The World's First Land-Speed Capital

photo: location of speed record

The roadsides were treeless when Camille Jenatzy topped 100 kph right here 100 years ago.

Achères Remembers 100-Year Old Fame

Achères:- Tuesday, 27. April 1999:- The road through the forest of Saint-Germain to Achères is not lined with speed-limit signs. But there is one spot, after turning way from the direction to Poissy, where there is a stop-light. This is at the narrow underpass beneath a railroad crossing.

A very tall truck is going through it very slowly, because there is no light showing between the truck-trailer's roof and the bottom of the bridge. The traffic light goes through a couple of red-green cycles while we wait until sky shows as the truck eases out on the further side.

Huge Capet's son King Robert II had a hunting lodge in this forest around 1000, and 500 years later François 1st built a lot of the roads, one of which I'm probably on.

The outskirts of Achères begin bit further on, with a big school and playgrounds on the left. Somewhere in front there is a 13th century church, Saint-Martin, which isphoto: book display jamais contente 300 years younger than another, dated 997, when the name of the village was 'Villum Apiarias,' possibly on account of local honey production.

Part of the centennial exhibit in Achères modern library - which now has its own address.

However, as I am looking for the town's city hall still - this is the thing to do when entering any unknown French locality - I know none of this yet. What I do know is Achères is the place where the 100 kph land-speed barrier was broken for the first time, on Saturday, 29. April 1899.

At what appears to be the town's centre, I park my bucket of bolts. What appears to be the Hôtel de Ville is not, although there is a big market place next to it. By asking directions, I do not immediately see the Saint-Martin church, but pass the back of it going to the back of the city hall - which has a locked back door.

Around to the front, the door is open because lunch is over. In smaller French towns, the city hall has all the local information, except at lunchtime, and Achères is no exception.

The fête for the speed record is scattered around town; but most of it is across from the back door of the city hall - where there is an old railway wagon - at the town's municipal library, which also has its back doors locked.

Again, around to the front - find the door! - and inside is a large and new-looking library, with the speed exhibition on the third floor. I write 'large library' because it has three whole floors - and the exhibition's space is not large.

In addition to a comic strip running around the room, there is a two-thirds scale model of the 'Jamais Contente,' the record-breaking car. It took 240 hours to make, and the reason for doing it is so that it can travel to exhibitions. The original, a third larger, is the size of a small torpedo, which is a bit too large.

The 'model' has everything, including steel leaf-springs, but is without a motor. Its body is light gray when I was expecting red, but I see I mixed this up with its driver, Camille Jenatzy, who was called the 'Red Devil,' no doubt on account of being red-haired and being considered to be crazed by high speeds.

Achères had some hairy moments a century ago. At the time, it was believed that one's blood vessels would burst at speeds over 70 kph. On 18. December 1898, Count Gaston Chasseloup-Laubat, known as the 'Electric Count,' broke a record set eight days before by Paul-Meyan, an automobile journalist, by going 63.154 kph in an electric Jeantaud. This journalist, had broken the land-speed record, then held by a bicyclist.

Camille Jenatzy showed up on 17. January in one of his Jenatzy taxicabs from Paris, and ran it up to 66.664 kph on the two-kilometre straight stretch of the Route des Noyers, on the agricultural plain within the loop of the Seine, just north of the Saint-Germain forest.

Later the same day, the 'Electric Count' topped this by hitting 70.585 kph in his Jeantaud, without anyphoto: model jamais contente, library blood vessels exploding. Ten days later, the 'Red Devil' re-smashed the record with his Jenatzy by flashing by the final distance marker at 79.996 kph. Whew!

A fake monk examining the scale model on the 'Jamais Contente,' on exhibit in the library.

Then both the Count and Jenatzy 'went back to the drawing boards.' The first to come out was Count Gaston Chasseloup-Laubat on 4. March, when he upped the ante to 92.307 kph with his 'hopped-up' Jeantaud.

The 'Red Devil' Jenatzy, an engineer of Belgian extraction, took more time to design a custom torpedo body made of something like aluminum; hand-built by a Reims garage operator named Léon Archer. They called it the 'Jamais Contente,' the world's first electric-powered racing car. In fact, the first car ever built only for racing.

Under threatening skies on Saturday, 29. April 1899 and observed by a curious crowd of about 200 early automobile racing fans, Camille Jenatzy's 'Jamais Contente' took its position on the starting line. Jenatzy gripped the steering handle tightly in both hands, and 'let 'er rip!'

Silently, the racing torpedo on red wheels passed the first kilometre marker and then the second one 56.66 seconds later, to give a speed of 105. 882 kilometres per hour.

There was joy in the 900-soul village of Achères, which became thus the speed capital of the world! The record stood for a while, because William Vanderbuilt only managed to exactly match the speed-record in a 40 horsepower Mercedes in mid-April of 1902.

After getting directions, I take a look at the original 'Jamais Contente,' loaned to Achères for a month by the National Car Museum at Compiègne, on view at the Boris Vian hall near the road to Conflans at the north end of Achères.

It is up on a stage by itself with a blue curtain behind, with '100 Years' on it. It seems much bigger than the model in the library - but then Jenatzy was a big guy. A big, fast guy. A 'devil' of a driver.

For Achères, this is a good bit of resurrected history. Although Peugeot has a plant just to the south and I think another across the river, and there is a lot of old railroad history, Achères is mainly known as the location of Paris' main water recycling facility.

This is, in fact, what is at the end of the road where the speed record was set and you do not have the read the signs to know it is here. About halfway along the record stretch, there is a road branching off to the north, to a marina by the old Ile de Conflans, which appears no longer to be an island.

It is flat, and delta-like and the road is almost flat and very straight. Today, the replica markers are not in place yet, but should be by the weekend. I wonder if my old tin-can could hit 100 along here and decide not to try it, and it is not because of the 60 kph speed-limit signs.

There are a couple of bicyclists commuting along the way and I'm sure they'd be trying to go at least 70 passing the water recycling plant, if they could.

What a time it must have been 100 years ago. Balloons, cars, bikes, airplanes just around time's corner; all the flood of mechanical inventions! A new 'speed' sensation practically every month.

Achères recovered successfullyphoto: new address sign, jamais contente from its world-wide fame and settled back into semi-oblivion. Like a lot of other places in France it has its bit of pre-history, its Roman bit, its middle-ages bits, and 100 years ago, its world fame.

After ten years at no place in particular, the Achères library is now located on the Place La Jamais Contente.

Today it faces the Seine to the west and north like is always has and has the Saint-Germain forest at its back, like it always has. Its municipal library is celebrating its 10th anniversary, and the space in front of it, behind the church, has finally gotten a name for the first time in history.

Learning this has been a surprise because I am under the impression that there is no place in France without a name.

Now, if you need to send a letter to the library, instead of addressing it c/o Hôtel de Ville, just write Bibliothèque Paul Eluard, Place Jamais Contente, 78260 Achères on the envelope.

Exhibition at the Bibliothèque Paul Eluard, features the model of the 'Jamais Contente' plus a comic strip of the exploit, a video of the road where the record was set, and a large collection of books relating to the subject. This exhibition continues until Saturday 29. May. Info. Tel.: 01 39 11 22 95.

Exhibition of racing car paintings, at the Jean Cocteau cultural centre, until Tuesday, 26. May.

Exhibition '100 to 1000 KPH' at the Bois Vian hall, features the original 'Jamais Contente' and some other things on wheels; also until Tuesday, 26. May.

Antique car show, starting at noon, at the Place du Marché, with prizes at 15:00 and parade of cars; on Sunday, 23. May.

Other than these special events, Achères also has two other annual fêtes worth mentioning. One is something like the 'Dike Party' which takes place along the nearby Seine on the third Sunday in September. The other is the 'Fête du Céleri' whichphoto: the jamais contente champions local agriculture, with amusement rides and local foodstuffs; and this is in October of every year.

Achères is less than 25 kilometres from Paris by road; either via the A13 - turn off for Poissy - or from the A15 - turn off in the direction of Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

The original 'La Jamais Contente' in the Boris-Vian Hall.

If coming by rail, which first came to Achères in 1882, take the RER 'A3' in the direction of Poissy and get off at the Gare Achères-Ville. This is very near the Boris Vian hall, at the north end of town - and is not a very long walk from the stretch of road where the record was set in 1899.

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