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The Amazing Automobiles of John Walter Christie – Part II

By Lee Stohr:  In Part I of this series I noted that Walter Christie built two front wheel drive automobiles in the 1903-1904 period. On January 21, 1905, Christie appeared with another new car at the Third Annual Ormond-Daytona Beach races that ran through January the 31st. For the next five years Walter Christie would be severely infected with the auto racing bug.

I prefer to call the Christie that appeared at the Ormond Beach event the 1905 Christie. It looks to have been built using many of the parts from the 1904 Christie, including the engine, wheels and even the small five-spoke steering wheel. The exhaust ports faced forward on Christie’s first two cars, but on his new car the engine cylinders were turned around, so the exhaust faced to the rear.

The transmission was driven by the camshaft gear rather than the crankshaft as on the earlier cars. Christie revised and simplified his transmission design, so now only three clutches were needed instead of four. However, all of Christie’s racing and passenger cars would continue to use his patented direct drive system. The crankshaft was connected directly to the front tires, through a clutch on each end of the crankshaft and then through short drive shafts.

1905 Cristie Front Suspension and Clutches

  • Sectional drawing of the 1905 Christie front drivetrain – “Scientific American,” January 28, 1905.

The 1905 Ormond Beach races appear to be the first instance that racing cars routinely exceeded 100 m.p.h. on US soil. Henry Ford was there with a six-cylinder racer, but his crankshaft broke. Christie’s car was rated at 60-70 h.p., but was not capable of competing for speed records with the faster 90 h.p. plus racers. Walter did win one event, a fifty-mile race for the Lozier Trophy that only American cars were eligible for. There were only three starters in the event, Walter Christie, Barney Oldfield in a 60 h.p. Peerless Green Dragon, and A. Webb in a 90 h.p. Pope-Toledo. The Pope broke a commutator at the six-mile mark. Barney lost a rear tire but tried to keep going on the rim. Christie managed to finish, going 70 m.p.h. in the last half of the “race”.

  • Christie can be seen on this video of the Ormond Beach event at the 3:40-3:49 mark.

During the week in Florida, Walter Christie also ran in the 100-mile Vanderbilt Cup – Ormond Beach race and finished 5th. On the very last day of the event, Christie supposedly did a mile in forty-seconds, which equals a very fast 90 m.p.h.

Christie must have been pleased with his Ormond Beach experience, because on March 11, 1905 the Christie Direct Action Motor Car Company was incorporated to manufacture automobiles under the patents of Walter Christie.

1905 Christie Engine and Transmission

  • The only known photograph showing part of an early Christie transmission – “Scientific American”, January 28, 1905.

Christie knew that the car needed more power for racing, but he couldn’t easily increase the displacement of his engine. With the transversely mounted, 828 c.i. engine, any bore increase would have meant widening the front castings and track width. His old 1903 car may have been sitting in the corner of the shop, and he came up with the ingenious idea of installing the entire front engine-drivetrain assembly onto the rear end of the 1905 racer. According to the wildly inaccurate news accounts of the time, the Christie now had either 80, 130 or 180 h.p. – it was more likely around 90 h.p.

Double Engine Christie Racer

  • Walter Christie’s racer in the summer of 1905, with the rear engine installed from his 1903 car. Notice the twin surface-mount radiators (one inside the other) that cooled both engines.

In 1905 the AAA held a National Championship which attracted the best drivers and machines in the country. Barney Oldfield would ultimately be crowned champion, in second place was Louis Chevrolet, followed by Webb Jay, Burman, Lytle, Roberts and others.

Walter Christie did not compete in the AAA Championship races. Instead, he competed for world mile-kilometer speed records, and ran in the Dr. Harold Thomas Inter-Cup Trophy series races. The ACA (Automobile Club of America) and CAC (Chicago Automobile Club) sponsored these events. Christie often represented the ACA and Webb Jay the CAC. Jay drove the fast White “Rocket” steam racer. Most of the races were short heats of five miles or less, which were ideal for a steam car.

July 4th was a big race weekend at Morris Park; Christie and Webb Jay ran three races. They traded wins in the first two heats, but Jay won the final when Christie’s rear engine drive clutches began to slip. This problem could have been due to the hastily arranged external contracting brake bands that Walter had rigged around the rear engine’s cone clutch housings that were the only brakes on the machine. In the end Christie appears to have turned the fastest time of the three races in the second heat.

Walter Christie and Webb Jay

  • Webb Jay’s White “Rocket” steam racer, shown leading Walter Christie’s twin-engine, four wheel drive racer at Morris Park.

Christie and A.L. Campbell in a French Darracq spent much of the summer racing on the New Jersey beaches where they exchanged American and World speed records for the kilometer and mile distances. Eventually, they tied at 38 seconds in the mile or nearly 95 m.p.h., but Christie won the kilometer distance at 23.4 seconds. Henry Ford tried but was unable to beat either Christie or Campbell.

The party ended for Christie on September 9, in Atlantic City, New Jersey while trying to set a new mile record. One or more of Christie’s large inlet valve plates blew off the rear engine, barely missing Walter’s head on their hasty exit.

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

When we return Christie’s involvement in the 1905 Vanderbilt will be covered. You can look back at Part I of the series here.

13 responses to “The Amazing Automobiles of John Walter Christie – Part II

  1. Thanks Lee, David & The Old Motor for keeping American Automotive History Alive! Barney Oldfield, Master Driver of the World & America’s Legendary Speed King Great Great Nephew.

  2. Excellent article.

    In the cover photo, are those valve stems between the spokes of the front wheel? It almost appears as if the tire is compartmentalized.

    • Terry, Look closely and you will see the valve stem at 9 o’clock that is longer than any of the other projections. Early cars and the Model T and a few others used clincher or “beaded edge” tires that in effect were only held on the rim by air pressure. Once a tire gets low on air pressure or suffers a blowout, it can and usually comes off of the rim, and depending on the speed make it hard or impossible to control. It can be lethal on a racing car or motorcycle.

      What you are seeing are treaded projections held on by a nut and washer which holds what is often referred to a lug tight against both sides of the inside of the tire. These lugs will keep the tire on the rim and help the operator stay in control until slowing down to a stop.

    • Not likely to be a compartmentalized tire, although I have heard of that being tried a few times. Early tire technology was not very good. Tires were largely hand made and specifications were rather loose. The soft tires made as a result were difficult to keep on the wheel, especially at racing speeds and powers.
      Before 1910, many ideas were tried. Included were bolted together wheel felloes that could be unbolted and taken apart for tire repair or replacement. This arrangement never seemed to be satisfactory, and few intact sets of wheels survive today. They are also difficult to notice in photographs, and rarely recognized.
      Another scheme, is what I believe these are. There were several variations of the idea. Some were a “single tube” tire that would more correctly be called a tubeless tire wherein the tire and tube were made as a single unit. Others were a separate tire and tube where the tube was extra heavy duty. In either case, the tube portion that held the air was reinforced with fabric and rubber with bolts built into the inner portion that fit through holes in the wheel felloe between each pair of spokes in order to bolt the tire down onto the wheel rim. One of the “bolts” would actually be the valve stem.
      None of these ideas really worked very well. Overall, the fit was a big problem. The tube had to be loose enough to stretch the long bolts into place which left it loose enough to work in place and cause tire trouble. They were difficult to work with and cost time during races. As better manufacturing and designs were developed, these crazy ideas fell to the wayside. Most surviving cars that did have things like this originally, have had them changed at some point in the past hundred plus years. A friend of mine has an early model N Ford with a known history back to when it was new. He has photos of the car with take-apart bolt together rims on it. The pictures were taken in the 1920s. Sometime before 1960, the wheels were changed.
      Drive carefully, and enjoy, W2

  3. Christy’s formula for speed seemed to be to add complexity, though it’s true there were no books written at the time for how to build a race car. I’ll bet fingers crossed was a handy tool for reliability in that early era of high performance.

  4. I’ve never seen the White steamer called ‘Rocket’ before., only ‘Whistling Billy’ . I once read somewhere the nameless at the time Marriott Stanley was called ‘Rocket’ because the public were calling it the ‘Wogglebug’.

    • Scientific American called it the White Rocket in their July 15, 1905 issue on page 47 and again in a photograph on page 49. A White company publication called the White Bulletin, in 1905, called the car the White Racer. Webb Jay wrote the article. Webb Jay crashed the car in August 1905. I don’t think he ever drove it again. The White racer was rebuilt and sold, and began to be called ‘Whistling Billy’.

  5. I like the photograph of Christie and the White “Rocket” which I have not seen before. That was the weekend that Webb Jay took almost 4 seconds off the World track record for the mile on the circuit at 48.35 seconds or almost 74 mph average.

  6. In my humble opinion this man is one of the big names in auto racing history. A genius at the workshop. Chapeau Mr Walter Christie

  7. On May 20th 1905 Walter Christie is reported as running his 60 h.p. racer at the Morris Park track event in the Bronx NY. He competed only in the flying mile event. [See “The Automobile” May 25, 1905, Vol 7, No. 21 available in Google Books for free]. So my question is…Did he have two cars that he ran in 1905, or did he run the 60 h.p. version through May before modifying it to the twin engine?

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