Forward thinker

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Back in 1903 Walter Christie was a determined pioneer of front-wheel-drive — which he called ‘direct action’. But his real legacy lies elsewhere. By Phil Llewellin

There is, believe it or not, a direct link between grand prix racing’s biggest-ever engine, a 19th-century battleship and what most military historians agree to be WWII’s best all-round tank. The connection is a brave, innovative engineer who designed and raced unconventional cars during the automobile’s blood-and-guts infancy.

Walter Christie was a thoughtful but opinionated American who is one of the most interesting of motorsport’s forgotten heroes. He defied convention by building rapid, transverse-engined, front-wheel-drive cars more than half a century before the Mini. He also built a four-wheel-drive racer way back in 1905, and crossed the Atlantic to dice with the likes of Vincenzo Lancia, Camille Jenatzy and Felice Nazzaro. His friends and rivals included two men who became extremely rich and famous — Henry Ford and Louis Chevrolet — and cigar-chomping Barney Oldfield, the fearless, hard-charging showman who barnstormed Christie’s extraordinary cars all over the USA.

John Walter Christie was born in River Edge, New Jersey, in May 1865, a few days after the American Civil War had ended. Nothing stimulates business, technology and industry to quite the same extent as a bloody conflict: Christie’s family, who had arrived in the New World from Scotland some 200 years before, were farmers through and through, but the Civil War created the right environment for bright youngsters with a passion for engineering…

Christie moved to New York City and trained at DeLameter Iron Works, whose products included a ‘submarine gun’ that fired torpedoes. By 1899 he had become a respected consultant and was invited to work on the USS Maine. The navy’s experts had designed a new type of turret for the battleship’s 12-inch guns but Christie said it wasn’t strong enough. The farmer’s son stuck to his guns, literally and metaphorically, and his turret was adopted after a year-long debate.

That project, plus a wealthy wife, provided the funds which, in 1903, encouraged Christie to switch from ships to horseless carriages. Like many other pioneers the 38year-old was sure that racing and breaking records would generate publicity and backing for high-quality road cars. A century later we tend to assume that Christie’s mould-breaking ambition saddled him with all manner of problems as he virtually invented front-wheel drive. But he didn’t see it that way. According to the catalogue, “Mr Christie has built the most simply constructed motor car ever placed on the market.”

Convinced that a car should be pulled, not pushed, he regarded FWD as a way to save weight and make primitive tyres last longer. His designs evolved, of course, but the archetypal Christie placed the crankcase where a conventional front axle would be. Power was transmitted through flywheels on the ends of the crankshaft by leather-lined clutches and grease-packed universal joints. Christie also used coil springs, which provided the novelty of independent front suspension while rivals relied on horse-and-cart technology.

Christie took his first car to Ormond Beach, Florida, in January 1904, contesting two races for ‘gentlemen drivers’. He finished last and next to last against strong opposition but enjoyed rubbing shoulders with such notables as Oldfield and William K Vanderbilt, the handsome, swashbuckling multi-millionaire who broke the world land speed record and organised the Vanderbilt Cup races.

Christie decided to run again in January 1905, this time with a 14-litre car that had eight inlet valves per cylinder and a 20,000-square inch radiator that filled the space usually occupied by a conventionally mounted engine. At Ormond Beach it ran the mile in 42.2sec — not that much slower than Vanderbilt’s big Mercedes — and won a 20-mile race. Wealthy sportsmen were impressed by the Christie’s low build, smooth ride and top-notch workmanship.

Greatly encouraged, Walter formed the Christie Direct Action Motor Car Company and was granted patents in countries as far afield as Russia and Australia. He also attempted to improve his racer by bolting another engine immediately behind the driver, who sat over the rear axle, a long way from the front wheels. It must have been like steering a narrowboat. The combined capacity of its engines was 20 litres, but the car was not successful and Christie removed the second engine.

Christie was 40 and far from fighting fit when the second Vanderbilt Cup race was staged on Long Island in October 1905. There was a lot of money and prestige at stake so his car was entered by one of the organisers and driven by George Robertson. It crashed during practice but was allowed to start after the Cup Commission inexplicably replaced a trio of qualifiers with three failures. Robertson pulled out, so Christie worked through the night and started 28min late after unsuccessfully begging the organisers to excuse him from racing. His first lap’s speed was just under 30mph — Vincenzo Lancia topped 70mph aboard his Fiat — but he was trying hard enough to have a close shave when the throttle lever jammed open as he entered a corner. Dirt and stones were flung high into the air as the Christie slithered sideways on two wheels. According to the New York Herald: “The fact that the car was low hung, and that Christie did not lose his nerve, saved it.”

A lesser man would have retired, but Christie went faster. He was passing the pits at full throttle when Lancia, who had stopped for tyres, ignored warning shouts and roared onto the dusty track. In the words of the New York Times: “Christie jammed on his brakes with all his might until every nut and pin and wheel in the powerful structure cried out in agonised protest. It seemed like something must break but nothing did. The Christie car swung round and round like a dervish in a dance.” The inevitable impact slowed Lancia to such an extent that he finished fourth; Christie and his mechanic were thrown out but not seriously injured.

A year later Christie decided that a V4 was the best way to squeeze more power between the front wheels. The resultant 13-litre delivered enough grunt to do a 35.2sec mile, and the car was hailed by Scientific American magazine as the world’s fastest four-cylinder. Christie soon matched the dirt-track record held by Oldfield’s Peerless. He also completed a handsome seven-seat tourer before preparing for the next Vanderbilt Cup. He wrecked the V4 racer while qualifying but performed well in a smaller car until spectators on the track forced Vanderbilt to end the race on the 10th lap. This car was the basis of the “stylish little runabout” for wealthy enthusiast William Brokaw, who became Christie’s first customer by paying $7500 for it. The car’s speed and “easy riding qualities” were much admired.

Meanwhile, Christie was gearing his company up to produce front-wheel-drive trucks, taxis and 30 100mph cars to be delivered in time for the Vanderbilt Cup of 1907. Christie also issued the dramatic news that he was building what would be the first American car to contest the prestigious French Grand Prix.

You can bet everything you own that no grand prix car will ever have a bigger engine than that car’s 20-litre, 36-valve V4, which was angled back to keep the CoG as low as possible and reduce frontal area. The cylinders looked like dustbins and the layout’s remarkable plumbing included a 3ft pipe from the carburettor to the most far-flung inlet valves. Power was said to be 130-135bhp at 900rpm.

W F Bradley visited Christie for The Autocar a few weeks before the French GP and was invited to the monster’s first road test. Christie reckoned it was too fast to be let rip along Broadway so the monster was towed to a deserted road on Long Island, where Bradley and Christie’s helpers were invited to push.

“We pushed; we stopped for breath; we pushed again, but the engine refused to fire,” Bradley recalled many years later. “Suddenly there was a puff of black smoke, a roar and almost immediately the car, Christie and his nephew, Lewis Strang, had disappeared from view.” But the “wonderful-looking machine, with a chassis almost devoid of mechanism” expired on the fifth of the Dieppe-based, 482-mile French GP’s 10 laps.

An American account of Christie’s racing career refers to “an absolutely terrifying degree of understeer” on dirt tracks: “It may that here is where the word ‘plow’ became the common term for understeering, because the Christie literally plowed its way around the dirt tracks, hurling great clouds and chunks of dirt and stone not only behind the car but in the face of the driver himself as the monster slewed, apparently out of control, through the corners. The accepted driving technique, mastered by only a few, Barney Oldfield among them, was to charge into a corner, put the car into a slide, cut the ignition to keep the beast from powering itself sideways right off the track, and then switching the ignition back on when the next straightaway came dimly into view through the dustscreen.”

Back home Strang raced the colossus after Christie was injured. Feats included lapping a banked one-mile track in Alabama in 51.6sec, described as a world record for a circular track, but the exploit failed to attract more money into Christie’s coffers. He then embarked on a barnstorming tour with Oldfield, but the Direct Action Motor Car Company went into receivership in the autumn of 1908.

Christie sank his own money into another giant V4-engined car which he reckoned would top 130mph. It proved fast enough to beat Oldfield and other stars, but failed to win orders. Clutching at straws, Christie went to the new brick-paved track at Indianapolis and, despite cold weather, topped 100mph on the straights.

After announcing his retirement a few months later, Oldfield paid $750 for the last Christie racer, which he touted as “the quickest two-mile car in the world today.” According to the ballyhoo this was ‘The Killer Machine’ that could be tamed only by Oldfield. In 1915 it earned Christie and Oldfield a place in the history books by becoming the first car to lap Indy at more than 100mph.

Christie died in 1944. His dreams of building superb road cars had evaporated decades earlier, but with his WWII tank design (see sidebar) this most inventive and indomitable of engineers had played a key role in a victory which mattered far more than motor racing.

Christie’s tracked record off-road

Christie’s profitable inventions included a front-wheel-drive tractor which replaced horse-powered fire engines in New York and other American cities. He also worked on aircraft engines before designing a high-speed gun carriage. During WWI he predicted blitzkreig tactics, which made Germany virtually invincible in 1939-40, and sailed an amphibious tank from New York to New Jersey.

In 1929 he built a tank with one of the 27-litre Liberty V12s which were also used in Parry Thomas’s record-breaking Babs and the gigantic White Triplex Special. This tank, labelled the T3, was about to bag an immensely lucrative US Army contract when Christie decided it wasn’t good enough and embarked on a new project. The new tank had two 750hp Hispano-Suiza engines and, incredibly, was said to do 110mph on wheels and 65mph on tracks.

Washington soon lost interest in the increasingly cantankerous inventor, but despite that snub Christie turned down $1 million from Nazi Germany in 1935. Fortunately, Uncle Sam gave him permission to sell the T-3 design to the Russians, who developed it into the T-34 medium tank, one of the most successful fighting vehicles ever. It was built in vast numbers and eventually chased the Germans all the way from Stalingrad to Berlin.

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