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The Last Christie Front Wheel Drive and its Barnstorming Days

By Lee Stohr:  Inventor and engineer Walter Christie patented his first front wheel drive automobile in 1904. In 1909 he built his last and greatest Christie front wheel drive car. It was an impressive machine with a 1237 c.i. s.o.h.c. V-four and on his very first outing with it at the Grosse Point Track outside of Detroit, he set a new record for the mile at 54 3/5-seconds and beat his rival Barney Oldfield. Later at Ormond Beach, Florida during the 1910 speed fest the tables were turned with Oldfield and the Blitzen Benz turning 131 m.p.h. and Christie only managing to go 118.

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  • Barney Oldfield with the car and his crew at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Walter Christie then moved on to other projects, and his racer sat collecting dust for a couple of years. Barney Oldfield bought the car in 1912, and he used it for the next four years in exhibition races at events around the country. Barney’s biggest accomplishments with the car were in setting the first 100-m.p.h. lap at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway just before the running of 1916 500-mile race; later on June 5th at the Chicago Speedway board track Barney set the 2-mile track record at 113-m.p.h. Then he supposedly sold the old Christie, to race promoter Max Friedman.

By October of 1916, the Christie was part of the Ernie Moross traveling auto racing show. After the United States entered World War I in early 1917, and needing work, the barnstorming road shows moved North to Canada. In March of 1918, the Syracuse Herald announced that racer Louis Disbrow had purchased the Christie. Later in July of 1918, Ruth Law, a pioneering female aviator and her act arrived in Montreal, Canada, and along with it was the famous old Christie.

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  • Ruth Law with a canine friend and the Christie, her Curtis pusher airplane is in the background.

In these newly-discovered photos, taken by Joe Westover, one of Ruth Law’s mechanics we see that Jerry Wonderlich was then behind the wheel. By that point, the old warhorse had been completely rebodied and a new sponsor, Riverside Tires was now on board. Ruth Law is shown in two of the photos. The driver in the lead photo could be Wonderlich, or possibly Joe Westover’s brother who also worked for the famous early female pilot.

Only a year after these photos were taken, the Christie after a long career on the race track met its final day. An article in the Chicago Daily Tribune, on April 20, 1919, titled: Scrap Pile For A Wicked Old Freak, by Shepard Butler, tells the story of its demise. In the article Butler states: One of Barney Oldfield’s first acts when he stopped racing and became a tire manufacturer, was to reduce the sinister contraption to junk. Later in the article Butler stated: Incidentally, the Christie proved to be a veritable gold mine for the junk men (much of it was made of cast bronze). If this is true maybe he never sold the car all, but worked out arrangements with the others that used it.

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14 responses to “The Last Christie Front Wheel Drive and its Barnstorming Days

  1. Christie is in my opinion one of the most important names in auto racing world wide, for what he designed, for what he built, for the guts he put into racing his genious cars. All my admiration to this man perhaps not very well know by the average enthusiast.

  2. Thanks to Lee Stohr, David Greenlees and all who were involved with this information. J. Walter Christie was a true engineering pioneer and glad to see that he is being recognized for his accomplishments. Hopefully we will see a recreation of the famous Christie Racer that Barney Oldfield, Master Driver of the World & America’s Legendary Speed King set the Indianapolis Lap record in. Thanks again for the recognition these true automotive pioneers deserve. Best regards to all, Wayne Carroll Petersen, Barney Oldfield, Master Driver of the World & America’s Legendary Speed King Great Great Nephew

  3. I’m sure that’s not Wonderlich in that first photo.

    I, too, found the “scrap pile” story in research, but I don’t think we need to take it literally. When Barney sold the “freak” immediately after the Chicago runs, it was basically clear that it was going to disappear into the “backwater” events of the fledgling IMCA, which was akin to “scrapping” it outright – not that it had done anything other than “exhibitions” during Barney’s ownership! The brothers Max and Leon Friedman of Chicago promoted several IMCA events between Michigan and Iowa over the next few years, and basically added the car to the Alex Sloan and Ernie Moross travelling shows whenever they appeared in the area.

    I have a note from late August 1917, expressly naming Leon Friedman (or: the “Friedmen Bros.”!) as the owner of the Christie, and since Oldfield was still racing AAA at the time I’m sure he was no longer involved with the car. Disbrow was driving it then, and since he was contracted to Sloan that is how I figure it was done. Wonderlich was from the same area as the Friedmans, and was regularly competing in the same events, sometimes driving Disbrow’s Simplex “Zip”, sometimes other cars from the Sloan/Moross stable. IMCA was one big “family”, and car sharing was endemic.

    I don’t see any connections to Ruth Law, who was surely only accidentally exhibiting in the same place as the IMCA. Remember, most of these events were state and county fairs, and both flying and auto racing were big fairground attractions at the time.

    • Thanks for your input, we realize that the car was used in Hippodrome events as soon as Oldfield bought it and started using it in his “Show”

      As to “Scrap Pile For A Wicked Old Freak” we only offered this for what it is worth and always take such newspaper reports with a grain of salt, and did as many times articles like this are usually only used to sell newspapers.

      Send along a copy of the “note from late August 1917” it would be interesting to include it in the story.

      As to “I don’t see any connections to Ruth Law” There is no proof that she owned this car and we did not imply that. But in research for this article we found it reported that the Law made a lot of money with her own traveling air show, much like what Beechey did earlier and she had several airplanes and cars. There is always the possibility that she did own this car for a while.

  4. Walter Christie also designed fascinating military tanks. Lots of interesting information and pictures can be found online. The US government did not care for them but other countries used them.

    • I was wondering where I recognized Christie`s
      name from. You`re right about military tanks.
      As a matter of fact, he is usually given credit
      for the design of the T-34 tank, the plans of
      which he sold to the Soviets before WW II.
      The U.S. Government was not interested in
      Chtistie`s unique tank suspension system.

  5. Hi Michael,
    Thank you for contributing your amazing knowledge and research to this topic.
    I believe the driver in the top photo is Joe Westover’s brother. I have a photo of him alongside Joe and Ruth Law.
    Barney’s “exhibition” runs in the Christie were not all for show. Turning a 102 mph lap at Indy in 1916 was impressive on several levels. First, there was no other car in the USA that could do that at that time. Second, the Christie was by then a 6 year old race car. Back then the technology was advancing rapidly, so the Christie should have been totally uncompetitive. Third, although the Christie had a huge engine, it could not be revved much over 1100rpm. So the Christie couldn’t use rpm to make horsepower. This is because the crankshaft was connected directly to the front wheels, so one tire revolution at 100mph was equal to about 1000 crankshaft rpm, depending on front tire diameter. Finally, I have seen period ads run by both Firestone and Harry Miller using that 102mph lap to promote their products.

  6. Not referring to the rim just the fact the spokes do not end in a fellow as normal but have a little flange on each spoke to accept the rim, the rim does not slide over a fellow, just the end of the spokes.

    • In 1906 detachable wheel rims became all the rage in racing. Michelin’s rims helped Renault win the French GP that year. Walter Christie had to do it his way, and he patented his own design of rims which he continued to use for the remainder of his automobile manufacturing years.
      You may wonder why they didn’t use knock-off, Rudge Whitworth type wheels. In the early days of motor racing, the wheels were considered integral parts of the car, same as the engine and transmission. So the wheels could not be replaced during a race. But the racers were quick to find a loophole in the rules, noting that a rim is not the wheel.

  7. Walter Christy manufactured autos in 1906. He offered a 50HP with a custom body for $6,500, a princely sum. Later he designed an ohv 18HP taxicab for $2,600. 3 were built. In 1907, Christy was the first American entry in the French Grand Prix. The V4 had 19,881 cc, a record size to this day.

    His best commercial effort was a front wheel drive tractor for retro-fitting horse drawn fire fighting equipment. Organized in 1912, his creations gave new life to 1880
    steam pumpers(750 gallons per minute..not too shabby), and putting lots of horses out to pasture. He sold 600 of these tractors(as in tractor-trailers). He died in 1944 at the age of 80, as poor as a field mouse.

  8. Great innovator. As for tanks, he was not able to convince the US military about his designs for a variety of reasons, so he sold to all comers. Patton was enthusiastic about them however. The Brits used his suspension on some of their cruiser tanks, with some modifications, all the way up to the Comets. Poland was interested, but never got a tank, only their money back. Russia was a buyer and they modified his designs in the BT series that led to the further modified T34, the last Soviet tank to use his suspension. Didn’t know he was such a racer though. Great post!

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