39.  J. Walter Christie

J. Walter Christie wasn’t a rich kid.  Born in River Edge NJ in 1865, Christie worked at the Delamater Iron Works at age sixteen, and attended night school at Cooper Union.  He learned enough engineering to earn a living designing steamships and early submarines.  In the Spanish-American War, he patented a naval turret for the famous USS Maine warship.

Christie’s military designs provided enough capital to pursue his dream, building his own automobile company.  To promote his ideas, Christie built racecars, as early as 1905, and entered them in the world’s premier races, including the French Grand Prix, the Vanderbilt Cup, and the Ormond (Daytona) beach races.  Featuring outstanding American drivers, including George Robertson and Louis Chevrolet, Christie developed five generations of inventive racecars, including water-cooling.  His transverse mounted front engine designs were the first true front wheel drive cars, featuring a crude differential to turn the drive wheels at different speeds when cornering.  This was at a time when the mighty Benz still coupled the crank energy to a single rear wheel through a single-speed chain drive.  Most modern automotive historians dismiss Christie as a quack, but his original ideas worked efficiently and reliably.  Unfortunately, his automotive suspensions were crude, and he couldn’t seem to keep tires on his racecars.

            Christie's sliding pillars suspension 1904   sliding pillar suspension 1904

After the 1910 Ormond meet, Christie abandoned auto racing to pursue building fire engines with front wheel drive.  This led to development of a four-wheel drive vehicle.  In 1916, he sold a four wheel drive gun carriage to the US Army.

In 1923, Christie submitted his first tank design to the US Army Ordnance board.  The proposal was rejected due to suspension deficiencies.  He spent five years, and almost four hundred grand of his own cabbage developing the “helicoil suspension,” sloping armor to deflect anti-tank weapons, and trackless operation for extraordinary speeds on flat or paved terrain.

Christie's "Flying Tank" c 1932Christie's "Flying Tank"

Although innovative, Christie’s designs were not what the (civilian controlled) Ordnance board wanted.  The board envisioned tanks as support for conventional infantry, and placed emphasis on heavy armor.  Christie continued to submit high speed, all-terrain offensive weapons.  By 1929, Christie’s designs traveled 42 mph on tracks, and 69 mph on wheels.  He eventually attracted support from some powerful military men, including Army Chief of Staff Gen Charles P Summerall, Cavalry Lt Col George S Patton, and a junior officer (who would become known as “Ike”) who wrote that Christie “was designing a model we thought had many advantages over those of the war vintage.”

The Army eventually purchased Christie’s M1928 prototype and his patent for coil-spring independent suspension, but there’s no record the government ever paid the bill.  The War Secretary cancelled the deal because he felt Christie’s asking price was too high.  Desperate for funding, in 1930, Christie evidently agreed to make a single M1928 for the Polish military, but he claimed he cancelled the deal and returned the Polish money.  Later that year, he illegally accepted $60,000 from the Russians, and shipped two tanks to the commies, labeled as “farm tractors.”

                  Soviet T28 Tank (WW2)   Soviet T28 Tank

The M1928 became the prototype for the Soviet T34 Panzer busters, which halted the German Eastern front advance.  General Giffard Le Quesne Martel and the British Morris Motors Group also copied Christie’s designs for the Cruiser Mk III (A13).  The most famous campaign for the A13 was Gen Bernard Montgomery’s Libyan campaign battling the Italians and Germans, commanded by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.

Ironically, while many of Christie’s innovations were turning the tide of the European war, he was dying, on 11 January 1944 in Falls Church VA, nearly broke and with little recognition.  He’d made and lost fortunes, raced wheel-to-wheel with Vincenzo Lancia’s Fiat, and earned Daytona’s title of fastest American racecar. Like many brilliant engineers, he believed if he could develop horrible weapons, mankind would discover the folly of war.  One of the best racers you never heard of remained naïve on his deathbed.