By Jim Taylor, Editor MACS ACtion Magazine
Leaf, Volt, Tesla, I-miev, Mini-E and countless others … the list of electric vehicles either present or emerging seems to grow every day. Accompanying the actual product announcements are reams and gigabytes of breathless hype and publicity attempting to portray an electric propulsion system as the newest thing on the planet. T’aint so. Electricity stored in batteries was quite popular in the very early days; liquid fuels were mostly undeveloped and difficult to find.
Although the early automobile and its near-ancestor the “self-powered carriage” developed simultaneously in many locations around the world (via Daimler, Duryea, Ford and many others), the old saying about the first race being held after the second car was built is probably true. Even in the earliest days, “mine is faster than yours” was a subtle force.
In the late 1890’s the European speed record climbed quickly and soon surpassed a frightening 57.6 miles per hour. Camille Jenatzy, a French citizen and producer of early electric vehicles, was right in the middle of the record chase. He participated in many hill climbs and speed record attempts.
After briefly holding the top speed record and then losing it to a driver in another electric car, Jenatzy upgraded his product for another attempt. He brought his “La Jamais Contente” (the Never Satisfied) to Paris in the spring of 1899.
On April 29, Jenatzy piloted the homebuilt racer to a certified speed of 65.8 m.p.h. An electric car had become the first vehicle to exceed a 60 m.p.h or “a mile a minute.” For most, this was scary stuff — remember that it was during this era that “investigators proved scientifically” that a human being could not exist in an open car at such speeds because the slipstream would create a vacuum and suck all the air from the lungs. Jenatzy suffered no ill effects from his run and was quite exhilarated during interviews.
Electric propulsion wasn’t Jenatzy’s only bit of forward thinking, either. He grasped the idea of reducing weight for better speed, and made his torpedo-shaped bodywork from sheets of aluminum alloy. Additionally, he competed on pneumatic tires instead of the more common solid rubber tires of the period. A young French company called Michelin aided his efforts.
Time and technology marched on of course; La Jamais Contente’s records only stood a short while before being eclipsed by others as the constant search for more speed continued. But the circle always closes and electric vehicle history was recently repeated.
In August, 2010, one hundred eleven years after Camille Jenatzy stunned the world, Ohio State University’s all-electric “Buckeye Bullet” set the world land-speed record for an electric car. It averaged 307.7 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats and broke the existing record by roughly 62 m.p.h.
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The streamlined record holder, almost more wingless-aircraft than racing car, is a joint project of OSU engineering students, the school’s Center for Automotive Research, A123 Batteries, Venturi Automobiles (of France!), Magna Power electronics, and several other sponsors and supporters.
The next time somebody natters at you about all this “new technology” in electric propulsion, tell ‘em that
Camille Jenatzy is watching. He was “Never Satisfied” – what will our grandchildren see?