Thanks to Napoleon Bonaparte, France enjoyed the convenience and safety of long, straight roads. Non horse powered carriages had been in existence for about ten years. Couple these facts, and you know why the first recorded auto competitions happened in France. The very first informal race was a run from Paris to Rouen. Later, the first organized race took place from Paris to Bordeaux and back.
Three main sources of power drove the early cars, steam, petroleum, and electricity. Around half of the automobiles of the 1890s ran on electricity. Also, the first French cars were electric. They were the result of a brainstorm by carriage builder/engineer Charles Jeantaud.
In 1881, Jeantaud with the aid of inventor Camille Faure combined Faure’s newly invented plate alkaline battery, electric motors, and a light buggy. The first successful Jeantaud car came out in 1894. It featured 450 kilograms of electric accumulators beneath the seat, a four horsepower motor and a drive system of double-reduction gears to the rear axle.
Jeantaud decided to promote his automobiles by participating in a race organized by a French magazine. Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat was to be the driver of a stripped down, streamlined Jeantaud electric car. The vehicle was designed strictly for a sprint run. It was steered by the first known steering wheel. The primitive batteries only allowed for a short-range drive before a long recharging.
Count Gaston piloted the car for the first-ever speed trial down Archeres road on December 18, 1898. His rivals drove three-wheeled “tricycle” or “tricars”. By the time the short race was completed, Gaston’s Jeantaud had traveled the two-kilometre course at a blistering 63.13 kilometres an hour/39.3 miles an hour to set the very first official land speed record.
One month later, Count Gaston drove the reconfigured chassis, fitted with a different body to surpass his first record. In January of 1899 his electric Jeantaud topped out at 66.65 kph/41.41 mph. The Belgian driver Camille Jenatzy, challenged Count Gaston many times afterwards. The two men leapfrogged to increasingly faster speed records each time.
In April of 1899, Jenatzy became the first driver to exceed 100 kph/60 mph. In 1902, Jenatzy’s record fell to Leon Serpollet, but Jenatzy’s won the electric record back, in 1903.
Meantime, Serpollet was the first race driver to hold the speed record for a non-electric automobile. Serpollet drove his “Oeuf de Paques” (Easter Egg) steam powered car 120.797 kph/75.06 mph in April of 1902. Later, in 1902, American, William Vanderbilt set the first internal combustion engine land speed record of 122.438 kph/76.08 mph.
These speed trials along with distance races helped determine which mode of power the world would adopt to drive automobiles for the next several decades. As we know, electric and steam powered cars fell into disfavor; and the internal combustion engine rose to dominate the industry.
At the turn of the 20th century, Charles Jeantaud began building conventional cars. He experimented with gasoline powered vehicles, but concentrated on marketing the electrics. Jeantaud even adopted front-wheel drive. Unfortunately, electrical technology did not advance as quickly as that for internal combustion engines, so sales of electrics fell rapidly. Sadly, Jeantaud committed suicide in 1906. With his death, his company folded.
The Blue Jay of Happiness notes the latest electric car land speed record was broken this month. The car “Electric Blue” was built by Brigham Young University students. The new world record for “E1” cars is now 329.7 kph/204.9 mph.