Despite the rise of the EV in the last decade, there were many more electric vehicle manufacturers in the world 100 years ago than there are today. Hundreds of manufacturers competed in the fledgling and still disorganized automotive marketplace, which was dominated initially by the electric vehicle.
Though the first "land speed record" was unknowingly begun by a French magazine with a contest it held in December 1898, it was to be this intense competition between manufacturers for this record that captured the imagination of the public and quickly saw top speeds skyrocket.
Setting a speed record was an obvious way to get publicity for a brand and prove its capability in a world still coming to grips with the concepts of advertising and promotion, and it was the rivalry between Belgian EV manufacturer Camille Jenatzy and the French Jeantaud EV Company which progressed the first record of 63.13 km/h (39.24 mph) - set in December 1898 by Jeantead - to 105.878 km/h (65.79 mph) - set in April 1899 by Jenatzy - as the rivals battled for supremacy.
Considering that this time frame of just four months contained six different record setting runs shared three each between the two rivals, it was certainly an intense beginning for the land speed record, and an indication of the passion with which people would pursue the prize to its present day magnitude of more than ten times the initial mark.
It all began when the French automobile magazine La France Automobile decided to hold trials. The top speed of 63.13 km/h (39.24 mph) recorded in those trials was set by Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat driving a 36 hp electric Jeantaud.
The initial run was almost certainly set with a normal model of the Jeantaud and involved running a one-way flying-start one kilometer (0.62 miles) in 57 seconds to give the 63.13 km/h average speed. Model maker Touchwood has a special range of 1:43 scale Land Speed Record cars, and has painstakingly researched the original cars and reproduced them authentically. Hence the model below is the form the original 1898 Jeantaud.
As an interesting aside, the Jeantaud used what is generally regarded as the first steering wheel in history. It was a wheel with a handle on top for easy winding of the steering, and the face of the steering wheel was horizontal - but it was the first recognizable steering wheel. Interestingly, the model of Jenatzy's La Jamais Contente uses the same form of steering wheel, rather than the common "tiller" steering of the time which was actually used by Jenatzy.
Following the triumph of Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat, he was challenged to a duel of sorts by Belgian Camille Jenatzy and the date for the showdown was to be January 17, 1899.
Jenatzy arrived at the "duel" with a what is listed as a CGA Dogcart (some early styles of automotive models were referred to as "dogcarts" after the horse drawn carriages of the same description). Little information is available on the car other than that it was powered by one 80 cell Fulmen lead acid battery and that it established a new record of 66.7 km/h (41.420 mph) with Jenatzy's run.
The Count responded with a run of 70.17 km/h (43.6 mph) and yet another record was established. As battery technology of the day was primitive in comparison to today, both cars had "spent" their batteries and no further runs were possible.
Hence Jenatzy had held the record for just a few minutes. The "Electric Count" as de Chasseloup-Laubat was popularly known, prevailed on the day and held a second world record.
On 27 January 1899, Jenatzy returned to the same venue on public roads near Achères, to push the record of to 80.34 km/h (49.92 mph) in the CGA Dogcart.
The battle was now all consuming for both Chasseloup-Laubat and Jenatzy, and on March 4, 1899, six weeks after Jenatzy's new record, the Electric Count rolled up with a new car dubbed the "Jeantaud Duc Profilée," which included the addition of some rudimentary streamlining, and took the record back with a run of 92.7 km/h (57.6 mph).
In the wings however, Jenatzy had also been working on a new car, a torpedo shaped electric vehicle with many parts made of partinium, a strong, lightweight and expensive alloy made of aluminum, copper, zinc, silicon and iron which had not been previously used in a car.
The appropriately named Jamais Contente (Never Satisfied) was the first purpose-built speed record car and had two direct drive Postel-Vinay 25 kW motors, running at 200 V, and drawing 124 amps for approximately 68 horsepower.
La Jamais Contente finally broke through the 100 km/h (62 mph) barrier on 29 April 1899 with a speed of 105.9 km/h (65.79 mph). The new record would be broken in 1902 by Leon Serpollet's steam car with a speed of 120.80 km/h (75.06 mph), and subsequently the first internal combustion engined vehicle to take the record, the William K Vanderbilt driven Mors Z Paris-Vienne, which recorded 120.83 km/h (76.08 mph), also in 1902.
Internal combustion engines held all the speed records for half a century after this, with one exception - in 1905, the Stanley Steamer of Fred Marriot ran 195.65 km/h (121.57 mph) on Daytona beach to take the record and hold it for four years.
The last internal combustion engine to hold the outright land speed record was John Cobb's Railton Mobil Special in 1947 when Cobb ran 634.39 km/h (394.19 mph), before the turbojet, rocket and turbofan machines pushed the record through the 400 mph (1963), 500 mph (1964), 600 mph (1965) and finally the 700 mph mark in 1997. Andy Green's Thrust SSC still holds the record set in 1997.
The vehicle pictured in the color image below is a replica of the original Jamais Contente built in 1993-94 by the students of the Université de Technologie et du Lycée Technologique de Compiégne, in France. See the gallery for more pics.