1898 and 1899: Jeantaud driven by Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat

Send This Page To A Friend


1898 / 1899
1,400 kg
36 bhp
Chain drive rear wheels
Top Speed:
39.24/43.69 mph

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 record twice.

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.

Also See:

Land Speed Record Drivers
Herbert Austin LSR Attempt
History Of The Land Speed Record
Unique Cars and Parts USA - The Ultimate Classic Car Resource