The first attempt to secure the World Land Speed record started humbly, way back in the nineteenth century, three years after the birth of motor racing itself, with the Comte Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat doing a timed (by stop watches) speed of 39.245 mph at a smooth stretch of tarmac road in Acheres Park, near Paris, on 18 December 1898.
This was over a flying-start kilometre which was covered in 57 secs. The vehicle used was a Jeantaud electric car, quite un-streamlined, with a 36hp series-wound motor driving by chain to the back wheels, the motor being fed by Fulmen non- rechargeable batteries. This was good enough to beat the petrol cars in a comparatively quiet run, even though the car weighed 1400 kg.
The first challenge to Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat's "Speed Record" came in the form of 'Red Devil' (as he was later called) Camille Jenatzy, who had not been able to attend this first speed feast, but who ran his own electric car at the same venue in January 1899 and achieved 41.42mph over the kilometre.
This did not see the day out, however. Gaston met the challenge with a run in 51.25 km/h (43.69mph); speed was increasing alarmingly! Indeed, not long afterwards, the Jeantaud retrieved its lost honours, lifting the record to 57.6mph, aided by the wind-cheating bodywork that was to be carried to extremes all along the history of land-speed record cars.
Electric power was on the way out, however, the Jeantaud having finished its run with a burnt-out motor which happened to it again before its run at over 57 mph had been achieved. However, this record was good publicity for a make favored by Parisian taxi-cab operators. You may wonder why France was the home of not only the first Land Speed Record attempt, but also of motorsport itself. And the answer is thanks to Napoleon, who instigated a network of long straight
roads even before the turn of the century, and the
motorcar had only been in existence about ten years
before French owners began to ask the age old question, "what
will she do?."
The first recorded motoring competition
was in 1894 from Paris to Rouen in which all kinds
of improbable cars driven by steam, electricity and
petrol engines took part. The first race proper was
in the following year from Paris to Bordeaux and
back. In these early days the two main champions
of the electric car were the Marquis de Chasseloup-Laubat
and the Belgian, Camille Jenatzy.
The Marquis was
a founder member of the Automobile Club de France
in 1895, and his driver was his younger brother,
Count Gaston. The Marquis built his car, a Jeantaud,
and in December 1898, Count Gaston took it to a deserted
stretch of road outside Paris near the hamlet of
Acheres, between the villages of St. Germain and
Constans to make what became the first attempt on
the World Land Speed Record.
The timekeepers operated
their primitive apparatus in one direction only over
a flying kilometre, and were no doubt thankful to
be finished on a cold, wet day and to seek shelter.
Count Gaston was told, after due calculation, that
he had achieved a time of 57 seconds, giving him
a speed of 39.24 miles an hour. This car, whose thunder
was largely stolen by the much better-known "La Jamais Contente",
is really entitled to a place in the hall of fame
on several counts. It was the first car to hold the
World Land Speed Record. It was the first (but not
the last) electric car to do so, and also held the
Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat then
re-built and re-bodied the car and took the record
for a third time in 1899. This car took part in,
or was in fact the cause of, the three-cornered battle
between steam, electricity, and the petrol engine
which was fought during the first five years of the
motor car and decided what the whole world would
use for the next 65 years at least.
Count Gaston made
his records over a flying kilometre in one direction
only, before there was much control over these attempts.
His car was an ugly chain-driven machine in which
he sat high off the ground and steered by a vertical
handle projecting from the first steering wheel on
record in times when the tiller was universal. It
was strictly a sprint machine as the batteries of
the day gave him only a short range without recharging.