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The Amazing Automobiles of John Walter Christie – Part III

By Lee Stohr:

When we left off in Part II, the rear engine blew up on September 9, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, while Christie was trying to set a new mile record. He quickly regrouped and converted the racer back to its front engine configuration for the 1905 Vanderbilt Cup Elimination Race; that event was scheduled to run on September 23rd, leaving him very little time to prepare for it.

  • The lead photo shows Walter Christie practicing for the Vanderbilt Cup Race. The car’s racing number has not yet been applied.

Christie’s Vanderbilt Cup racing efforts have been covered by many writers, so I will not go into great detail here. Even though the car finished sixth in the Elimination race, it was selected as one of the American cars that would run in the Cup race on October 14th.

Walter Christie’s car was listed on the entry form as being owned by James L. Breese, who was a wealthy and well-connected photographer and a early automobile enthusiast. Breese is better known for his midnight salons in which New York City’s artistic upper crust would gather for ‘bacchanalian revels’. Google ”the Carbon Studio NYC” if you are curious.

In this era long before the Environmental Protection Agency, the Long Island roads were prepared for the race and 60,000 gallons of oil were spread on them to keep the dust down.

Christie Car 11 - 1905 Vanderbilt Cup

  • Walter Christie heading out to give George Robertson some front wheel drive driving tips during a practice session for the race. 

Christie’s family asked Walter not to compete in the Vanderbilt Cup races, so young hot-shoe and future race winner George Robertson took the wheel of the car in the Elimination race. This qualifier was supposed to determine the five fastest American race cars, which would go on to compete in the Vanderbilt Cup race on October 15th. Robertson seemed to have trouble coming to terms with the peculiarities of front wheel drive, he tore two tires off the rims in the first lap, damaged a wheel rim, and then lost another tire on the next lap.

Needless to say, the Christie didn’t qualify for the main event. However, the Racing Board of the AAA decided to throw out three of the finishers and substitute a like number of non-finishers that were potentially faster, allowing the Christie car to start the main race. The action aroused a storm of protest, but to no avail. Not only was the Christie car back in, but Walter must have decided that he could drive his car better than anyone else, so he got behind the wheel at the start of the Vanderbilt Cup race.

Lancia's Fiat - Christe racer

  • Lancia in his 110 h.p. Fiat pulling out in front of Christie resulting in him putting the number 11 car out of the race. Courtesy of the Helck Family.

Unfortunately, the race was a disaster for Christie. The evening before the start, Christie was tuning his engine and accidentally over-revved it, resulting in a broken connecting rod. Like any hardcore racer, Christie worked all night, arriving at the start 28 minutes late. He was allowed to join the race, and he was running his forth lap when the leader, Vincenzo Lancia pulled out in front of him after a pitstop and they collided. Christie was out on the spot. Lancia continued on to a fourth place finish in the race, which he would have easily won without the crash.

Christie must have felt that the year didn’t go badly, and in truth he had accomplished a lot. Two years earlier he was an unknown, now he was one of the leading race car drivers in America, and getting plenty of press coverage for his Direct Drive Automobile Company. Walter looked forward to 1906 with optimism – all he needed was more horsepower, and he had a plan for that; the aging, in-line four cylinder engine of 828 c.i.d. would be replaced with a huge 1260 c.i.d. V-4.

You can look back at the earlier Parts of The Amazing Automobiles of John Walter Christie here. Coming up next in Part IV – the 1906 Christie racer, the touring car, and runabout.

2 responses to “The Amazing Automobiles of John Walter Christie – Part III

  1. Thanks Lee, superb info on this giant of American early auto racing history. Again let me say “Chapeau Mr Christie”

  2. Lee Stohr, David Greenlees & The Old Motor, Thanks for keeping American Automotive History Alive! J. Walter Christie was a true American Automotive Pioneer. You Know Me, Barney Oldfield, Master Driver of the World & America’s Legendary Speed King Great Great Nephew

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