Original Chapter One: “The Red Devil”

The Red Devil lived for brash speed. Man against wind. Torso against turbulence. On a darkly clouded Saturday, the last April 29th of the century, in the rural village of Achères, just beyond the northwestern outskirts of Paris, Camille Jenatzy, eventually renowned as “the Red Devil,” prepared once again to defy nature and the limits of technology. His vehicle was a shiny, new, and experimental car. He would drive faster than any other man before him.

What inspired Jenatzy? Perhaps it was scoffing at the perceived limits of man and machine. Perhaps it was a crass willingness to make history by creating his own demarcation lines for the future. In truth, an elixir of both drove Jenatzy to drive himself further and further into an ever-beckoning record book.

Jenatzy himself described the exhilaration in these words: “The car in which you travel seems to leave the ground and hurl itself forward like a projectile ricocheting along the ground. As for the driver, the muscles of his body and neck become rigid in resisting the pressure of the air; his gaze is steadfastly fixed about two hundred yards ahead; his senses are on the alert … When in the distance a cloud of dust proclaims that another car is being overtaken, a delightful feeling of triumph comes over you. This is the time when you need to recall all that you know … for then begins a real journey into darkness … If the other competitor sees you he will draw aside, but usually he does not heed your signals. There seems to be no room to pass. Yet you pass all the same.”

In the months before the fateful April 29 match, Jenatzy had been dueling with his latest chief competitor, Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat. Each struggled in turn to claim a new land-speed high mark. Race after race, the two assembled in remote Achères. There they dashed for the desired record, attaining ever higher speeds, each man inching ahead of his previous record and closer to the ultimate goal.

That day, everyone expected that the extreme velocity Jenatzy promised would surely burst his blood vessels. Jenatzy didn’t care. What’s more, everyone expected the gathering thunderclouds to make the roadway deadly. He didn’t care. Many doubted his new speed goal could even be achieved. He really didn’t care.

Parc Agricole d’Achères was the chosen track. The narrow, two-kilometer stretch coursed through a sewage recycling farm. The area reeked of Paris’s excretion, but the terrain was profoundly flat, and therefore safer for the frame-jarring speed both racers promised. That day, a long assemblage of chauffeured cars journeyed to the two-kilometer strip, now bedecked with small flags.

At the appointed hour, with the skies threatening a deluge, a taxi from Paris pulled up. Jenatzy emerged. Tall, red-haired, and thin-lipped, his trademark pencil-thin beard outlining his jaw, Jenatzy swaggered to the starting point where his vehicle had been towed and readied. He had dubbed his exciting new car, “La Jamais Contente,” that is, “The Never Satisfied,” so named to connote not only his insatiable lust for velocity, but also, some said, a comment on his wife’s manner.

Most extraordinary, “La Jamais Contente” was powered by the latest electric engine. Electric cars were common, of course. They had been in existence for decades. Thousands of them served as taxis and delivery vehicles in the major cities of the world: Paris, London, and New York. The expensive models featured plush upholstery and elaborate décor. For years, these automobiles, some of which were built by Jenatzy’s own company, had been setting escalating speed records.

But Jenatzy’s new breed of electric car was the first built specifically for high-speed racing. Unlike all the boxy oil-burning and other electric speedsters to date, Jenatzy’s revolutionary vehicle design created a snazzy machine about six feet long, constructed of an experimental new French metal called partinium—an early aluminum alloy. This bold new metallic concoction was fabricated into a sleek, bullet-shaped torpedo of a car, running atop special undersized Michelin tires. Powered by the latest batteries, the shiny and reflective La Jamais Contente was engineered not for comfort as were most other electric cars, but for raw acceleration. It was invented literally to slice through the air.

Jenatzy climbed into his magnificent new blue-gray machine with its moniker emblazoned on a red side decal. His tall body protruded awkwardly from the machine, almost like a man in a saddle. Suddenly a storm wind swept up at his back. The rain was coming. It was time. Jenatzy pulled the goggles down from his cap brim and over his eyes. Hunkered low atop the torpedo, Jenatzy tautly braced himself. One journalist recorded at that moment, “The car had to either fly or burn.”

Then it launched.

Faster than anyone anticipated, La Jamais Contente zoomed past the onlookers, almost silently, “with a subdued noise like the rustling of wings,” as one observer in the crowd declared. An amazed reporter at the scene wrote that the vehicle “scarcely seemed to touch the ground, but undulated like the dipping of a swallow along the surface.”

In its wake, two white wheel tracks scored the roadway. Veering to the left or right would have caused the car to careen and crash. But Jenatzy steered rigidly even as he vaulted forward at never before achieved speeds. Just as Jenatzy and his trail of dust streaked across the finish line, his backward cap and scarf trailing like a comet’s tail, the thunderclouds unzipped. The downpour drenched the champion. But it was too late for the elements to spoil the day. Jenatzy had prevailed. He wheeled La Jamais Contente to a winner’s circle, where the car was ceremoniously entwined in garlands. Sporting her open umbrella and a floral bonnet, Jenatzy’s wife was hoisted atop the vehicle. She was positioned behind her husband as victory photographs were snapped for the newspapers and magazines.

When the final velocity measurements were announced, Jenatzy and his electric vehicle closed out the last months of the century with a new land-speed record. But this was not the end of the twentieth century. It was the end of the nineteenth—April 29, 1899. The land-speed record Jenatzy had achieved? He was the first to break the mile per minute record, bursting through the 100 kilometers per hour barrier—his record that day was 65.8 mph, or 105 kph.

The Achères speed record was the crowning achievement for clean and powerful electric cars, and Jenatzy’s victory should have presaged another century of astonishing development for electric vehicles. In fact, the Achères record held for three years until bettered by a steam-driven vehicle.

But Jenatzy’s own desire for speed propelled him away from electric and steam-driven vehicles to the next generation of petroleum-burning engines. They were faster, more powerful and the only way to satisfy the speed lust of a growing generation of new century racers. His new vehicle of choice was the heavy German-made Mercedes, packing more power per piston than any automobile before it.

Jenatzy loved his Mercedes vehicles, motoring them through cross-country tours, in city-to-city race events and closed-circuit speed tests. At one point he owned at least five of the cars, and some press reports referred to him as “Herr Jenatzy.” The Kaiser himself met and congratulated the Hungarian-born Belgian residing in France who had done so much to advance German automotive engineering. Pushing the limits of the engineering, Jenatzy and his powerful Mercedes cars racked up a list of close calls and road incidents.

In 1902, while racing at the Circuit des Ardennes, Jenatzy drove a 40 horsepower Mercedes into his biggest disaster yet. Rounding the first lap, his machine veered out of control into a ditch. The upside-down car burst into flames. Burning petroleum was everywhere. Doctors came running to the inferno, believing they would recover only a charred corpse. To their astonishment, Jenatzy was seen driving away from the smoking wreck in another car. His face, covered in blood, and his miraculous survival convinced onlookers that the speed demon had sealed a pact with the devil. Since that day, Jenatzy was known everywhere as “the Red Devil.” Not a few swore they saw a “demonical look” in his face.

Undeterred, Jenatzy continued to drive the powerful German autos, but bragged to one and all that one day “I’ll die in a Mercedes.”

Having walked away from death once, the Red Devil became even more daring and flamboyant. In one race, he was reported to have stopped his Mercedes, jumped out and assaulted an onlooker “who displeased him.” In another race, he was irritated that the American driver’s vehicle was in his way; a colleague reported that Jenatzy waved his arms in excitement and threatened “bloodshed” if the American did not immediately get out of the way. The automotive press delighted in casting him as devilish. Car Illustrated described him as having a “Mephistophelean beard” with a visage of “an extinct volcano.” Automobile Club Journal declared, “Jenatzy, wild and excited, looked like a man possessed.” Augmenting this untamed picture was a man who waved ostentatiously to the fans in the stands and blew kisses to his watchful wife as he skidded through laps.

In 1903, Germany selected Jenatzy to drive in the most important competition of the day, the Irish Gordon Bennett Cup, sponsored by New York Daily Herald publisher Gordon Bennett. In a dramatic race that seared itself into Ireland’s collective memory, the Red Devil beat all the odds by narrowly winning the seven-hour challenge over a long varied course in a specially engineered Mercedes that attained speeds of 80 mph and literally spit fire from its engines.

Not long after the Gordon Bennett triumph, Jenatzy retired to the family tire manufacturing business in Belgium. But wherever he went his legendary status as the Red Devil followed him. Everywhere he was known as the man who took the petroleum-burning car to new speeds and new limits, proving its endurance and value far beyond electric vehicles. Jenatzy and several dozen racing pioneers like him were exactly what a speed-addicted world wanted. One of the solemn promises of the twentieth century was a vehicle that could haul heavier weights further and faster—regardless of the consequences.

In October 1913, while the Red Devil was on a boar hunt in the Belgian Ardennes with his friend Alfred Madoux, editor of L’Etoile Belge, Jenatzy stepped into the wrong shadow. Madoux thought he saw a boar and shot. Jenatzy was struck in the thigh. The powerful exploding bullet ripped open his leg. He bled profusely. As the life quickly poured out of Jenatzy, his friend frantically bundled him into a car and drove wildly to a surgeon. But the automobile could not drive fast enough. The Red Devil died en route. He bled to death. In a Mercedes.

* * *

The Red Devil’s fiery life was emblematic of a world that craved speed, and yet the speed attained was never enough. Jenatzy’s legacy, forgotten to most, was to catapult the oil-burning automobile into the popular consciousness of an advancing industrial society and prove its mettle. In the process, and unimagined by Jenatzy, his bravado helped stunt the further development of electric cars and other alternative energy sources.

It was during the first decade of the twentieth century that the petroleum-burning car began to proliferate, helping make its fuel the most desired commodity on earth. Oil was needed not just for personal automobiles, but also for industrial and commercial vehicles, for trains, planes, and naval warships, for militarized transport lugging heavy loads into battle, for factory generators whirring day and night, and for internal combustion machines of every sort, powering every conceivable application. During the twentieth century, petroleum companies, generally in league with governments, would go to the ends of the earth, to the heart of the desert, to the top of the world, and to the bottom of the sea to extract, refine, and distribute the black gold.

Frequently, the line blurred between the governments that craved the oil and the companies that battled all comers to provide it. Wars were fought, nations were cracked into pieces and others were sewn together, whole peoples were subjugated even as others were exalted—all to facilitate, accelerate, and cheapen the cost of acquiring this magical ingredient of power. What was important to society was having oil—not how it was obtained. During these years, the sensible energy alternatives were never as hypnotizing or lucrative either to the corporations or to the governments so heavily invested in the new petropolitics and petroeconomics.

Oil was not clean, it was not healthy, it was not safe, and it was not reliably supplied. But petroleum possessed one cherished characteristic that towered over all power alternatives. In the first decade of the twentieth century, oil was a highly concentrated and immensely cheap power. Costly lead batteries were easily supplanted by an inexpensive barrel of petroleum, especially a barrel often obtained without any real royalty to its country of origin.

Oil is intoxicating. So it was never enough for the petroleum industry to co-exist with viable alternatives, that is, with the renewable wind, sun, electrical sparks, or chemical miracles that could turn engines and transport whole communities. The first primitive electric car was invented around 1830. The first hydrogen fuel cell—that is, a device for extracting energy from hydrogen—was invented in about 1839. Yet the economic forces that became wedded to the petroleum solution supplanted those good ideas and many others by predatory economic tactics, collusion, bribery, and contrived legislation bought and paid for.

The techniques of economic collusion and delusion, first pioneered by John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company in the late nineteenth century, continued long after the federal government prosecuted that company, split it up, and outlawed such conduct. Long after the thrill-seeking Red Devil proved in Achères that electric cars could usher in a golden age of transportation, the electric street trolleys and electric bus companies of dozens of American cities were systematically bankrupted by their billionaire owners and petroleum and automotive companies in favor of inefficient oil-burning buses and automobiles. Public transit in dozens of cities was decimated, magnifying the urban necessity for automobiles. What kind of automobiles? Not clean-running electric cars, but smoke-belching gas-guzzlers.

At the same time, sooty diesel locomotives replaced the all-electric trains that crisscrossed the country and easily glided over the Rocky Mountains. Instead, false engineering, financial trickery, misinformation, and bribery created an oil-dependent rail industry destined for failure. Passenger rail in America did in fact fail.

A secret 1917 American Petroleum Institute report to President Woodrow Wilson warned that America’s oil supply would run dry within four decades unless supplies were secured in the Middle East. But that did not convince America to resurrect its still-popular alternatives. Instead, the leading Western industrialized nations, along with America, created an oil umbilical cord to the Middle East. The industrialized world became oil dependent, and when that dependency was threatened, it moved heaven and earth, army and navy to protect it. All the while, that dependency was immeasurably deepened by converting our pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, cosmetics, clothing, and the material artifacts of our culture—virtually every box and container—from natural substances to petrochemicals.

Today, we grow food with petroleum, digest petroleum, wear petroleum, inject petroleum, smear it across our cheekbones, and breathe it. For decades, corporate combines, armies of lobbyists and vested politicians created a cavalcade of Manhattan Project-style enterprises to guarantee that the world became tethered to oil fields, and to ensure that the alternatives remained unviable. As supplies dwindled, as the cost in dollars and personal destruction soared, as the health of societies and cities choked on the success, oil interests have resisted and subverted all efforts to cure the addiction they created. In this addiction, the users were all too willing enablers, and the generation-to-generation lack of public policy created an impervious vacuum.

If the world’s addiction to oil became one of the great crimes of the century, the culprits were many, and the public proved itself an eager and willing accomplice.

But as the harsh light and reality of the brittle twenty-first century streams in, the old petropolitics, the new Mideast terrorism and a fast-approaching exhaustion of oil supplies—perhaps just one to two decades away—has forced the world to break off society’s global addiction to petroleum. Alternatives are being sought: new electric vehicles, hybrid autos, hydrogen fuel cell cars, vast arrays of wind turbines, solar collectors, methane plants, biomass, clean coal, safe nuclear, and an expanding new glossary of futuristic substitutes.

In fact, virtually none of the solutions are futuristic. Most of them are more than a century old and the victim of concerted action to subvert their success. Many could be implemented quickly if the precedents of the oil addiction were applied to the promise of finding a solution.

Nagging questions now haunt the world. How did we get to this point? What happened during the past century? Who did it? How was it done? Why? Can we switch back, how soon, and at what cost? Who can be believed? What science is authentic? What are the unheard sounds and unseen currents at play?

The answers are literally the outline of the twentieth century, a multi-threaded, sometimes collusive, often disjointed, zigzagging tale. It is a global tale of internal combustion.

© Copyright 2006 Edwin Black. All rights reserved.