Barney Oldfield at Indianapolis
The 1916 Indianapolis 500 was mostly dominated by European Grand Prix cars from Peugeot, Delage and Sunbeam. They had modern twin overhead camshaft engines and the fastest of them qualified at 96mph. Legendary American driver Barney Oldfield qualified and finished 5th in a Delage. However, two days before the race, on Sunday afternoon, Barney dusted off his 1909 Christie race car, mounted fresh tires and went out for an attempt on the track record. Barney wanted to be the first to top 100mph at Indy. The Christie motor had too big a displacement to be eligible for the race, but Barney still used the car for exhibition laps at state fairs all over the USA. This photograph is believed to have been taken just before Barney took to the track, where he raised the one lap record to 102mph. It was an impressive effort, the Christie was a 6 year old race car with a motor that turned a maximum of 1200rpm, against the latest 3000rpm Grand Prix motors. This photograph has been beautifully colorized from the black & white original, the work done by 'Imbued with Hues'. Lot's of detail in the photo, with the characters facing the late afternoon sun. Notice the Firestone tire box on the ground and the dirty mechanician with oil can in hand.
Walter Christie submitted a US patent application on January 1904 for his simple, direct action, front wheel drive idea. He did not claim a patent on front wheel drive itself, that idea already existed. Christie was a very clever inventor but like any designer, he was probably influenced by what others were doing at the time. Christie likely read all the car magazines of the period – The Automobile, the Horseless Age, Motor Age, etc. He was able to see state-of-the-art European race cars at the 1904 Vanderbilt Cup race, which was held very close to his NY factory.
Although Christie’s race cars look unusual to modern eyes, many of the features had already been seen on other cars. I want to focus here on Christie’s radiator design. Often described in the period as a horseshoe type radiator, it was a U-shaped device consisting of tubes and fins much like any modern radiator. Except that air didn’t flow through it as much as it flowed over it. So the horseshoe radiator was actually a radiator, it just radiated heat. When the car was moving, air did flow alongside the fins but not through the fins.
I believe Christie persisted with this design on all his race cars because it worked well enough on his large displacement, low revving engines.
Did Christie get the idea for his radiator from Renault?
Christie’s patent called for the motor to be placed between the front wheels (transversely on his early cars). With that engine position, it was difficult to place a normal radiator in front of the engine because airflow would be blocked by the engine. If Christie was looking around for an alternative radiator layout, he would certainly have seen the 1904/1905 Renault racing cars.
Notice the similarities between Christie’s later 1909 race car and the 1905 Renault racing car shown below -
Below is a beautiful period photograph by Spooner & Wells of Christie's 1910 radiator. The photo can be found in the Detroit Public Library.
The Renault first appeared at the 1904 Ormond Beach races with the horseshoe radiator. Christie was there too. The same Renault raced in the 1904 Vanderbilt Cup race held near Christie’s home base in New York City. Certainly Christie saw that race as well. Renault modified their race cars for 1905, increasing horsepower from 60 to 90, but retaining the horseshoe radiator. They entered 3 cars in the 1905 French Eliminating Trials for the Gordon Bennett races. This was a grueling 341mile race against the top French manufacturers of the time. The best Renault finished 5th. Only the top 3 moved on to the Gordon Bennett race and the Renault was sent to participate in the 1905 Vanderbilt Cup, which Christie entered as well. The Renault only finished 5th again, but it did finish. Christie was involved in a wreck.
How did Christie cars do in long distance races of the period?
Christie’s finished at least 3 events completing over 200 mile distances in each.
1906 Vanderbilt American Elimination Trials – Christie finished 5th, good enough to qualify for the main event. He completed 8 of 10 laps, running approx. 237 miles.
1906 Vanderbilt Cup – Christie finished 13th of 17 cars. He was using one of his passenger cars, stripped for racing, against the cream of the world’s purpose-built racing cars. He completed 7 of 10 laps or about 207 miles.
1908 Ormond Beach – the Automobile Club of America trophy for cars under 2424lbs. R.G. Kelsey in a Christie finished 2nd completing the entire 256mile distance.
In 1910 Walter Christie became involved in the aviation world. In a brief one year period, Christie seems to have produced two different new aircraft engines as well as an airframe.
His V8 engine is amazing. It was a single overhead cam V8 with each cam operating directly on 2 valves per cylinder. The valves are in-line, much like the famous WWI Hispano Suiza Type 31.
Was Walter Christie the first to produce the layout that would become one of the best Allied engines of WWI ?
If any aircraft historians can shed some light on this, please contact me - firstname.lastname@example.org.
The photos above were recently discovered by Lee Stohr in a miscellaneous file folder at the National Automotive History Collection.
The Autumn issue of the Bulletin of the Vintage Sports Car Club UK has a great article on the 1907 Grand Prix Christie. The article contains 8 pages of high quality photos and history of this famous Christie racer. I worked with John Staveley and the editors to produce a sketch of what the transmission may have looked like on the car. This is the first known attempt to imagine what Christie was thinking, since no photos or drawings exist. I believe Walter Christie realized that his previously exposed transmission gears were not such a good idea. So the biggest change he made from the 1906 racer was to enclose the transmission gears inside the left end of the crankcase. The concept included some features from his patent; a long transverse shaft still had to drive each front wheel through each outboard clutch housing. Otherwise the 1907 engine used a similar V4 configuration and the same cylinders as the 1906 car. The 1907 racer wasn't really much faster, period articles claim the bore and stroke were actually reduced by 1/8inch. But Christie really needed a new car, as the 1906 chassis had been raced continuously since early 1905. Below is a small image of the proposed transmission layout. Contact me for a copy of the article.
By 1911 Walter Christie seems to have given up on his dream of becoming a major manufacturer of front wheel drive automobiles. But no matter, he had a new idea. Why not use his front wheel drive expertise to build fore-carriages for horse drawn fire equipment? By December of 1911 Christie fire engine tractors were being delivered. By some accounts over 400 were sold. Several Christie fire engine tractors have survived.
Click the link below to watch a great video from Jay Leno's garage, as Jay discusses Christie history and actually drives a Christie fire engine -
Another fine restoration is in the Nethercutt Museum, shown below.
The front drive system that Christie developed for his fire engine equipment was very different from his automobiles. So was the engine. For the fire engine tractors, Christie used a conventional T-head 4 cylinder. Below is an image from his catalog -
Fore-carriages were nothing new, Scientific American had an extensive article in 1902 on such a mechanism by the Society des Transformatuers Automobile Riegel. There were many others- the Pullcar, Pretot, etc. However, Christie's fire engine front drive system was patented, but not in his name. I have to thank a Christie military historian for finding the patent shown below -
If there are any Fire Engine historians out there with knowledge of Christie, please contact me to discuss more about Christie's fire engine tractors. email@example.com
An amazing film from Ormond Beach, 1905, was recently posted on youtube. If you go 3:40 seconds into the film, Walter Christie in his 1905 Blue Flyer can be seen coming around a turn. He seems to have a little trouble getting his front wheel drive car slowed for the turn. Several other competitors have the same problem. It's amazing to see a Christie in action !
The American Elimination Trial had 15 entries. Each was assigned a car number representing their starting position. There could have been 18 entries, but the Stanley and Wayne racers pulled out even before being given starting numbers. George Robertson was injured in a practice crash in his 80hp Apperson and couldn't make the race. The big Maxwell effort never made it to the starting line. Also, the rather mysterious B-L-M was a no-show. They repeated that performance in 1908.
The image below gives a feel for what it must have been like to race on the public roads in 1906. The Frayer-Miller team is shown practicing.
Walter Christie's car was rated at about 50hp with a 5 3/8" bore x 7" stroke (635cuin). He had two forward speeds. By comparison, Tracy's Locomobile, the favorite to win, had 110hp with a bore of 7 1/4" x 6" stroke (991cuin). He had 3 forward speeds.
The Haynes, Oldsmobile and Matheson entries were based on their passenger cars, as was Christie. The Oldmobile may have had even less power than the Christie. The Haynes car had 60hp and its great reliability gave it a 3rd place finish. The Matheson car also had 60hp but the engine had a single overhead cam with overhead valves, very advanced for 1906. See photo below (courtesy the Old Motor).
The Pope Toledo was another typical 4 cylinder racer with a claimed 120hp at 1200rpm and 1193 cuin. Thomas claimed 115hp for each of their 3 cars. Their engines displaced 817cuin.
The Frayer-Millers were the largest air-cooled auto engines yet produced at 991cuin. They intended to show the world that their system of engine cooling was the best so far devised. Lee Frayer was the chief designer, a graduate of Ohio State University with a Mechanical Engineering degree. He also drove one of the cars in the race. He brought along a 16 year old boy named Edd to be his riding mechanic. A few years later Edd was better known as Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, Ace of Aces, future President of Eastern Airlines and future owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
A Frayer-Miller engine is shown below.
In 1909 Walter Christie unveiled his last two automobile projects, the Racer previously mentioned and a Taxi. The Taxi was of course front wheel drive, but it had many changes from Christie's 1904 direct drive patent. So many changes that Christie was granted a new patent for the Taxi. The patent drawing below shows a very modern transverse, four cylinder engine, with a separate transmission and conventional differential unit. Christie used his normal coil spring independent front suspension. Long drive axles took the power to Christie's patented demountable rim wheels. If constant velocity u-joints had been available back then, he might have had a winner. It took another 50years for the Austin MINI to appear and really begin the modern change to front wheel drive automobiles.
The above photo of the Taxi body was discovered by Lee Stohr at the NAHC in the Detroit Public Library.
Walter Christie had wrecked his best race car in practice, one week before the American Elimination Trials, the qualifying event for the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup race. Apparently back in the factory sat a beautiful, brand new Christie Touring car.
1906 Christie Touring Car
_With no time to spare, off came the plush seats, hood and headlights. Christie somehow even found time to pull the special rear brakes off the wrecked racer and put them on his new touring car/racer. His big problem was horsepower: he now had only 50 and to be competitive one had to have at least a 100hp.
Walter Christie preparing to start the American Elimination Trial
He had quite a few other problems as well. Many American manufacturers were very serious about getting into the Vanderbilt Cup race.
Maxwell leased 5 acres of land a quarter mile from the start/finish line. A portable garage was erected containing a machine shop, storage for their racer and sleeping and dining rooms for the employees. For the management and guests, a nearby house was also leased.
Both Thomas and Frayer-Miller arrived with full 3 car, factory supported teams. Locomobile had a car for Joe Tracy, who had finished 3rd in last years race. Locomobile also had a spare car for Tracy. There were also a Haynes, Pope/Toledo, Oldsmobile and Matheson. Several other manufacturers didn't make the start, including Stanley, B-L-M and Wayne. George Robertson in an Apperson crashed heavily in practice and was another DNS.
Walter Christie was a clever inventor and owner of his own machine shop in NY. But just to finish in the top five and qualify for the Cup race would be a monumental task.
_(previously published on The Old Motor): Walter Christie is shown below getting ready to practice for the Vanderbilt Cup American Elimination trial which was held on September 22,1906. To qualify for entry into the Vanderbilt Cup race, American manufacturers had to compete in a 10 lap Elimination Trial. Only the top 5 cars would be able to start the Cup race on Oct.6. Christie would face 11 other cars in the Trial.
_ Walter Chrisitie had good reason to feel confident going into the Trial. His new front drive, V4 engine racer claimed 100hp from 1260cuin. In April on the beach in Altlantic City, NJ. Christie set an American record for gasoline cars of 102.3mph. May 25 at Empire City, NY. Christie ran the mile track in 53seconds, equaling Barney Oldfields AAA track record set in Dec.1904. Walter Christie had been racing for two years, and he had steadily developed his car until it probably could match the best in the world for a single lap or two. His reliability was always questionable, however.
The 1906 Christie V4 was built up from the chassis of his 1905 racer. Christie improved the cooling system with a large header tank over top of the radiator. He also added a second set of contracting-band rear brake shoes, operated by hand lever. This was in addition to his foot brake which operated the original set of brakes. Christie also added his patented detachable rims just for the Vanderbilt race. He was about to show the world that his front wheel drive cars were ready to be taken seriously.
Lee Stohr (b.1957: Delaware, USA) is an American race car designer and owner of STOHR DESIGN