage was tapered at both ends. Although that provided an excellent means of shrouding the 100 two-volt batteries carried onboard, a driver protruding out the top and the chassis slung below offset any streamlining benefits afforded by the torpedo body.

To save weight, Jenatzy’s coachwork consisted ofriveted sheets of partinium, which is an alloy of aluminum, tungsten, and magnesium. Two electric drive motors were mounted on the rear axle to drive its wheels with a combined 67 hp.

Jenatzy was also ahead of the curve in his use of pneumatic tires. Horseless carriages of the late nineteenth century typically rolled on steel rims or solid-rubber tires. In 1895, Edouard and André Michelin offered their new pneumatic tires to makers competing in the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race but found no takers. Their plan B was cobbling together a Daimler marine engine and a Peugeot chassis to compete in the race. The Michelins’ L’Éclair (“Lightning Bolt”) finished dead last and consumed two dozen inner tubes, but it completed the 732-mile distance within the required 100 hours. Nine of the twenty-two starters went the distance, but only the Michelins rolled back into Paris on pneumatic tires.

When Jenatzy asked the Michelins to assist his effort, they gladly fit his 55-centimeter (21.7-inch) wooden-spoked wheels with their pneumatic tires.

La Jamais Contente is still fitted with Michelins, now rock hard and incapable of holding air (but probably not the original tires). The actual 60-mph record breaker is the most interesting of seventeen cars and carriages displayed in its section at the Musée National de la Voiture et du Tourisme (national car and tourism museum). When it was founded in 1927, this Château de Compiègne attraction, located about fifty miles northeast of central Paris, was one of Europe’s first land-transportation museums.

The record setter’s widow donated his racer for display in 1933. It resides behind four locked doors and is shrouded by what was the castle’s main kitchen fireplace. Except for a few dents and missing electrical gear, La Jamais Contente is in excellent condition.

Considering the car’s historical significance, it’s no surprise that Christian Wannyn, this adventure’s living hero, was denied when he asked the museum if La Jamais Contente could be released to make a few public demonstration runs.

Wannyn (pronounced “VA-nin”) is no stranger to adversity. During World War II he served in the Signal Corps with Allied forces in Germany. Showing Jenatzy-esque resolve after the museum turned down his request, Wannyn convinced the French cultural minister that constructing an accurate replica of this landmark car was in the nation’s best interests.

He then enlisted an army of sponsors and supporters to make it happen. A technical university in Compiègne handled fabrication. Fulmen contributed the thirteen lead-acid batteries that provide 52-volt DC power to the twin Leroy-Somer electric motors. Michelin again answered the call for tires, this time adding wheels. Wannyn proudly noted that the aluminum-alloy body shell was riveted together using copper fasteners and the very fixtures used to build the original nearly a century before.

The revival was completed in 1994, and soon thereafter, Wannyn achieved his goal of demonstrating La Jamais Contente before a crowd at the Montlhéry Autodrome located less than twenty miles southeast of Paris. Although this steeply banked 1.6-mile speed bowl lacked the room to top Jenatzy’s record, Wannyn came close with a documented 58 mph.

That’s considerably more velocity than I was able to achieve on the fenced-in apron outside the Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace (air and space museum) at Le Bourget. After the car was wheeled outside, the climb up into the red leather seat was like mounting a fire engine. To properly commemorate Jenatzy’s feat for the camera, I wore a red jacket, rotated my flat cap, and slipped on vintage goggles. A tiller consisting of one horizontal and one vertical handle mounted on a vertical shaft guides the front wheels. There’s a hinged pedal connected to a rod that moves a switch to control the amount of electrical power sent to the wheels and a switch on the dash to select forward, neutral, or reverse propulsion modes. Without explaining exactly why, Wannyn instructed me not to use the long lever that engages the (rear-wheel-only) brakes. Instead, if slowing quickly became necessary, I was supposed to switch the electric motor into reverse and step down on the power pedal.

Unlike modern electric cars noted for their instant torque and powerful initial acceleration, this car oozed from rest with glacial verve. In the space available, it mooed to 35 mph or so, gliding over the concrete joints as smoothly as a baby carriage. Neck strain from air pressure wasn’t an issue, but my senses were definitely on the alert. To avoid stuffing Wannyn’s pride and joy into the fence or one of the nearby fighter planes, I lifted early and left ample room for a gentle turn following each speed run.

Crouching low in the saddle is harder than you’d imagine with a tiller buried in your chest. But with a bit of squinting, I could picture the future that Jenatzy envisioned beyond his car’s silver nose cone: a smooth stretch of road, a blurred crowd cheering his progress, and the steady pull of electric propulsion. From that vantage, cars could only get quicker and better.