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Streamlining in 1899: Jenatzy’s “La Jamais Contente” and Vallée’s “Pantoufle”

Updated  – Editors note: This article is written by guest writer Hampton C. Wayt, a very knowledgeable and trained automotive historian. His field of interest is the design history of the automobile.

By Hampton C. Wayt:  The “streamlining” of automobiles with an interest of attaining higher speeds is practically as old as the invention itself. The best-known early example of such is probably Camille Jenatzy’s famed “La Jamais Contente” (“The Never Satisfied”) of 1899. Jenatzy’s wagon, the shape of which appears to have been inspired by airship or torpedo designs of the time, features a pointed front end devised to pierce the wind. This bullet-shaped form likely played an important role in Jenatzy becoming the first driver in history to propel a road vehicle to a speed of over 100 kph (62 mph).

  • The Lead Image – The “La Jamais Contente” racer of 1899—the first road vehicle to attain 100 kph (62 mph)—had surprisingly little influence over the design of later generations of race cars.

Update at the bottom of the post and new images.

Little remembered but also from 1899 is the aptly named “Pantoufle”—or “slipper.” Built as a racecar by Henri Vallée, a short-lived automobile manufacturer who began his career making bicycles, the Pantoufle featured an impressive 7598 cc, 16/24-horsepower horizontally opposed 4-cylinder gasoline engine—but no gears—Vallée apparently feeling his engine so stout and versatile that he deemed them unnecessary. And as found with the La Jamais Contente, the “slipper” featured a slippery shape designed to slice through air.

Henri Vallee’s Pantoufle Racing Car

  • Henri Vallée’s little remembered “Pantoufle” (or “Slipper”) racecar of 1899 features a uniquely automotive wedge-shaped aerodynamic design solution.

Despite the builders of both cars showing a clear concern for aerodynamics, their solutions were intriguingly different. In Jenatzy’s case, it could be argued that his chosen shape was a direct result of his racer being designed to be what might be considered the first land speed record car – or, the first road vehicle holistically-designed with the idea of traveling in a straight line strictly to attain a barrier-breaking speed. With such a linear trek in mind (the car is not known to have raced competitively), the vehicle’s bullet nose seems a natural design choice for its intended purpose.

Equally as integrated in its design, the factors that led to Vallée creating a racecar resembling a house shoe are not entirely certain. A competition car, the Pantoufle’s design may have been influenced by the rules of the automobile-only “Tour de France” that it competed in, in 1899. The Tour, a nine-day-long, 1,485-mile speed and endurance competition – described as the longest automotive “test” at the time – required that at the end of each day’s journey all racecars be locked up in a pen. Only at designated times and for short durations were drivers given access to their vehicles in order to make repairs and adjustments to them. Furthermore, such work could only be performed using the tools carried on the race vehicles during the event. Such strict rules certainly could have affected Vallée’s design choices.

La Jamais Contente Electrically Powered Racing Car

  • “La Jamais Contente” illustration – Agence Meurisse – courtesy the French National Museum.

Yet, even without deep knowledge of Vallée’s thoughts, one coach-oriented choice can be readily ascertained. The Pantoufle’s form was clearly shaped to not only split the wind, but also sweep it up and over the driver – at least in theory. This feature is a significant one when it is realized that few racecar designs prior to Han’s Nibel’s “Blitzen Benzes” of the early 1910s made any sincere effort to remove their drivers from the wind equation despite many builders’ clear interest in aerodynamics. Even the La Jamais Contente positions Jenatzy quite high in his vehicle, damaging his streamlining efforts to some (perhaps a great) degree.

Vallée’s “Pantoufle” 1899

  • Vallée’s eight year old Pantoufle design stands out in a racecar retrospective held in 1907 at the 10th annual Salon de l’Automobile in Paris. The image from the original book on the retrospective section is courtesy of Ariejan Bos.

It is also interesting to note that the bodywork of both vehicles stands out compared to their peers and racecars of later generations. Surprisingly, the body design of the La Jamais Contente does not appear to have had much if any influence on racecar designs of the immediately following generations – despite being the world record speed holder at the time! If anything, racers such as the 1902 Serpollet or 1903 Mors had more to do with the Pantoufle than Jenatzy’s speedy machine.

The reason for the La Jamais Contente’s lack of influence may stem from an issue of motive power. Powered by electricity, Jenatzy’s creation likely had a great deal of flexibility in placing components within its chosen shape – certainly quite a bit more leeway than that offered to builders utilizing the commonly found vertical gas engines that would eventually dominate the racing field. Likewise, the Pantoufle with its low-mounted flat-4 engine allowed Vallée relatively free reign over the design of his racer’s body.

Jenatzy’s “La Jamais Contente”

  • Janatzy’s “La Jamais Contente” at the 10th annual Salon de l’Automobile in Paris. The image is courtesy of Ariejan Bos.

Despite the uniqueness of both vehicles’ designs, the Pantoufle may be special in a way that Jenaty’s car is not. Whereas the La Jamais Contente’s cigar shape clearly speaks to ballistics, hydrodynamics, or even aviation influences of the era, inspiration for the Pantoufle’s slippery form is not readily apparent. Instead, Vallée’s racing shape appears to be an early and uniquely automotive solution for car body design. So, although Vallée’s racer may not possess the success or fame of Jenatzy’s machine, its early car-centric coachwork deserves an important place along side the La Jamais Contente in the history of car streamlining, racecar bodies, and automotive form.

View all of Hampton C. Wayt’s earlier articles here on The Old Motor.

Update – By Ariejan Bos: It is indeed remarkable that in the description of the Vallée in La France Automobile of October 1, 1899 the unconventional body of the car was not mentioned. On the other hand more manufactureres like Amédée Bollée and De Dietrich were experimenting with bodies which reduced air resistance in a time when speeds were continually increasing. Another interesting fact is that the bodies of both cars were made out of aluminum!

After the Tour de France, in which the Vallée did not finish, partly because of severe slipping of the drive belt, it performed reasonably well in the Paris-St. Malo race (5th place) and in the Paris-Ostende race (7th) also held in 1899, averaging over these two races 42 km per hour. Its last performance was during the first Gaillon hill climb on December 3, where it finished 1st in the category above 400 kgs.

The Vallée and the Jenatzy were both exhibited at the retrospective section of the 10th Paris Salon in 1907, which had an impressive exposition of more than 50 cars from the earliest days to 1905, the ‘newest’ one being the Richard-Brasier with which Théry had won the Gordon Bennett Cup twice. In that year both cars were still owned by the original drivers, by Jenatzy in Brussels and by Lehwess in London. Most of the automobile have now completely vanished and one wonders what happened to them.

Editor’s note: Jenatzy’s La Jamais Contente has survived and is on on display in the Castle of Compiègne Le Musée de la Voiture (National Car Museum).

16 responses to “Streamlining in 1899: Jenatzy’s “La Jamais Contente” and Vallée’s “Pantoufle”

  1. As always, it is way more interesting reading the information than just looking at the lead picture. (Which also was interesting!)
    Too bad most never click to see more, just look at the lead pic and go on…
    Keep up the good work David, as many do read them even though they don’t always comment.

  2. Great article, Hampton . These pioneers are to automotive design what Meliés is to the cinema industry. They surely pointed the way ahead.

  3. You know, I chuckle at some of those early designs, and wonder if these people felt silly showing these things off, but nobody is smiling, and were clearly serious about what they were doing. To them, this was futuristic stuff, even though few actually made it.

    • Howard, an interesting question. These early, unusual race cars were referred to as “freaks,” which, although I haven’t researched the use of the word (yet), makes me think people certainly considered them real “head scratchers.”

      • I think the word “freak” referred to the fact that these cars were purpose-built for achieving speed records, and not usable for road transportation. I’ve run across it a lot in period articles referring to the Stanley streamliner of 1906 & 1907. The word may not have had the amount of negative connotation that it does now, and it was used on racers of other kinds as well. But the gas car people probably did have a little bit of snarl in their voice when they used it on the steamers, which were pretty unbeatable in short-distance runs and hill climbs for a few years.

      • The word “freak” was commonly used to describe cars and motorcycles purpose built for racing and or speed and time/distance record setting. I am sure it was used prior to 1900.

        For motorcycles in the United States in competition it was commonly determined by displacement in excess of 61 cubic inches. Many competitive events for motorcycles in the first decade of the 20th century included an unlimited displacement class frequently labeled as “freak” or “freaks” and included both entrants and results under “freaks”.

        Advertisements claimed the virtues of “stock” vehicles as opposed to vehicles which were of no use to the average buyer aka the “freaks”. One example of many:

        A 1909 Excelsior Auto-Cycle ad in Popular Mechanics:

        “The Real Thing of Motor Cycles Not a freak built merely for speed in the hands of professional or paid riders but a servicable, durable and powerful machine for any road and any purpose.”…

  4. Whilst obviously giving a lot of thought to the aerodynamics of these vehicles, one would think that these automotive pioneers might have given some thought to centres of gravity . Apparently not, which makes these photos all the more quaint.
    Keep up the good work, I love this web site.

    • Bonjour Mikey!

      My Breton (from north west France) wife, opposite me at the breakfast table here, is saying that “La Jamais Contente” literally means “the one that is never happy” and being female (la) it would more than likely be a reference to his car…

      “Ne Jamais Contente” doesn’t really make any sense at all, though sounding the same and making sense would be “n’est jamais contente” , meaning, as you said, “(it) is never satisfied”.

      • With my limited high school French I too see the “NE” as a double negative which would mean “Not never” and doesn’t make sense to me. The original La Jamais sounds correct to me.

      • Apparently and from what I’ve read here in France, ‘La jamais contente’ refers to Jenatzy’s wife rather than the car itself, obviously a very demanding person!
        To appreciate the streamlining of this car, you have to compare it to the Jeantaud of his most serious contender, which looks more like a soapbox with it’s square shape. The Jenatzy car also had a very sophisticated suspension with three crossed springs per Wheel.
        And by the way, the same year 1899, the young Ferd Porsche designed an electric car with an engine built in each front Wheel, called the Lohner electric.

  5. Interesting to note that the main frame member of the Pantoufle is a truss fabricated from steel tubing rather than a solid steel tube or channel.

    • It is not surprising that his frame was lugged tubular steel, because thanks to Hampton now we know “…Henri Vallée, a short-lived automobile manufacturer who began his career making bicycles…” this is what the builder knew how to fabricate, and he had access to the materials. We can also thank bicycle (and tricycle) developers for pneumatic tires and the differential, for just two examples. Thanks to all, GREAT site!

  6. I love the streamlining on these early cars. Being keen on White steamers I followed this through the White racers “The Snail” and “The Turtle” (similar to the illustrated cars above) but it was only when I got the rebuilding “Whistling Billy” of 1905 that it dawned on me what Whites had done. A friend of mine was visiting me and volunteered to build the wooden nose dummy for the car so that I could make the hood. He had built several boats. Boats were the one machine of the time and for many years before which had to be streamlined to go through the thicker medium than air — water. His construction of the temporary nose was a very good reconstruction of the front of a boat upside down. I just bent and welded aluminium over it.
    Of course in the following year Stanley’s did the same thing with their World speed record car and copied a canoe for the body even down to the wood frame and canvas body covering; it was light and streamlined. Perhaps even the name “streamlined ” comes from the same origin!

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