Many automotive pioneers were innovators. Some were absolute geniuses. They were all visionaries; some, however, were just a bit more eccentric than others. Few, however, were businessmen and as a result, many made money for investors or company owners but died destitute. For a rare few of these pioneers’ fortunes proved elusive yet they transformed dreams into reality and enjoyed a modicum of financial success. J. Walter Christie was on of the latter.
Christie was born in New Milford, New Jersey on May 6, 1865, and at an early age astounded his teachers with his quick mind as well as an ability to grasp complicated mathematics. At the age of sixteen he began an apprenticeship with the Delamater Iron Works while taking classes at the Cooper Union in New York City. Before turning twenty-five, he was employed as a consulting engineer for a steamship line and as a hobby began preliminary design work on futuristic submarine designs.
Shortly after the Spanish American War he launched a consulting and engineering company under the Christie Iron Works name and designed an improved turret track for naval artillery pieces for which he acquired a patent. His next endeavor was revolutionary, the design and development of a front-wheel-drive automobile. The first incarnation was powered by a four-cylinder, transverse mounted engine with the crankshaft supplanting the front axle. The front wheels were driven directly by flywheels coupled to leather faced clutches and telescoping universal joints. In January of 1904 he tested the unusual behemoth at Ormond Beach (Daytona Beach) in Florida.
That year as well as 1905 were consumed with development, racing, and manufacturing. He successfully competed at the Readville Race Track and in the 1905 Vanderbilt Cup race, events that ensured international press coverage. Of the six racers Christie built in 1904, one featured a 60-horsepower engine. But his most astounding creation was a car with two engines; a 60-horsepower engine coupled to his front wheel drive mechanism, and a second engine at the rear that utilized a transaxle. The following year he reorganized the company as the Christie Direct Action Motor Car Company and set his sights on competing in the Grand Prix.
Christie became an international celebrity. He was the first American to drive in the Grand Prix, and his front wheel drive racer was the first American vehicle to compete. And the 19,881-cc V4 was the largest engine ever used in the race. Tragically that race consumed Christie’s attentions and finances, and as a result there was no opportunity to develop or market the front-wheel drive touring car he had planned as the foundation for his automobile manufacturing company. And so, in 1907, the company went into receivership.
Christie easily found new investors as his innovative front wheel drive components were patented in the United States, Australia, Russia, and most European countries, and launched the Walter Christie Automobile Company in 1908. He also continued to race despite injuries sustained in a 1907 crash, and to offer his services as a consultant. One of his new company’s first clients was Vincenzo Lancia, an internationally acclaimed racer who was about to build a car of his own, the Lancia Lambda.
On September 9 of 1907, Christie was racing at Brunots Island Race Track near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A Haynes driven by Rex Reinertson lost its right front wheel and flipped crushing the driver. Christie struck the debris, was thrown from the car, was knocked unconscious by the impact and sustained a broken left wrist, a cut on his right eye from the broken glass of his goggles, and a significant spinal injury. Doctors expressed concern that he would likely be crippled resultant of his injuries and lose the sight in his damaged eye. Though the doctor’s concerns proved unwarranted, Christie did suffer from his injuries for the remainder of his life.
Christie’s next major accomplishment came in 1909 when he designed and manufactured the front wheel drive Christie Racer that was driven to a first-place finish by Barney Oldfield in several races. Once again, his company suffered from Christie’s inability to focus on development of a vehicle that could be sold to the public.
To placate investors, he dedicated resources to the manufacture of a revolutionary front wheel drive taxicab. As an interesting historic footnote, this taxi with transversely mounted engine/transmission assembly that could be detached and replaced in less than one hour would inspire future automobile engineers. Fifty years later Alec Issigonis who played a key role in the development of the BMC Mini, studied Christie’s taxi extensively and incorporated several ideas in that milestone vehicle.
Christie’s taxi was innovative, but it required a major investment for development as well as manufacture and as a result, the sale price was $2,600. That astronomical price resulted in sales that were less than anemic. In fact, only three were sold and once again Christie faced bankruptcy.
Christie was obsessed with racing, but money proved elusive, so he was forced into creating a saleable product. As he once quipped to a friend, “It’s no shame to be poor but it’s damn inconvenient.” In 1912, he struck gold with his next creation, a line of front wheel drive fire engine tractors that enabled fire departments to modernize horse drawn equipment without the major investment of buying a fire truck. Orders flooded the factory.
Flush with cash Christie again turned to consultation, experimentation, and development. In 1916, he developed a prototype four-wheeled front wheel drive gun carriage and submitted it for testing to the United States Army Ordnance Board. Christie’s Achilles heel, stubbornness, and inflexibility, that had plagued him since youth reared its head and he refused to revise his designs to suit their requirements.
Still, Christie was able to attract the attention of United States Marine Corps Major General Eli K. Cole with his design for an amphibious light tank. He also garnered the attention of the British army who tentatively used the “Beetle Boat” during the Gallipoli landings in 1915. An improved version was tested during the Marine Corps Winter Maneuvers of 1924 at Culebra, Puerto Rico. It performed as promised but it was determined that the vehicles were to slow, to cumbersome, and as a result, were impractical for use in combat due to limited suspension capabilities that restricted cross-country performance.
Christie invested five years and more than $380,000 to perfect the tank. The result was the revolutionary M1928 prototype tank chassis. He referred to it as the “Model 1940” as he considered it to be 12 years ahead of its time, and it was. What made this prototype revolutionary was its “helicoil” suspension system with each wheel having its own spring-loaded assembly. This allowed for unprecedented high-speed cross-country mobility. Christie’s tank also featured sloped armor to allow for thinner plating and thus a lighter weight.
The Army purchased several prototypes for testing purposes. In October 1928, the M1928 was demonstrated at Fort Myer, Virginia where the vehicle impressed Army’s Chief of Staff, General Charles P. Summerall and other high-ranking officers. The Infantry Tank Board agreed to further testing but expressed concern about the lightweight armor. Christie stubbornly defended his vehicle claiming that in future wars lightweight tanks with long range and high speed that were designed to penetrate enemy lines and attack their infrastructure and logistics capabilities would have the advantage. The Army, however, were locked in a WWI view and saw the tank as an infantry support vehicle. One member of the Cavalry Evaluation Board who appreciated Christie’s design and shared his vision was Lt. Colonel George S. Patton.
With rejection of his design by the army, Christie displayed very poor judgment and began looking to foreign governments including Britain, Poland and the Soviet Union even though the Soviet Union had no diplomatic relations with the US at the time and was barred from obtaining military equipment or weapons. The problems multiplied. Christie reneged on a deal to sell units to Poland. The government intervened in a sale to the Soviet Union but through a complicated subterfuge two Christie tanks that were obtained and falsely documented as agricultural farm tractors were shipped. These would become the basis for famous Soviet T-34 tank of WWII.
The British War Office also arranged for purchase of a Christie prototype tank chassis and licensing of the design through the Morris Motors Group. Again, the United States government intervened and required that the vehicle be dismantled sufficiently to meet specification as an “agricultural tractor.” Following the United States entry into WWII in 1941, Christie again submitted improved tank designs to the army. Again, his efforts ended in frustration and rejection. It was to be his last project as on January 11, 1944, Christie died in Falls Church, Virginia.
Christie’s many contributions transformed transportation from front wheel drive to tracked vehicles. He was deemed the father of the modern tank, and inspired generations of automotive engineers, and yet today J. Walter Christie remains one of hundreds of forgotten automotive pioneers.
Written by Jim Hinckley of Jim Hinckley’s America