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The Amazing Automobiles of John Walter Christie – Part I

By Lee Stohr:  John Walter Christie was born in New Jersey on May 6, 1865. Christie’s early work experiences are still under research, but sometime around 1900, he set up his first business, which seems to be the Christie Iron Works. Like many men at that time, he became fascinated by the new horseless carriages.

He designed and built his first car in 1903 (or earlier) as the first press reports of Christie’s new automobile appeared in January 1904.

In some ways, the Christie was similar to other turn-of-the-century automobiles, with the driver sitting very high and a coil tube radiator slung under the rear of the frame. However, the drive train was anything but conventional. On January 18, 1904, Christie applied for a US patent for his direct action, front wheel drive design. It was granted in June as US Patent No. 761,657. The patent shows a four cylinder engine mounted transversely between the front wheels, with front wheel drive and independent front suspension. Modern writers many times mistakenly credit Christie as being the inventor of the modern front-wheel drive automobile.

1903 Christie Automobile

  • Walter Christie posing with his first car, in 1904 that was designed and built earlier in 1903. 

It is important to note here that Christie did not patent front-wheel drive or independent front suspension. Front wheel drive automobiles had been built earlier, including the 1900 Noel Benet, 1901 Korn et Latil, 1898 Graf designed by Josef Kainz, and numerous fore-carriages such as Pullcar, Pretot, Society des Transformatuers Automobile Riegel, not to mention the 1768 Cugnot steam vehicle. Christie also applied for the a patent for his design in France, Great Britain, Belgium and Italy.

Christie’s automobile had a sliding pillar type of independent front suspension, also not a first. The Bollee had the first independent front suspension and Decauville the first sliding pillar suspension.

1904 Christie Automobile Patent Drawing

  • Patent application drawing for Christie’s US Patent No. 761,657, granted in June of  1904. 

So what did Christie actually patent?

His new, patentable idea was locating the driving motor between the driving and steering wheels of a vehicle with the engine crankshaft directly connected to the wheels (i.e. Direct Action), using his novel designs for transmission and clutch mechanisms. Christie also combined the engine crankcase into the front axle that also included a support for the front springs. More on this latter.

In its January 2, 1904, issue, “The Automobile” magazine told of Christie devoting 1903 to constructing two experimental cars. The latest was to be put on display at the 4th annual New York Auto Show at Madison Square Garden during the week of Jan. 16-24. Space at the show could only be found for 190 of the 230 applicants, and I have not yet seen actual evidence that Christie exhibited his auto there. However, before the Show ended, many racers departed for the second annual Ormond Beach races held between Jan. 29 and  Feb. 1, 1904. Christie took his earliest automobile to Ormond, and may have exhibited the latest model at the Show?

Christie Automobile Patent Front View

  • Patent application drawing of the engine and drive mechanism for Christie’s 1904 US patent.  

To make it easier to identify the various Christie automobiles, I call his first automobile, the one that looks like the patent car, the 1903 Christie. I chose to call his second car the 1904 Christie. At first glance, the two appear very different, as you can see in the accompanying photos. Both have the same drivetrain however, with the newer one having a slightly more powerful engine.

1904 Christie Automobile

  • Walter Christie posing with his second car, a racer in 1904.

Christie’s main patentable idea was his “Direct Drive System,” as he sometimes called it. In top gear, the crankshaft was connected directly to the front wheels, through a clutch on each end of the crankshaft and short drive shafts. Constant velocity joints had yet to be invented, but the front tires and the crankshaft turning at the same rpm worked OK, because engines didn’t turn very high rpm at that period. Maximum engine speed in normal use rarely exceeded 800 rpm. Christie’s engine turned 200 rpm at 20 mph, and 600 rpm at 60 mph. His design idea also eliminated any loss of horsepower through the transmission and final drive gears, which was significant. In that era, there might have been a 20% loss or more from the engine to the wheels.

Christie 1904 Automobile

  • 1904 Christie racing car.

So far, Christie had a good design for a passenger automobile. Next he decided to promote his direct drive automobile patent by building a racing car. But at the time the direct drive left him unable to increase the horsepower of his racing engines by increasing the speed of the engine.

As noted earlier, Christie’s front tires rotated at the crankshaft rpm, so increasing rpm wasn’t an option for him. Although different diameter front tires could be used as a sort of final drive ratio change. In 1904-’05, Christie used a 40″ diameter front tire and running the numbers, his engine turned about 420 rpm at 50 mph. For examble using 30-inch diameter tires the engine rpm would increased to 560 at the same speed.

If Christie wanted more power, his option at the time was to increase displacement. Ultimately Christie engines would grow to as large as 1237 c.i. Racing cars of the period continued to use larger and larger engines until rules were eventually put in place to limit their size. But by then, Christie had given up on his dream to make it big in the automobile business.

1904 Walter Christie car

  • 1904 Christie racing car.

Christie’s early automobiles all used automatic intake valves, that is, they opened by atmospheric pressure as the piston descended, not by mechanical operation. Christie continued with these intake valves through 1907, when most other engines used mechanically actuated valves. However, as we noted above, Christie’s engines were limited to under 1000 rpm because the tires would be rotating at an unreachable speed at those rev’s. Automatic intake valves actually work reasonably well up to about 1000 rpm, as Peugeot found in back-to-back dyno testing in October, 1903. To make more power, Christie also tried adding more intake valves – a lot more. For his 1904 car, he added 16 of them which meant in 1904 he had a 4-cylinder engine with 36 valves, 32 of which were overhead intake valves!

Scientific American Christie Engine

1904 “Scientific American” image showing the racing car’s 32-intake valves. Note the copper water jacket.

Christie’s patent claimed that it used “novel transmission and clutch mechanisms.” This was certainly true, his transmission was novel, but it was likely the weakest part of his automobiles. According to Christie’s patent, you had to learn to operate four different clutches to drive a Christie. When Christie produced an elegant brochure for his automobiles in 1905, most of the “novel transmission” was conveniently airbrushed out make his car appear much simpler to operate than others.

Christie was enamored with his “Direct Drive” idea, but he had to add a low gear to start out with and a reverse gear. He knew a differential would be required in those gears. In addition to this, the water pump and ignition commutator were also connected to various transmission shafts. All of this mechanism sat behind the engine, covered with a bit of loose fitting tinwork to keep out the larger stones and dirt. This design wasn’t entirely unusual at the time, as the 1899 Bollee had its transmission mounted behind the rear axle, in a very exposed position.

Christie French Patent For Front-Wheel Design

  •        Patent application drawing of the engine and drive mechanism for Christie’s French patent.  

Christie refined his transmissions throughout his automobile career. Eventually the mechanisms would be enclosed in the engine crankcase-front axle casting. Unfortunately, the gears were undersized for the massive torque of his 1200 plus c.i. racing engines and photos show his transmission mechanism was discarded in short order.

Returning to Christie’s first two automobiles – the 1903 car did run at Ormond Beach Speed Meet in January, 1904. He didn’t win races with it, but finished a 10-mile Gentlemen’s Race and a 20-mile handicap race. William K. Vanderbilt was the big winner that year.

Walter Christie was confidant enough of his new automobile to enter the Gordon Bennet Cup Elimination Trials in May of 1904. The trials were described by the “New York Times” as a complete fiasco. Christie never showed, and the Automobile Club of America announced it would recommend no American team be sent abroad.

Walter Christie did compete again in 1904 at the Empire City track in New York for a 10-mile race where he finished 4th. After that, no record has been found of either of the first two Christie automobiles ever being seen again. They were probably cannibalized to build Christie’s next automobile.

All photos unless noted are courtesy of the National Automobile History Collection.

When we return with Part II we will look at: The 1905 Christie racer and a very busy season of racing.

You can learn more about Lee Stohr here.

12 responses to “The Amazing Automobiles of John Walter Christie – Part I

  1. Thank you so much for this thorough article! I have always been fascinated by Christie’s vehicles, but did not know this much. Great stuff! Equally interesting is his work on military tanks. The T-34, from Christie’s designs, is nicknamed the Tank That Beat Hitler. A wealth of information about his tanks can be found on the web.

      • I am glad you liked the article. I tried to shed some new light on Christie’s automobile designs.
        Actually Christie cars were not that heavy. At the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup weigh-in, Christie’s car weighed 1800lbs when all the others struggled to get down to the 2200lb maximum. Christie left a lot of stuff in his car at the weigh-in, so his car was even lighter than 1800lb.
        There are some very serious historians working on the Christie military vehicles. I am not an expert on that.

  2. Thanks Lee Stohr, David Greenlees and the Old Motor for keeping American Automotive History Alive! Hopefully the World will see a replica of this fine automobile. Barney Oldfield, Master Driver of the World & America’s Legendary Speed King Great Great Nephew.

  3. In the French patent, the front wheels are ”ghosted” in a direction that might aid cornering. Was his steering linkage set up to enable this? If so, coming out of corner would require lifting all that iron with the steering wheel–and a lock to lock wobble would challenge any amusement park ride!


    • Herb, it appears that the front tire rotates about the ‘kingpin’ axis on the patent drawing. So the tire rotates on the center of it’s contact patch with the ground. I don’t see any kingpin inclination or caster angles, so steering would not ‘lift’ the chassis like it would otherwise. Maybe I”m misunderstanding what you wrote?

    • i think you are mistaken Herb , the patent drawing shows the engine from above , not from the front as i believe you think it does . if the wheels were able to tilt then the mass of the car would need to be lifted as you thought .

  4. Christie’s first job was in the NYC iron works that built the engines and gun turrets for ironclad battleships. His cars have the same “feel”. If you walk the streets in NYC where his first shop was, you can still see the massive iron castings used to decorate the buildings. Anyone of his cars would fit perfectly parked at the curb. I am currently reading a pile of Henry Ford bio’s and see no mention of the Cape May Trophy race where Christie became the only person in history to beat Louis Chevrolet and Henry Ford in a single competition. Surely this should qualify for some kind of monument to the poor guy !

  5. What a fantastic automobile! I never heard of Christie or his car. I found out about him through Jay Leno’s Garage. He featured one of Christine’s fire engine tractors. Are there any other diagrams on the drive train? It would be interesting to see how it works in an animated program. Thanks for your work.

  6. What I have never understood is how you could have any differential action, in a situation where the crankshaft is the front axle? If there WERE some sort of differential, can you imagine the effort it would take to steer that juggernaut in a race??!! If there was none, I suppose the inner wheel would always be spinning through a corner.

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