Commemorating The 150 years of J. Walter Christie

J. Walter Christie was born on May 6, 1865 in New Milford, New Jersey. Christie began his first work at 16 years old at DeLamater Iron Works in New York City. Christie had been involved in many works on the construction of battleships and submarines, while working on a variety of his own experiments at the same time.

In 1899, he established the Christie Iron Works to construct and refurbish strengthened gun turret components for U.S. and British warships, and with the proceeds built a state-of-the-art machine shop in Manhattan. Shortly after, Christie began to work on a line of automobiles, and a metal lathe developed for his maritime machining work inspired him to focus his efforts on vehicles driven by the front wheels.

Christie didn’t set out to build race cars, but as was common in the day, believed that racing victories could be used to sell road-going cars. Even before the official founding of the Christie Direct Action Motor Car Company in 1905, Christie was testing his design in speed trials at places like Ormond Beach, Florida, and the lessons learned were applied to the car that Christie entered in the 1905 Vanderbilt Cup. Though he had no hope of victory against the better-funded and well-established teams from Europe, Christie sought the exposure that even entering the Vanderbilt Cup would draw. Underpowered and considerably slower than the rest of the field, Christie gained more exposure than he bargained for when he collided with the Fiat of race leader Vincenzo Lancia (who would go on to found Lancia Automobiles), putting him out of contention and effectively handing the race to the Darracq of Victor Hemery.

Christie would try again for the Vanderbilt Cup in 1906, without success, but for 1907 set his sights even higher: Despite his cars lacking a record of racing victories, he constructed an entirely new racer to contest the French Grand Prix. Though carrying on Christie’s front-drive tradition, the new car was monstrous in proportion, boasting a V-4 that displaced an astounding 20 liters (1,214 cubic inches). Despite its sheer size, the Christie-built racer weighed in at a reported 1,800 pounds, at a time when most competitors were struggling to make the 2,200-pound weight limit. The car was the first American-built car to contest a Grand Prix event, and despite the fact that Christie tested the car to a top speed of 120 MPH before the event, it lasted only four laps before retiring with engine and clutch trouble. That placed the car 33rd out of 37 entrants, and Christie was criticized upon his return to the United States for jeopardizing the reputation of the entire U.S. automotive industry.
Later the same year, Christie was critically injured when driving one of his front-wheel-drive racers at an event in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, when he collided at high speed with debris from an earlier crash. The accident left him with a concussion, a broken wrist, back injuries, and a cut on his right eye that doctors feared would impact his vision. Though others would have taken this as a sign, Christie returned to campaigning his cars on the barnstorming circuit, with star driver Barney Oldfield and the “daredevil drivers,” in 1908. In the fall of 1909, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was paved with brick, and in December of that year, Christie piloted one of his front-drive racers to a flying quarter-mile record of 8.37 seconds at 107.53 MPH; seven years later, Oldfield would use the same 140-hp Christie racer to turn the Speedway’s first lap above 100 MPH.

By 1910, the company had constructed just 10 cars, including six racers, two roadsters, a touring car and a taxi cab prototype that Christie hoped would change the fortunes of the Christie Direct Action Motor Car Company. Instead of providing the marketing support his automobiles desperately needed, racing proved to be nothing more than a costly distraction. Worse, among those who had piloted Christie automobiles, the cars had developed a reputation for their heavy steering and challenging handling, the result of an extreme front weight bias. When the taxi cab manufacturing business failed to take off, Christie focused his efforts on constructing front-wheel-drive tractors to tow (previously horse-drawn) fire apparatus, and the Front-Drive Motor Company.

Christie then created a Christie Front Drive tractor attached to what originally entered service as a horse drawn, steam driven pumper. They were built by Front-Drive Motor Company based in Hoboken, New Jersey from 1911 to 1918 and enabled fire departments all over the country to transition from horse drawn to gasoline powered equipment in a cost effective way. By designing a tractor that could be easily attached to existing apparatus’, fire companies could save considerable amounts of money. They proved to be very reliable and long lived units, with one actually in active service in Toledo, Ohio until 1945, although most were replaced with purpose built trucks long before then. The vehicle was rather big to give enough room for the components.

 But after 1918, Christie had found a new interest in military vehicles.

Christie Motor Carriage for 8inch Howitzer

This vehicle was delivered to the Ordnance Dept for testing in 1918. The odd looking single large return wheel was part of an arrangement to adjust track tension in combination with the two roadwheels. The vehicle was designed to run on wheels or tracks with the central roadwheels jacked up so it ran on only the front and rear pairs of wheels. Only the center roadwheels were sprung which must have made steering the vehicle on wheels very difficult. It was powered by a Christie built 6-cylinder 120 hp engine, the transmission type is unknown but a max. speed of 16 mph was attained. Testing showed that the vehicle had many faults and it was rejected. However, some of the design ideas were interesting and Christie was encouraged to continue development.

Christie Motor Carriage for 3-inch Anti-Aircraft Gun

It’s not certain when this vehicle was built, best guess is 1918-19. The original identity of the vehicle was a mystery until a patent assigned to Walter Christie was found. The drawings in the patent are a match for the available images of the vehicle. The vehicle was four-wheel drive was powered by a 4-cylinder 60 hp engine with a 3 forward 1 reverse speed transmission giving a max. speed of 15 mph. No comments have been found on the suitability of the vehicle for its role as a mobile AA gun.

Christie M1919 Medium Tank

In 1919, Christie developed the Christie M1919 medium tank, the first American medium tank with classic layout. It featured sloped armour, center bogies that could be raised so the vehicle could drive on its wheels, rather than tracks and a traversable Machine Gun Turret. It was powered by Christie 120 hp 6-cylinder water cooled petrol engine. However, the absence of the normal suspension messed up the tank with no additional benefits. Only one prototype was built.

Christie M1921 Medium Tank

Christie M1919 medium tank was soon superseded by an improved, rebuilt version, designated the medium tank M1921, which began undergoing testing in 1922. In contrast to the M1919 that had a weapon-armed turret, the M1921 had no turret and its main armament waas mounted in the front hull. As with the M1919, the M1921 did not meet the U.S. Army’s expectations and the design was never standardized and placed into production. At first, this tank performed so well that U.S. Army Table of Organization and Equipment were rearranged on the premise that eventual rearmament with this type of tank would take place. However, due to serious problem regarding the tank’s design, the maneuverability was poor and crew compartment was too cramped. After testing by Ordnance, the project was dropped in 1924.

Christie Motor Carriage for 155mm GPF Gun

In 1919, Christie delivered a new SPG design for testing at APG (Aberdeen Proving Ground). The SPG was designed, as the 8inch gun carrier was, to run on wheels or tracks. The conversion from tracks to wheels took about 15 minutes and the tracks were strapped onto the mudguards when not in use. The rear driving wheels were rigid but the steering wheels were independently sprung. The centre two roadwheels were sprung and jacked off the ground when running on wheels. All of the wheels had a pair of 36″ x 3″ solid rubber tires – the drive wheels used the typical Christie sprocketless drive – the track guide plates entered slots in the drive wheel. The engine was the same as 8inch vehicle – the 120 hp Christie engine with a transmission which had 4 forward and 4 reverse speeds. The 155mm SPG could travel almost as fast in reverse (12mph) as forward (15mph) on wheels. The max. forward speed on tracks was about 9 mph, considerably faster than the early Holt SPGs. Testing showed that 155mm SPG was very promising and Christie built two further versions of the SPG delivered in 1920 and 1921. These vehicles looked very similar to the original except that mudguards were replaced with a shallow box structure with rollers at the ends presumably to make it easier to secure the tracks when the SPG was running on wheels. Final testing of the Christie 155mm SPG in 1921-22 was very successful and the Ordnance Department recommended placing the vehicle in production. However, due to the hostility of Field Artillery branch to SPGs and declining defense budgets to continue the project, the vehicle was cancelled for production.