It seems that every week brings reports of new advancements with electric vehicles. It’s easy to think electric cars are a new phenomenon, but they are nearly as old as the automobile, itself.
The early electric automobiles were no second-hand substitute for the gas-powered alternative. The first automobile to go faster than 100 km/h (62 mph) was electric. The story of the vehicle and its driver discloses not only a fascinating chapter in the history of automobiles but also a chilling prophecy that was fulfilled in a most unexpected way.
Carl Benz patented the first “vehicle powered by a gas engine” in 1886. This is widely considered to be the first gas powered automobile. The birth of the first electric car is a matter of debate. Although electric-powered vehicles had existed since the 1830s, it wasn’t until the invention of the rechargeable battery that a practical electric car could be built. William Morrison created a sensation at the 1893 Chicago World Fair with his self-propelled carriage. It had 24 battery cells and could reach speeds of 32 km/h (20 mph) and could go as far as 50 miles before needing recharging.
It was the Electrobat that became the first commercially-viable electric car. Patented in 1894, it was able to reach speeds of 40 km/h (25 mph). The competition had begun to see whether gas or electric would rule the roads.
It was at this time that Camille Jenatzy became a household name. Jenatzy was born in 1868 in Belgium. He took an immediate interest in the newfangled electric vehicles and used his passion and daring to test their limits.
Known as Le Diable Rouge (The Red Devil) because of the color of his beard, he cut a dashing figure in his racing attire. Some thought a better nickname might be “daredevil” because of his death-defying performances behind the wheel.
On January 17, 1899, Jenatzy broke the record for the fastest car when he drove his CGA Dogcart at 66.66 km/h (41.42 mph) near Paris. It was a short-lived record, however. That same day, Caston de Chasseloup-Laubat took the title of fastest driver away from him. Not to be outdone, ten days later, on January 27, 1899, Jenatzy pushed his vehicle to 80.35 km/h (49.93 mph). Again, Chasseloup-Laubat reclaimed the title from him.
Not to be outdone, Jenatzy set to work modifying the electric CITA No. 25 La Jamari’s Contente. It was the first automobile specifically designed to be a land speed racer. On April 29, 1899, he drove his car to 105.88 km/h (65.79 mph), not only breaking the record but being the first to exceed 100 km/h.
Jenatzy continued to push vehicles and himself to their limits. In 1903, he won the Gordon Bennet Cup in Athy, Ireland. The car that drove him to victory was a Mercedes. The dangerous high speeds achieved in that race led him to make a sobering prediction: he was confident he would die in a Mercedes.
Jenatzy’s words were tragically prophetic, but his death did not come in the way you might expect. For a decade after making his prediction, Jenatzy continued to race, but he walked away safely from each event.
It was on December 8, 1913, that tragedy struck. While hunting with some friends, Jenatzy hid behind a bush and mimicked animal calls. He wanted to fool his friends, and he did. Alfred Madoux, director of the journal L’Etoile Belge, heard the sounds and thought they were the real thing. Only after firing his gun did he realize the noises were coming from his prankster pal.
Jenatzy was badly wounded. His friends loaded him into the nearest automobile and rushed him to the hospital. His injuries were too great, however, and Jenatzy bled to death while en route.
The vehicle in which he died was a Mercedes, thus fulfilling his morbid prophecy.
Categories: Accomplishments and Records, Careers, Death, History, Strange Deaths, Transportation
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