Camille Jenatzy was one of the most successful racing drivers in the world in the first decade of the 20th century The Belgian, a wealthy tire manufacturer and dealer, was a legend in his own lifetime thanks to his risky driving style and flamboyant appearance, with pointed beard, flowing dust coat, and goggles pushed up on his forehead.
Born in Brussels in 1868, his father had established the first rubber factory in Belgium and the young Jenatzy developed a passion for cycle racing.
Having obtained a degree in civil engineering, after a spell in the family business, he headed to Paris, determined to be part of the new and exciting motor industry based there.
Jenatzy believed electric cars to be the future of motoring and began their manufacture. Success came quickly, but it was his contest with Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat which really brought him to public attention. Using specially constructed electric vehicles the pair exchanged speed records over the flying kilometre, finally culminating in Jenatzy becoming the first driver to travel at more than 100 kph – a feat he achieved driving his bullet-shaped La Jamis Contente on April 1st 1899.
He next turned his attention to the great city-to-city races then being staged and soon gained a reputation as a spectacular and fearless driver. He contested the 1900 Gordon Bennett Race but became hopelessly lost and was forced to retire.
In 1902 he first raced a Mercedes, the make with which his name was to become forever linked. However, his first Mercedes drive – in the Circuit des Ardennes – brought about his worst crash and a new nickname that he would retain throughout his career. At the start of the second lap Jenatzy crashed into a ditch. To the amazement of the onlookers, Jenatzy was spotted, face covered in blood, been driven back to the control in another car. “Surely,” they said, “this man must have a pact with the devil.” Be this true or not, from that time onwards, Jenatzy was known as “The Red Devil”.
He won the 1903 Gordon Bennet Cup race in Athy, Ireland, driving a Mercedes – this was the first international success of the German brand.
Though getting second in the 1904 edition of the Gordon Bennett Race, held at the Homburg Circuit in Taunus, Germany, and taking part to most of the big races in America, such as the 1905 Vanderbilt Cup, and in Europe as the 1905 Gordon Bennett Race at the Circuit d’Auvergne – retired in both events. Jenatzy later drove for Mors, but he never again cut so prominent a figure as he did in Athy, Ireland in 1903.
Jenatzy died in 1913 in a hunting accident. He went behind a bush and made animal noises as a prank on his friends who were hunting with him. It worked too well, they heard the noise and shot because they thought there was an animal there. When they realised it was Jenatzy they tried to rush him to hospital but he died on the way. This fulfilled his own prophesy that he would die in a Mercedes.