Jenatzy’s family, originally from Hungary had settled in Schaerbeek, Belgium where where his father Constant established Jenatzy – Pneumatic, the first rubber factory in Belgium. In 1865 a son, Camille was born in Brussels. While studying for his civil engineering degree the young Jenatzy entered and won some local bicycle races. France had been a pioneer in lead acid battery technology and in 1881 Charles Jeantaud, assisted by Camille Faure built one of the first commercial electric powered vehicles. Jenatzy like many other prosperous young men of his generation was fascinated by the possibilities of the new motor cars and built a factory, the General Transport Company in France for the manufacture of battery powered vehicles.
Motor racing, as a sport that was exploding in popularity and seemed a natural way to demonstrate the capabilities of an automobile, so Jenatzy entered his first race, the Chantekoup hill climb, in November of 1898. Driving one of his electric cars, Jenatzy set the fastest time of the day, averaging 17 MPH over the muddy 1.8 kilometer course. One of his main rivals, an electric Jeantaud motor car, driven by Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat would set an official land-speed record of 39.2 MPH. Jenatzy promptly challenged his rival to a duel albeit with motor cars.
The duel took place on the 17th of January 1899 on a road just west of Paris in Achères. Jenatzy driving first establishing a new record of 41.4 MPH only to be topped Chasseloup-Laubat again driving the Jeantaud who was clocked at 43.7 MPH. Jenatzy promptly demanded another rematch, to take place in just 10 days’ time. This time, luck would be on his side; Jenatzy posted a new record speed of 49.9 MPH, but Chasseloup-Laubat suffered a burned motor and was unable to complete his run. Back and forth the record was broken and Jenatzy decided he needed to create a purpose built racing car in order to vanquish his rival once and for all.
With the appearance of a torpedo, the driver perched in the cat bird seat and propelled by four very small wheels this strange contraption was dubbed La Jamais Contente, or “The Never Satisfied”. Using a pair of 25-kilowatt electric motors fed by batteries delivering 200 volts and 124 amps, La Jamais Contente produced approximately 68 horsepower. That proved enough to propel Jenatzy to a top speed of 65.8 miles per hour, or 105.9 kilometers per hour, and on April 29, 1899, Jenatzy achieved immortality as the first to break the 100 KPH barrier in a motor car.His fierce demeanor and pointy ginger beard led him to be nicknamed Le Diable Rouge (“The Red Devil”).
When asked to describe the feeling of traveling faster than physicians of the day believed the human body could endure, Jenatzy said: “The car in which you travel seems to leave the ground and hurl itself forward like a projectile ricocheting along the ground.” Not everyone was impressed, though. W. Worby Beaumont wrote in his massive Motor Vehicles and Motors: ‘This is without doubt a higher speed than any other human being has ever traveled on roads, but it was only for about three-quarters of a mile that it was maintained. This vehicle was of no use in any way as a guide for any other class of vehicle’.
Allured by the speed of racing cars Jenatzy turned his attention to designing and building them. He began his official professional driving career behind the wheel of a Mors gasoline-electric automobile. Convinced he could build a better racer, Jenatzy entered the 1900 Gordon Bennett Cup race driving a Bolide, a gasoline-electric automobile of his own design. Getting as far as second place two burst front tires at Chevreuse doomed his effort. After the race Jenatzy would claim that he had five dogs on his conscience. After a short break from racing he began a partnership with Mercedes in 1902 that would last his entire career. At the Circuit des Ardennes Jenatzy was involved in a crash that sent his car into a ditch. The car was totally destroyed and Jenatzy, his face covered in blood was lucky to survive. Jenatzy abandoned the manufacture of his own car and returned the the family rubber business and began to produce a line of Jenatzy Tires.
In 1903, driving one of the new 90 hp racers in the infamous Paris-Madrid city to city race. Driving furiously he overtook 16 competitors, despite awful road conditions, and at Chatellerault, the big gray Mercedes was lying seventh. By Angoulerne, Jenatzy was third, and was being tipped as a possible winner but, at the top of the Petignac hill, he pulled up, with a misfire in his engine only to discover later that the misfire was caused by a fly in his carburetor. The Incident would come to be known as the “fly-in-the-ointment” and ended up costing him any chance at victory.
Note: The above story appears to be in error based upon an interview that Jenatzy conducted with a reporter for the Le Mond Sportif newspaper prior to the Vanderbilt Cup in which Jenatzy relayed the fact that the air tube had been tightly blocked by bees. He remembered that when passing near Angouleme he had driven through an immense swarm of bees. – New York Times – August 2, 1903
Later that year success would finally come to Jenatzy at the Gordon Bennett Cup in Ireland. Ironically he was not originally selected to drive for Mercedes but was a last minute replacement for the original driver who was not considered a proper gentleman by the Deutsche Automobil Club and only gentlemen could take part in the Gordon Bennett. The cars they drove were not originally intended for the race having been requisitioned from customers after the original cars were destroyed in a fire back at the factory. The car driven by Jenatzy was only obtained after several entreaties because the owner’s chauffeur was not convinced that Jenatzy was qualified to drive the car.
On a cool and cloudy day, July 2, 1903, starting at seven minute intervals Jenatzy drove the race of his life on a track riddled with curves and bumps. At the wheel of a car that was inferior in terms of horse power he tailored his spectacular driving style accelerating out of curves.
A fellow participant marveled: “Throughout the seemingly endless series of curves, Jenatzy kept his foot to the floor. He skidded at breakneck speed around the corners, often only narrowly missing the bordering walls in the process, as was shown by his skid marks that were everywhere to be seen. I could not imagine that he could keep up this daredevil driving style for very long.” By the time the race was over the Gordon Bennett Cup was headed back to Germany. Jenatzy for his efforts was awarded $25,000 from Mercedes, a new car worth $17,000 and a further $8,000 from the tire manufacturer for a princely total of $50,000, which would be approximately equivalent to $2.3 mil in 2014!
Jenatzy would continue racing through 1908. At the Circuit des Ardennes behind the wheel of an obsolete Mors he finished 16th, the fire had gone out of the great champion. Though he raced a number of cars in his final years as a driver he continued to favor Mercedes even revealing a premonition to close friends that he would one day die in a Mercedes. While he kept a 180-hp Mercedes racer for the odd sprint race or hill climb, by 1910 his attention had turned primarily to running the family’s tire manufacturing business in Brussels.
It was not Jenatzy’s love of fast driving which caused his violent death in 1913, but his propensity for practical joking. According to accounts to the police at the time he was entertaining a party of friends at his shooting box in the Ardennes, and one night decided to frighten them. Jenatzy crept outside, hid behind a bush, and imitated the fearsome grunt of an enraged wild boar. Whereupon one of his guests leaned out of the window and shot the supposed wild animal dead. Rumors at the time identified the shooter Alfred Madoux, director of the journal L’Etoile Belgeas and the husband of Jenatzy’s alleged mistress.