Simanaitis Says

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WALTER CHRISTIE designed and built outrageous race cars from 1904 to 1909. And the most outrageous was his last one, the 1909 racer that was later used by Barney Oldfield in the Championship of the Universe. This car’s technicalities were both amazingly modern—the engine, a stressed member of the chassis, for example—and yet decidedly crude even by 1909 standards. The car is a delight to analyze.


John Walter Christie, 1865 – 1944, American pioneer automobilist, engineer and inventor of the Christie suspension used in World War II tanks.

As its name implies, Christie’s 1904 patented direct-action front-wheel drive had its front wheels connected directly to the engine’s crankshaft. And what engines he designed!

The 1909 race car had a transversely mounted V-4 with 7.5 in. bore and 7.0 in. stroke, its four pistons roughly twice the size of coffee cans. The engine displaced an astounding 1237 cu. in., 20.3 liters, revved to perhaps 1300 rpm and produced a claimed 100 to 300 hp (the latter, I suspect, a measurement of Barney Oldfield’s showmanship).


The Christie 1909 race car. Images from Stohr Design.


The transverse V-4 had separately cast cylinders, its two banks aligned 20 degrees apart. The lower pair was only 8 degrees off horizontal, this engine inclination benefitting the car’s weight distribution and aerodynamics. A flat two-throw crankshaft was aligned with the front-axle centerline for its direct drive.

Each lower piston was linked to the crankshaft by a master connecting rod that was 30.5 in. long. Upper pistons had yoked connecting rods that were “only” 23.5 in. long. A single overhead camshaft operated the valves through rocker arms, each intake and exhaust valve having a diameter of 3.0 in. The bronze crankcase was integrated into chassis side members, as noted and akin to modern Formula One practice.


The immense cylinders, rocker arms and valve springs are evident, as is the bevel-and-shaft drive to its overhead camshaft and Christie’s sliding-pillar front suspension. Image from Old Machine Press.]

The Christie independent front suspension, part of his 1904 patent, was a first use of sliding pillars, destined to be incorporated into Morgans (in 1909) and Lancias (in 1922). The car’s semi-elliptic leaf springs at the rear had little to do beyond holding up the two seats and fuel tank.

The Christie radiator was formed of 80 copper tubes, arranged saddle-style aft of the engine, which likely made the cockpit a hellish place indeed. Air flowed over, rather than through the device, akin to surface radiators destined to appear more than a decade later on racing aircraft.


Noteworthy is the Christie’s saddle-style surface radiator between the engine and cockpit. Image from Stohr Design.

A two-speed gearbox, plus reverse, resided within the engine’s crankcase. The direct drive was “high speed.” For the others, a spur gear off the crankshaft drove a parallel auxiliary shaft and cross shaft. Sliding the cross shaft laterally decoupled the crankshaft from the drive wheels and engaged either “low speed” or reverse.

The car had three tire choices, 30-in. diameter for track use, 32 in. for the road and 34 in. for high-speed runs. With 34-in. tires and the engine running 1285 rpm, this worked out to 130 mph, a theoretical figure never actually achieved.

Having outgrown auto racing, Christie turned his attention to a front-wheel-drive taxi (1909, offered unsuccessfully in New York City), aircraft engines (1910), front-wheel-drive firetrucks (1911, successfully sold to the NYC Fire Department) and, ultimately, armored vehicles and tanks. His disagreements with the U.S. military meant only the Russians and British ever profited from these designs, but that’s another Christie tale, perhaps for another day.

The 1909 Christie race car sat idle from 1910 to 1912, when Barney Oldfield bought it for $750 (chump change for Oldfield at the time, the equivalent of $18,000 today). Barney used the Christie occasionally during his 1914 Championship of the Universe with aviator Lincoln Beachey.


Oldfield, the Christie and crew at Indy, 1916. This and the following image from The Old Motor.

Oldfield and his Christie were the first to lap Indy at more than 100 mph, 102.623 mph on May 28, 1916. A few days later, he lapped Chicago’s two-mile Speedway Park at 112.9 mph. Oldfield sold the car in mid-June 1916.


Aviatrix Ruth Law, her canine friend, the ex-Oldfield Christie and her Curtiss biplane, c. 1918.

Other adventures for the Christie included the Ernest Moross Amusement Company and “competing” against Ruth Law and her Curtiss biplane. The Christie race car was scrapped around April 1919, its bronze returning $450 ($6207 in today’s cash). ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2015

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This entry was posted on September 8, 2015 by in Classic Bits and tagged , , .
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