The fastest cars in history: 1894 to 1914
Our history of the world's fastest production car is produced in three parts: pre-WWI, WWI to WWII and the already-published segment from WWII until now. This is article covers the earliest period from the first cars through to WW1. The nature of the data available means we've had to rely on disparate data points and some ballpark figures in tracing the early development of the fastest road cars, making it less clinical than our look at the cars of the modern era, but no less fascinating.
The modern car evolved from initial attempts to motorize a horse-drawn carriage in just two decades, from 1894 to 1914. In many ways, the rise in speeds from 1894 to 1914 charts that wave of innovation: from one cylinder to 12 cylinders, from two- to four-wheel brakes, from side-valve to DOHC 4-valve hemispherical combustion chambers, from open to streamlined, from solid axles to pneumatic suspension and incredibly, from 12 mph to 120 mph.
In one generation, the automobile was embraced by civilization as a symbol of personal freedom. The initial circumstance was ideal for the success of the automobile, as a ready-made market existed comprised of the millions who had experienced personal transport's first "killer app" – the bicycle.
Viewed in this narrow time-frame, the automobile's top speeds increased on average more than 5 mph per year for 20 years from 1894 to 1914. This was Moore's Law v 0.9.
When road registration laws were not black and white
Defining a road car during this period of time is problematic, as race cars and record cars were almost always based on road cars. It was a different time, and cannot be seen clearly with a mentality framed by 21st century mass production and road registration rules. Each jurisdiction meant that different road registration rules and applications of those rules existed and as you'll see in the research below, purpose built racetracks didn't exist, so all competition was staged on public roads throughout this period.
Personal transportation pre-history
In 1900, a mass market for personal transportation had already existed for thousands of years – the horse drawn carriage. The largest producer of horse-drawn vehicles in the USA was Durant-Dort which was selling over 150,000 carriages a year and already had sophisticated manufacturing operations and a sales channel to America's wealthy. There was life before the motor car, just at a more leisurely pace.
Trains owned the luxury travel market
Trains owned the market for luxury long-distance land travel at this time as the only alternative was the horse-drawn carriage over rough roads, with river boats and steam ships offering painless long-distance travel to only the most affluent.
Steam trains were still considerably faster than any other land vehicle. In 1891, at a time when the motor car was struggling to become a commercial reality, the Empire State Express covered the 436 miles from New York to Buffalo in 7 hours 6 minutes, averaging 61.4 mph (98.8 km/h), with a top speed of 82 mph (132 km/h).
In 1893 the same company's latest 4-4-0 steam locomotive (No. 999 above) was capable of 100 mph. So by the time of the first record attempts were made by automobiles, they were a long way behind the steam train.
The dawning of the automotive age
Trains might have owned the market for luxury long-distance land travel, but automotive pioneers could see that would change once the engine, roads, tires and cars achieved their full potential.
An automobile would ultimately offer greater possibilities than the steam train, most notably being able to transport you quickly and safely from A to B, instead of the train's station A to station B.
The world's road infrastructure was in its infancy 100 years ago. The first automobile crossing of America was not achieved until 26 July 1903. The 4,500-mile journey had taken 63 days, 12 hours and 30 minutes. The same New-York Los Angeles road record now stands at 28 hours and 50 minutes.
Before the production line, cars were built one by one
The vast majority of the world's cars prior to 1907 were built in Europe, with America overtaking France as the leading car manufacturer in the world in 1904 by volume and in 1905 by value. By 1907, America's 250 car manufacturers were producing more cars (44,000 per year) than France, Britain and Germany combined, and America's more equitable income distribution and far higher average wages put the dream of personal transportation within reach of the common man.
Ultimately, although America would start behind the European countries in its quest for mass personal transport, it would put the freedom machine in the hands of the people a full generation ahead of Europe.
Production capabilities were growing quickly in 1907 as America embraced the new low-priced four-cylinder Ford Model N and Buick Model 10 "Nifty". Ford was producing 100 Model N cars a day in one factory and the 6000 cars it made in 1908 were behind only Buick's 9000 as they fought to be the largest car manufacturer in the world.
From five vehicles for every 1000 Americans in 1910, there were 86 vehicles for every 1000 people by 1920, and by the end of WW2, Europe lay in ruins while America's homeland was untouched by war and there were 220 cars for every 1000 people. In just a few decades, one in five Americans had purchased a car. Next to a home, it was the most expensive discretionary purchase most people ever made and car ownership would eventually reach eight in 10 Americans.
The above excerpt from this 1926 Department of Commerce Statistical Abstract of the United States clearly shows the growth of both the American automotive industry and the size of the US carpark – 8,000 cars in 1900, 400,000 in 1910, 9,000,000 in 1920 and 22,000,000 in 1926. You'll see the wholesale value of the passenger vehicles is also listed in the above table. Do the math and you'll find that the average wholesale cost of a car in 1909 was $1252. By 1916, the average wholesale price was $604.
Two world wars based in Europe stimulated global technological development and the American economy, while twice near destroying all European economies, including the only other countries producing cars: England, France, Germany and Italy. By 1926, America had achieved global automotive domination, producing and consuming more cars each year than all other countries combined.
It did so by catering to the American public's need for transportation in a big country, and the compelling proposition of being able to travel vast distances in short times. Journeys that had taken days now took hours. Previously insurmountable distances now took days.
On October 7, 1913, Henry Ford's production line was switched on. Its effects on the by-then booming automotive industry were profound. The automotive industry might well be measured by the terms "Before Production-Line" and "After-Production Line."
Henry Ford's Production Line
In a world defined by economic efficiency, the coming of the production line in 1913 had a profound effect.
Before the production line, a Model T could be produced using 12.5 hours of labour. On a production line, a Model T could be produced using 93 minutes of manpower, reducing the cost of labour by 87.6 percent.
In 1910, a Model T Ford Runabout cost $900. In 1916, the same car sold for $350. By the middle 1920s, the price was $260.
Ford's price advantage meant its top selling vehicle could be offered at such a price that it drove adoption by the masses, enabling affordable personal transportation to the common man for the second time, though in a far faster and more comfortable form than the bicycle or the horse drawn carriage. Fifteen million Model T Fords would be sold in the next 20 years.
This revolutionary production technique meant that Ford grew incredibly quickly. At one stage it had produced more than half the cars in the world. Moves such as doubling the pay of his workers helped Henry Ford find a special place in modern folklore as a benevolent industrialist.
What's more, this quantum leap in technology drove America to automotive dominance globally with mass automobile production quickly reshaping not just the automotive industry but the finance, insurance, oil, tire, dealership networks, spare part supply chains and other industries around it.
The coming of the automobile industry effectively supercharged the American economy.
The Industrial Revolution (1760 – 1840) spawned new materials and manufacturing processes and efficiencies in many industries with the development of machine tools that provided the basic prerequisites for the first assembly lines. The concept of interchangeable parts is taken for granted these days, but was less than a century old when the Ford's production line began. We truly have come a long way in a short time.
Technological capability increased dramatically from 1894 onwards as a new global industry emerged and production numbers rose from thousands in those last few years of the 1890s to millions as the "century of the automobile" unfolded, bringing high speed personal transport to the masses.
The world's fastest cars from 1894 to 1914
Many very fast road cars were built from 1910 onwards, but not necessarily in large quantities, and whereas the 1945-2016 section of this history of the world's fastest cars had references to specific speeds, this part will rely more on ballpark figures and disparate data points including average speeds and distance records to trace the early development of the fastest road cars.
It's the only data available, and top speed was more theoretical then than it is now in a land where 99 percent of the roads were unpaved. Durability was the most important variable in this harsh climate, and the fastest cars of yesteryear had to have "good bones" to cope with the inevitable potholes along the way.
To put the rise of the motor car in perspective, we've also made occasional reference to other vehicles such as trains, planes and motorcycles that held speed records during the era.
Benz & Cie Velo | 12 mph (19 km/h)
Benz announced the first series production automobile at the Chicago World Expo on May 1, 1893 | Availability begins in 1894
The Benz & Cie Velo is generally regarded as the world's first production automobile, though there were many cars produced prior in modest quantities. The top speed was just 12 mph (19 km/h) so it wasn't the fastest for long, as the late 1890s was a period of great automotive innovation with ever increasing speeds in all three genres of drive train –electric, petroleum and steam power.
Unfortunately, all these cars had very low production runs, and it's difficult to say which cars were really the fastest because though electric vehicles were probably the quickest over a short distance, range was a major issue and prevented them from showing up in the longer speed trials. Steam cars offered greater power but were fraught with reliability issues on top of the inconvenience that restricted general adoption.
De Dion Bouton (Steam) | 12 mph (19 km/h)
July 22, 1894 | Average speed of first finisher in the Paris-Rouen Trial
The first motorsport event in history was the 78 mile (126 km) Paris to Rouen on July 22, 1894, and the first car across the finishing line was a De Dion Bouton steam car pulling a trailer (above). Driven by Count De Dion himself, it was disqualified because it needed a stoker (someone to tend the boiler). De Dion's time for the distance was 6 hours 48 minutes giving him an average speed of 19 km/h (12 mph), indicating it had the potential to travel at much higher speeds but was no doubt limited by the solid axles of the trailer and the quality of roads. 120 years ago, the steam-powered De Dion Bouton was the equivalent of the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport.
Panhard & Levassor | 15.25 mph (24.54 km/h)
July 11, 1895 | Average speed first finisher Paris-Bordeaux Race
The following year a Panhard & Levassor car driven by Émile Levassor finished first in what is generally regarded as the first true motor race, the 1,178 km Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race. Unfortunately, the race was for four seater cars and the Panhard only had two seats so it was disqualified. Levassor's time does however give us an indication of the speed potential of the fastest road car of the day, and his total time of 48 hours and 48 minutes gives an average of 24.5 km/h including several lengthy stops for meals. It's not recorded whether he slept during the ordeal.
The specimen pictured above from 1895 is an example of the type of car which Panhard & Levassor produced in those early races, all of them based on a "Système Daimler" engine license, but in a new configuration not seen previously. The company's "Système Panhard" of 1891 was the first iteration of the now familiar front-engine and rear-wheel-drive configuration.
As competition improved the breed, the performance of road cars was progressing rapidly. The race cars were the road cars in most cases, and any improvements that could be found on the race car were immediately incorporated into next year's road car.
Duryea | 6.66 mph (10.6 km/h)
November 28, 1895 | Average speed of America's first auto race winner
America's first auto race had just two finishers, and was won by a car with a single cylinder engine that averaged just 6.7 mph for the shortened 52.3 mile distance from Chicago to Evanston and back.
A blizzard made for near impassable roads and though the average speed wasn't really indicative of the Duryea's performance on good roads, its win in such conditions helped convince the American public of the viability of the automobile for mission-critical tasks. As the event was run by the Chicago Times Herald newspaper, Duryea's triumph over adversity was well documented and the America-wide newspaper reports created many prospects for his just-formed Duryea Motor Wagon Company, kickstarting the American automotive industry.
Panhard & Levassor | 15.69 mph (25.25 km/h)
September 24 – October 3, 1896 | Average speed winner Paris-Marseille-Paris Race
Motor racing was becoming very important to sales in those early years as evidenced by the number of quality entries for the epic ten-day, 1,710 km Paris–Marseille–Paris race in February 1896. Entries included seven De Dion-Boutons (five gasoline powered tricycles and two steam powered cars); five Leon Bollées (four Léon Bollée tricycles and tandems plus an Amédée Bollée); four Panhard et Levassors; three Peugeots and two Delahayes, indicating the growing momentum of the industry. The race was won by a new 2.4 liter, 8 horsepower Panhard & Levassor (above) at an average speed of 15.69 mph (25.25 km/h). Panhard won more races than any other marque in the years 1894-1900.
Jeantaud Duc EV | 39 mph (63.13 km/h)
December 18, 1898 | Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat wins the first speed trials in Achères, France with Jeantead electric vehicle
On 18 December 1898, the very first speed record for automobiles was set when the French magazine La France Automobile held the world's first outright speed contest for cars, giving the fledgling automotive industry a simple and desirable goal – going faster than anyone had ever gone before.
The challenge was almost perfectly framed, requiring the application of advanced engineering ingenuity and devil-may-care bravery in the relentless pursuit of the title of "the world's fastest."
This was a time when newspapers delivered the world's news – radio had not yet been invented, and the newspaper publicity that speed contests generated from this point onward is hard to equate to today's world. It soon became obvious to the fledgling automobile industry that getting your name in an advert wasn't nearly as good as getting your name in the story.
This initial foray into outright speed saw the record broken five times in the subsequent four months, jumping from 63.13 km/h (39 mph) in December, 1898 to 105.26 km/h (65.79 mph) by April, 1899.
The fastest speed recorded in that magazine contest on December 18, 1898 was the Jeantaud Duc Electric Vehicle of Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat (subsequently known to newspaper readers as "the Electric Count") who covered a flying kilometer in 57 seconds for an average speed of 63.13 km/h (39 mph).
At that point in time, electric cars had an edge in speed over their petrol-engined rivals, a point not often recognized because EVs did not feature in the big city-to-city races of the day. This was almost entirely due to the difficulty they had replenishing energy reserves in provincial France.
Not a great deal is known about Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat's motivations, but prior to his first land speed record, he competed in many of the first autoracing events in history, and in all but one event in his racing career, he chose steam or electric propulsion methods.
Count Gaston's initial record was almost certainly set with a standard Jeantaud model and involved him covering one kilometer (0.62 miles) with a flying-start in 57 seconds for an average speed 62.78 km/h. A look at photographs of his car suggests he'd personalized the car and removed anything unnecessary – this was the high powered urban road car of 1898, and the "Electric Count" would have been a regular sight on Paris streets, enjoying his newfound recognition and status.
CGA Dogcart EV | 41.42 mph (66.27 km/h)
January 17, 1899 | Achères, France | First speed record challenge/broken
Count Gaston's speed record created a target at which others could aim, and it roused the interest of Belgian Camille Jenatzy. Jenatzy studied electrical engineering in Brussels before moving to Paris to work in the epicenter of the new and growing electric vehicle industry. Following the initial triumph of Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat, Jenatzy challenged him to a run-off and the date for the showdown was 17 January 1899.
Jenatzy arrived with a CGA Dogcart (some early styles of automotive models were referred to as "dogcarts" after the horse drawn carriages of the same description). Little information is available on the car other than that it was powered by one 80 cell Fulmen lead acid battery and that it established a new record of 66.7 km/h (41.42 mph).
Jeantaud Duc EV | 43.6 mph (70.17 km/h)
January 17, 1899 | Achères, France | Record reclaimed same day
Chasseloup-Laubat responded in his Jeantaud, running 70.17 km/h (43.6 mph) and yet another record was established. As battery technology of the day was primitive in comparison to today, both cars had "spent" their batteries and no further runs were possible. Hence Jenatzy had held the record for just a few minutes, the Electric Count prevailed on the day ... but not for long.
CGA Dogcart EV | 49.93 mph (80.35 km/h)
January 27, 1899 | Achères, France | Jenatzy again
Ten days after the January 27 run-off, Jenatzy returned to Achères with the same CGA Dogcart of his own manufacture and ran a speed of 49.93 mph (80.35 km/h), breaking the speed record for the second time. Jenatzy's understanding of engineering alongside his prowess as a driver was to see him go on to become one of motorsport's greats.
Jeantaud Duc Profilee EV | 92.7 km/h (57.59 mph)
March 4, 1899 | Achères, France | The 'Electric Count" reclaims title
The battle was now all consuming for both Jeantaud and Jenatzy, and on 4 March 1899, six weeks after Jenatzy's record, the Electric Count rolled out a new car dubbed the "Jeantaud Duc Profilée," which included the first notion of aerodynamic efficiency in an automobile. The drag coefficient was no doubt reduced with the greatest gain coming from a much smaller frontal area and the Count took the record back with a run of 92.7 km/h (57.6 mph).
La Jamais Contente (EV) | 65.79 mph (105.26 km/h)
April 29, 1899 | Achères, France | Jenatzy breaks record a third time
Jenatzy had also been working on a new car, a torpedo-shaped electric vehicle with extensive use of "partinium" – a strong, lightweight and expensive alloy made of aluminum, copper, zinc, silicon and iron that had not been previously used in a car. This was the first "purpose built" car for a land speed record and was appropriately named "Jamais Contente" (Never Satisfied). The car used two direct drive Postel-Vinay electric motors for a total of 68 hp and it was interesting to note that both contenders for the initial record had quickly realized that aerodynamics would play a part in the ultimate outcome. Jenatzy finally captured the speed record with a run of 65.79 mph (105.26 km/h).
Mercedes 35 hp | 36 mph (58 km/h)
March 25-29, 1901 | Nice, France | Nice-Salon-Nice winner average speed
The Mercedes 35 hp was the first time the Mercedes name appears in automobile production, though Austrian diplomat and entrepreneur Emil Jellinek did have a prestige auto dealership in Nice named Mercedes. Jellinek's prestige car dealership ran a racing team to promote its wares, and Jellinek asked DMG (Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft) to produce 34 cars of his own design. His concept was to lower the centre-of-gravity of the cars at the same time as lengthening the wheelbase and widening the car, all resulting in much better roadholding. The design that finally emanated from the drawing boards of designed in 1901 by Wilhelm Maybach and Paul Daimler is quite distinct from the stagecoach layouts inherited from the horse-drawn era, which had dominated automobile design prior to then. Most agree that this vehicle was the first modern car. I believe it should also be regarded as the world's first sports car. It was conceived with motorsport in mind, won countless races, and the entire species immediately evolved in that direction. This is the perfect example of competition improving the breed.
Jellinek's car and the name he chose for his business was the same pet name he had for his daughter: Mercedes. The car's racing debut in January 1901 at Grand Prix du Sud-Ouest was unspectacular, with teething issues perhaps resulting from the first of the 34 cars being delivered on 22 December 1900. The next competitive outing in March at Nice Speed Week produced a clean sweep of the Nice-La Turbie event, raising the average speed from the previous best of 19.4 mph (31.3 km/h) to 31.9 mph (51.4 km/h) and the Mercedes was reportedly timed at 86 km/h during the race. The Mercedes also won the 1901 Nice-Salon-Nice race in the hands of Wilhelm Werner, averaging 36 mph (58 km/h) during the week of automotive festivities. This car went into series production as the Mercedes 35-hp and would have been the fastest road car in the world at that time, with state-of-the-art roadholding. It was the first production car one sat "in" rather than "on".
Mors | 69.5 mph (111.8 km/h)
November 16, 1901 | Coney Island Boulevard, New York
We're not sure why this record hasn't previously been recognized, but on November 16, 1901, Mors factory driver Henri Fournier, during a promotional visit to America, set a time of 51.8 seconds for the flying mile, giving him a speed of 69.5 mph (111.8 km/h) and what was claimed at the time to be a world record. That's a clipping from the Los Angeles Herald at right above, and the image at left is of Fournier in his Morz Type Z and came from this excellent coverage of events in the Digital History project.
Gardner-Serpollet "Easter Egg" | 75.06 mph (120.8 km/h)
April 13, 1902 | Promenade des Anglais, Nice Speed Week, France
The French Serpollet Brothers were steam automotive industry pioneers and competed in all the early European races, having four cars in the inaugural 1894 Paris-Rouen event. Leon Serpollet patented his flash boiler in 1896, enabling a more practical and convenient power unit, and in 1898 the brothers secured backing from American Frank Gardner for the formation of the Gardener-Serpollet Company, which began producing cars in 1900. Leon drove the car that would put his company in the history books, clocking 120 km/h (75 mph) on 13 April 1902 over the flying kilometer on the Promenade des Anglais during Nice Speed Week.
It wasn't a standard car, but more a rolling development prototype, being the culmination of a several-year project evolved from the original Easter Egg design shown above, the shape being responsible for its name in French, "Œuf de Pâques." The bow-cutter aerodynamic shape of the car is rarely seen, but the car proved that steam cars were capable of speeds beyond today's speed limits 114 years ago. All previous photos I've seen of this car show it as an Easter Egg design, though all of them were taken in Paris where Serpollet was a well recognized regular motorist about town in the car, which must certainly have been the fastest road car in the world at the time.
Mors | 76.08 mph (122.4 km/h)
August 5, 1902 | First internal combustion engine to hold the car speed record
This was the first car powered by an internal combustion engine (ICE) to hold the automobile speed record, with electric and then steam having led the way before August 5, 1902 when speed trials were held near Chartres, France.
The driver on this occasion is of equal interest, being American William Kissam Vanderbilt II, the great grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, and a noted racer and sportsman of the day. Vanderbilt could buy whatever he wished in order to pursue his greatest passion, and in 1902 he chose a 60 hp four-cylinder 9232 cc Mors Model Z, driving it in the Paris-Vienna race in late June. Knowing how fast the car was during the open sections of the Paris-Vienna race, he realized the opportunity to set a record with it, which he did. Willie went on to found the famous American Vanderbilt Cup races, serve in the United States Navy (in his own yacht which became USS Tarantula for the duration of WWI) and he won the Sir Thomas Lipton Cup in 1900 with his new 70-foot yacht named Virginia after his wife, the heiress of the man who discovered the famous "Comstock Load" gold deposit. Willie K will appear again in this story.
For Mors, the record was yet another of many achievements for the marque at this time, with wins in the 1901 Paris-Bordeaux and 1901 Paris-Berlin great races, making the Mors Type Z the fastest road car in the world by the later months of 1902. The above image comes of a Revs Institute article on the car and there are some awesome detail shots of a fully restored 1902 Mors Type Z. It is a beautiful thing.
Mors | 76.6 mph (123.3 km/h)
November 5, 1902 | Mors improves its own record |Dourdan, France
Just three months later on November 5, 1902, Henri Fournier used a stripped down Mors Type Z to push the speed record to 76.6 mph, reclaiming the record he had seemingly held during the previous year. Fournier had also driven in the 1902 Paris-Vienna race several months earlier and had dominated the first leg of the event with an average speed of 70.8 mph (114 km/h) to Provins, but a gear shaft broke when he was leading. In only beating Vanderbilt's record by the narrowest of margins, the opportunity was there to continue to create publicity for the brand by breaking the record again.
Mors | 77.1 mph (124.1 km/h)
November 17, 1902 | Mors improves its own record |Dourdan, France