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The Amazing Automobiles of John Walter Christie – Part V

By Lee Stohr:

In Part III of this series, we noted that starting in 1904, John Walter Christie had introduced his new front-drive automobiles to the American public through his racing efforts. He had also incorporated the Christie Direct Action Motor Car Company to manufacture cars under his patents. In 1906, the Christie touring car and runabout were constructed. He continued on in racing, and brought his V-4 machine to the Ormond Beach, Florida speed meet. Interestingly, Louis Chevrolet was driving the car for Walter. The extent of his relationship between the two is unknown at this time.

Christie modified the engine in his 1905 racer by replacing the inline four-cylinder Monobloc casting engine with one having separate cylinders arranged in a V-4 configuration, and the displacement went up from 828 c.i.d. to around 1260 c.i.d. “Scientific American” magazine described the new engine as having 7 3/8-inch bore and stroke with one overhead exhaust valve per cylinder of 3 1/8-inch diameter, pushrod operated. The overhead intake valves were still automatic, but there were eight of them per cylinder, in a circular array around the exhaust valve. Each intake was 1 ½-inch in diameter. The amount of power it produced was estimated at 135 h.p. at 1,125 r.p.m.

1906 Christie Racing Car

  • Enlargeable image of Christie’s 1906 V-4 racer at Ormond Beach on the scales. Christie wearing his driving gear is behind the car, second from the left.

The Ormond races didn’t go well for Christie as the new engine appears to have had teething-cooling problems. Chevrolet ended up driving a 200 h.p. Darracq V-8 to the one-mile world record for a gasoline cars. Walter returned to his New York City shop and began a development program in preparation for the Vanderbilt Cup Race in the fall. It appears that Christie revised the water jackets around each cylinder and made new heads which routed water around the exhaust valves.

Christie brake development

  • Original rear brakes on the left and the revised version on the right for the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup race.

These same cylinders would later be used on the 1907 Grand Prix racer. Christie competed with the car and slowly improved it all through the summer of 1906. Another change made was the brakes were enlarged to more than double the previous size since the Vanderbilt Cup race distance would be nearly 300-miles.

The 1906 Vanderbilt Cup race would result in great publicity for Christie’s front-wheel direct drive automobile business. The New York Times described the competition as: “the most thrilling sporting event ever witnessed in the USA.” Christie must have felt he had a good chance because his summer racing efforts went very well.

1906 Christie Racing Car V-4 Engine

  • Christie’s 1906 V-4 engine, shown later in the year after much development.

On April 27 at Ventnor Beach, New Jersey, Christie set a one-mile American record for gasoline cars at 102.3 m.p.h. At this same event was the previous year’s Vanderbilt winner, Hemery’s Darracq, now driven by Guy Vaughn, but this time, Christie was faster. On May 25th at the Empire City track, Christie did the mile in 53 seconds, equaling Barney Oldfield’s AAA track record set in Los Angeles in December of 1904. Barney was the 1905 AAA National Champion, so Walter’s speed was quite an impressive achievement.

Compared to his competition, Christie’s V-4 engine was similar to the others in displacement, horsepower, and r.p.m. For instance, the fastest American racing car in Vanderbilt Cup completion was Joe Tracy’s Locomobile. That engine was rated at 110 h.p. at 1100 r.p.m. and had a bore of 7 ¼-inch and stroke of 6-inch. Christie’s racing car was probably fast enough to be competitive in the Vanderbilt Race, but its reliability over a nearly 300-mile run was questionable.

1906 Christie Vanderbilt Crash

  • The demolished V-4 racing car after a crash during practice for a Vanderbilt Elimination Race due to a fractured steering arm.  

Christie would have to complete two 300-mile races, because all the American entries had to pre-qualify in an Elimination Race two weeks before the main event. Unfortunately, his racer only went about 100-yards before crashing into a telephone pole. This accident, due to a steering arm failure, happened on September 15th while practicing for the Elimination Race.

The Elimination Race was to be held on September 22 and Christie, always the diehard racer, went back to his shop and stripped down his touring car to use for the race. He would not give up his quest, but now with only half the horsepower of most of his competitors he had to finish in the top five to qualify for the main race. Christie and the car proved unable to keep up with Tracy in the Locomobile, Hubert LeBlon’s Thomas or Herbert Lytle’s Pope-Toledo. He had to beat a three car Frayer-Miller factory effort, two additional Thomas entries, an Oldsmobile, a Haynes and a Matheson. Christie started in 9th, and amazingly finished the first lap in second place behind Lytle! Unfortunately, some unknown issue on lap five set Christie back to 7th, but He recovered and finished in 5th place and qualified for the big show, the Vanderbilt Cup race on October 6th.

1906 Christie Vanderbilt Start

  • Christie at the starting line of the Elimination Race for American contestants, September 22, 1906.

Christie started in 17th place in the Vanderbilt Cup race against some of the best European drivers and machines – none of the American entries really did stand a chance. The Darracq, FIAT, De Dietrich, Clement and Mercedes cars finished all ten laps of the race, with the rest of the field a lap or more behind. LeBlon managed to bring the Thomas home in 8th place, one lap down to the winner. Tracy in the Locomobile was down two laps and only managed to finish in 10th place. Christie was the third American car, three laps down in 13th place. He managed to beat the Haynes and Frayer-Miller, and the remaining American entries.

Far from being discouraged, Walter Christie had a bold new idea. In 1907, he would enter the French Grand Prix, the most important race in the world!

The first four parts of The Amazing Automobiles of John Walter Christie are here. You visit with Lee Stohr here.

The photos are courtesy of the NAHC and the Benson Ford.

16 responses to “The Amazing Automobiles of John Walter Christie – Part V

    • The front wheels are Christie’s one piece cast wheels. Later in 1906 he started using his patented, detachable rim wheels. The front wheels are larger diameter than the rear because he was looking for maximum top speed on the beach. Since his wheels were connected to the crankshaft without other gearing, the wheels turned the same rpm as the crankshaft.

      • Christie used different diameter front wheels and tires as a sort of final drive ratio change. He used tires from 30″ to 40″ in diameter.

      • David,
        David Greenlees spoke about this in the first Christie post “Look closely and you will see the valve stem at 2 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 threaded 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.”

  1. I’d long known of Walter Christie but not known much about him and his cars and I’m finding this series very interesting indeed. Lee and David, you are doing a great job putting this amazing story up for us to follow and I thank you for your efforts which are much appreciated. A question: Have any parts of these cars survived to the present or has all been lost? I suspect the latter but who knows what may be hiding somewhere…

    • No Christie cars are known to have survived. Several Christie fire engine tractors exist in museums, and probably some of his military vehicles. A couple pieces of a Christie Taxi survived, but I don’t know where they are today.

  2. Thanks for continuing with the Christie material, especially the photos of the racers that I hadn’t seen before. Having been a front wheel drive nutcase ever since I got my first Citroen in 1962 anything pertaining to early attempts at using that drivetrain is of utmost interest.

  3. Dear David & Lee,

    Great article, and wonderful photos! Would that be Mr. C with his back turned to the camera in the first image?

    Jefferson, Luziana

    • That could be Chevrolet. Griff Borgeson published a photo of Chevrolet at the wheel of this Christie racer, at Ormond Beach, in his book ‘The Golden Age’.

  4. Yes, these are an earlier version of the same idea as the tire clamps on earlier British Racing and/or High Performance Motorcycles of an earlier time. An example would be: A 500c.c. “Single” BSA Gold Star Flat Track Racer. Edwin W. – 30 –

  5. Thanks Lee & David for keeping Automotive History Alive! Barney Oldfield, Master Driver of the World & America’s legendary Speed King Great Great Nephew

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