John Walter Christie, the second of four children was born in the landmark Campbell-Christie House in New Milford, New Jersey on May 6, 1865, three days before the end of the American Civil War. He was the son of Jacob Brinkerhoff and Elizabeth (Van Houten) Christie. The family father was a manager of the Comfort Coal and Lumber Company. At the age of sixteen Christie started working at the Delamater Iron Works while taking classes at the Cooper Union in New York City. The Iron Works had gained fame for the building of the Civil War Ironclad, the Monitor. He eventually became a consulting engineer for a number of steamship lines and in his spare time did some work on early submarine designs.
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 felt that an automobile drive system should pull the vehicle like a train and not push it like a boat. Christie focused on a front-wheel drive system in which the engine was situated transversely between the front wheels. He believed this arrangement would create a light, simple, high-speed auto. Christie’s front-wheel drive car was the first of its kind built in the United States.
To be clear, Christie was not the first inventor to experiment with propulsion via the front wheels. The Cugnot steam carriage of 1770 was driven by a single front wheel, steered via tiller, and European automakers such as Gräf & Stift and Latil also tried to popularize front-wheel drive, but the challenge of driving the wheels that also provided steering proved to be daunting (particularly when front suspension was also factored into the equation). Christie’s design incorporated telescoping U-joints to resolve the issue, but this was hardly his only innovation. Starting with a transverse-mounted engine (of his own creation), Christie used crankshaft-mounted spur gears to drive the front wheels, originally through a transmission arrangement that featured dangerously exposed gears. This was amended with later evolutions, some of which featured dual right front wheels and tires to allow for the stresses of high-speed cornering.
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 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.
Undaunted, 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 the Christie 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. While this created a lot of publicity for his company it did little to generate sales. 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’d 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 (which would enjoy a reasonable amount of success) was born. For all their innovation, the Christie front-wheel-drive racers were never a competitive success.
Several of Christie’s designs, like his coil-spring front suspension, would appear on later race cars (including the Lancia Lambda, constructed by Vincenzo Lancia, Christie’s foe in the 1905 Vanderbilt Cup), but years would pass before Cornelius Van Ranst and Harry Miller would revive the idea of building front-wheel-drive racing cars. Even this era passed quickly, and modern motorsports shows no sign of embracing front-wheel drive (outside of production-based racing) any time soon. Still, front-wheel drive has become the layout of choice for modern automakers, so perhaps J. Walter Christie’s racers played more of a role in automotive history than they’re given credit for.
In 1910 Christie was briefly involved in the aviation world producing at least two different new aircraft engines as well as an airframe. Eventually he would move towards land based mechanized artillery and armored vehicles. In 1916 Christie designed a 4-wheel-drive truck for use by the military to be utilized along the southwestern border with a then belligerent Mexico. Later that year the US Army contracted Christie’s Front Drive Motor Company of a motor carriage with a self-propelled 3-inch gun. During WWI Christie became interested in tank design and became a proponent of smaller fast armor that would swarm the enemy and attack their rear in contrast to the Army’s doctrine inherited from the previous war that tanks would take a supporting role to that of the infantry. This and the fact that Christie would often ignore requirements he disagreed with which led to a life long acrimonious relationship between the strong willed Christie and the Ordnance Department. Christie would go on to design the first American postwar tank, the 3-man 13.5-ton M1919. One of the features of the tank was a removable track that could be stowed during road operations. His M1928 tank was powered by a Liberty aircraft engine and included a revolutionary suspension system using large weight-bearing wheels and individual suspension using large L shaped arms attached to coil springs, what Christie called the “helicoil system” but due to the glut left after WWI the Ordnance Department ordered only five tanks. The tank would prove highly influential when both the British and Soviet Union acquired copies.
Frustrated with the Ordnance Department, Christie made a covert deal with agents from the Soviet Union’s state security force to sell two tanks to the Soviet Union. To get around the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917, which barred selling military material and other items to the communists, the American inventor broke the tanks into component parts and shipped them as agriculture equipment. It’s even probable that the Roosevelt administration was aware of this ruse and allowed it to proceed. Some historians have remarked that those two tanks posing as tractors helped win World War II, as they would provide the basis for the T-34, which is nicknamed the Tank That Beat Hitler. The T-34 was cramped, clunky and noisy, giving the enemy time to prepare for the tank’s appearance, but nevertheless the tank helped defeat the Nazis at the Battle of Kursk in 1943, the biggest tank engagement of the conflict, and the Soviet triumph there signaled the final turning point in the allied war against Germany. In total more that eighty-four thousand T-34 tanks were built and another thirteen thousand chassis provided the basis for self-propelled artillery and antiaircraft guns.
Perhaps Christie’s most audacious project was the flying tank. “The flying tank is a machine to end war,” Christie told Modern Mechanics magazine in 1932. “Knowledge of its existence and possession will be a greater guarantee of peace than all the treaties that human ingenuity can concoct. A flock of flying tanks set loose upon an enemy and any war is brought to an abrupt finish.”
But engineering problems plagued the project and the vehicle never flew. Christie died in Falls Church, Virginia on January 11, 1944, disillusioned and nearly broke, as the tanks based on his designs were shaping the course of history. It wasn’t until the US military later perfected low-level extraction drop methods using a Russian invention—whereby an aircraft swoops low to the ground, opens its rear hatch and drogue chutes attached to a tank mounted on a skid are deployed, pulling it out the door – that “tanks began falling from the sky”.