Eccentric solo inventer J. Walter Christie designed vehicles—from race cars and taxis to fire engines and self–propelled artillery—like no others. But his oddball designed influenced some of the 20th century’s best tanks.
IN 1933, AMID RAMPED-UP EFFORTS to develop a frontline tank, the U.S. War Department urged armored vehicle designer J. Walter Christie to submit a new proposal. Christie was having none of it. “The specifications as prepared,” he responded stiffly, “do not conform to the advanced art in the construction of tanks and contain requirements which this company could not and does not desire to comply with.” With that, the prickly engineer cost himself a chance to design a competitor for what became the M-4 Sherman medium tank. Instead, his influence would be seen in British and Soviet tanks, including the Red Army’s menacing T-34.
The New Jersey–born Christie began his career as a 16-year-old apprentice machinist for New York City’s Delamater Iron Works, which had built the engines and turret mechanism for the Union ironclad Monitor during the Civil War. Enamored with big naval guns, he eventually wound up at Philadelphia’s William Cramp and Sons shipyard. There he made his mark on the second battleship Maine. Laid down in 1899, USS Maine number two was one of the first American ships to be equipped with 12-inch guns stressed to accept powerful cordite propellant. Christie, however, didn’t think the turrets that carried the guns were strong enough. He made his concern known to the Naval Ordnance Department, which grudgingly adopted Christie’s proposals for strengthened turret mounts and tracking mechanisms. Boosted by his success, Christie founded the first of many firms, the Christie Iron Works, later renamed the Walter Christie Machine Co., where he machined and manufactured gun-turret components and serviced steam engines.
As the new century dawned, the 34-year-old Christie turned his attention to the automobile. His goal was to build better race cars and then high-quality automobiles of the same unusual configuration—transverse (sideways), front-engine cars with front-wheel drive. He was the first to employ front-wheel drive in combination with independent front suspension and U-jointed axles—all portents of designs to come. British engineer Alec Issigonis was the first to use this setup in a production car, the famed Morris/Austin Mini, which he introduced in 1959. But Walter Christie had drawn up the format a half-century earlier.
Christie stuck to his new passion for the next decade. He built not only his own race cars but also their engines, most of which were enormous V4s. His biggest was the V4 engine he ran in the 1907 Grand Prix of France—19.9 liters, each cylinder equaling the displacement of a modern small-block Chevy V8. Yet Christie generally engineered for lightness, a tendency that would later plague his work on armored vehicles. Despite the size of that V4 engine, the car it propelled weighed just 1,800 pounds, hundreds lighter than his competitors’.
WHEN CHRISTIE WASN’T BUILDING or designing cars, he was racing them, often with memorable results. He first raced his own car in two events at Ormond Beach, Florida, in 1905. He finished last and then next to last, against strong competition. He also befriended motorcycle racer and future aviator Glenn Curtiss and met millionaire driver W. K. Vanderbilt II, who the year before had inaugurated the Vanderbilt Cup road race on Long Island. Entering that race 1905, Christie failed to qualify. But the race committee, probably at Vanderbilt’s urging, voted to let Christie run anyway. Amid an overwhelmingly European field, they needed as much American representation as possible. On the fourth lap Christie collided with race leader Vincenzo Lancia, forcing the Italian automaker back to fourth place. Lancia absolved Christie of blame for the accident, but sneakily copped Christie’s unique sliding-pillar independent front suspension for his own popular road cars. Christie raced for the Vanderbilt Cup again the following year, and finished 13th among 14 cars.
Next, the undaunted American entered one of his own cars in the 1907 French Grand Prix. It seemed a fool’s errand. Christie and his riding mechanic, his nephew Lewis Strang, had no pit crew or support in France, were thousands of miles from their workshop, and faced factory teams from Fiat (the eventual winner), Renault, Darracq, Mercedes, and others. Moreover, he was entering a 478-mile race against Europe’s best with a home-built car that rarely ran 20 miles without breaking down. But the supremely self-confident Christie always did things his way. Just two miles into the race, his car shed a tire. Subsequently, one of the two clutches jammed, a valve stuck, and a main bearing overheated. The engine failed on the fifth lap, though Christie claimed that when it was running properly, not a single competitor passed him.
Christie’s racing career ended that summer. During a staged race with veteran racer Barney Oldfield on a Pittsburgh track, he collided with some debris. Both Christie and his nephew were ejected. Christie’s nephew apparently found the event hilarious and lay on the dirt track laughing uncontrollably while Christie was carted off to a hospital. Christie recovered and continued making demonstration runs and setting lap records in the race car at county fairs, but his efforts generated little useful publicity. Racing had been a costly distraction. Christie Direct Action Motorcar went into receivership in 1908, no doubt partly owing to a suit brought against Christie by his major investor, who charged mismanagement and won a huge $19,195 judgment.
THIS PROVED JUST ANOTHER SHALLOW POTHOLE on Christie’s road. That September he formed a new firm, the Walter Christie Automobile Co., and went to work on what turned out to be the most advanced of all his automotive projects: a taxi. Cabs were particularly important at this time, since few people yet owned cars. Christie’s cab boasted an 18-horsepower, four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive, transverse-engine/transmission/differential unit over the front wheels that was as simple, clean, and easily serviced as any later-generation Saab or Mini. Unfortunately, it cost $2,600 (equivalent to the price of a mid-size Mercedes-Benz today), and Christie ended up building just one.
Finally, in 1912, Christie hit pay dirt. He began to manufacture fire-engine tractors to replace the front wheels and solid axles of horse-drawn steam pumpers, ladder trucks, and other rigs. His latest creation was a tough-looking, two-wheel machine with the transverse Christie engine cantilevered well out ahead of the chain-driven axle. And during the next few years Christie sold between 400 and 800 of his tractors to fire departments in New York City, Boston, Los Angeles, and other cities. He suddenly found himself making substantial money. Had he been an attentive businessman rather than an easily distracted inventor, he would have perfected his tractor, sold thousands of them, and then gotten into the fire truck business. Instead, at the end of World War I, Christie returned to his original fascination, big guns. This time, it was field artillery rather than naval rifles. He had decided that future wars would be fought by highly mobile forces. He had never been in the military, but he was right.
Of all the components of early 20th-century armies, the least mobile was its field artillery. For artillery units, firing guns and immediately moving to avoid counterbattery fire was impossible. Keeping up with advancing infantry was
difficult. The solution lay in giving a gun not only better wheels—or tracks—but its own engine. Later categorized as self-propelled artillery, these pieces were then known as gun carriages or gun carriers. The British produced the first of them, a tanklike machine called the Gun Carrier Mark I, in 1917. That same year Christie filed a patent for his own “motor-driven gun carriage.” It was basically a four-wheel-drive chassis carrying a “marine-type three-inch rifle.” Its front two wheels and drivetrain were simply those of a standard Christie fire-engine tractor.
By the time Christie’s newest company, U.S. Wheel Track Layer Corp., produced a single gun, its design had evolved to feature a full eight-inch bore. The tractor had also become a pusher, from the rear, and it carried tank tracks. The U.S. Army Ordnance Department, for whom Christie had by now cooperated on both tank designs and self-propelled guns, expressed interest, and asked for some modifications of the design. But Christie stubbornly refused to make the changes—believing that he knew what the army needed better than the army did. Soon, his stubbornness had again left him nearly broke.
Still, Christie retained influential supporters in tank enthusiasts such as George S. Patton and Dwight D. Eisenhower. The latter noted that Christie “was designing a model we thought had many advantages over those of the war vintage.” Patton, an ex-cavalryman who was one of the few capable of dealing with Christie’s “histrionic inclinations,” was even more excited about Christie’s work. After meeting the designer in late 1919, he wrote optimistically to his mother: “We have had great luck in tanks lately. A man who is an inventor came here and after he got our ideas as to what was necessary from a fighting viewpoint he designed what I think will be the greatest machine in the world. It is as far ahead of the old tanks as day is from night.”
Christie managed to stay afloat thanks to the timely arrival of a $100,000 check from the Ordnance Department, for work he had previously done. The mercurial inventor immediately funneled his funds into another tank, this one amphibious. In June 1921 Christie’s new floating tank crossed the Hudson River before a small but astonished audience of army and navy officers. It soon became obvious, however, that it floated only because it carried no armor or weapons. It was simply a clumsy steel boat with balsa floats, driven by two vulnerable propellers.
Undeterred, Christie went back to the drawing board and produced a modified version of the river-crosser. This one caught the attention of Marine Commandant Major General John A. Lejeune, who had the Marine Corps take a closer look at it. In 1924 a third iteration of Christie’s vehicle was tested in a combined navy/marine amphibious landing exercise on the Puerto Rican island of Culebra. It did not go well. Launched from the battleship Wyoming, the tank struggled to stay afloat amid average surf, and its driver quickly reversed course. Future four-star general Holland Smith declared that Christie’s model “demonstrated a singular lack of seaworthiness.” The marines, though, saw the potential in an amphibious armored fighting vehicle, and would put one to good use in World War II. But it would be based on the 1935 design of another American inventor, Donald Roebling, for a vehicle known as the “Swamp Gator,” which would evolve into the Landing Vehicle, Tracked (LVT) to be widely used in the Pacific War. Christie had missed out on another chance to cash in on one of his ideas.
STILL SEEKING HIS NICHE AND A BIG BREAK, Christie occasionally dreamed up the ridiculous. His most preposterous project was a flying tank, which would have combined a super-light tank (Christie’s M1932 design) with enormous disposable biplane wings. Christie did prototype several super-light tanks that were designed to be dropped from low-flying cargo aircraft. These he showed off before army officials with dummy ordnance and phony armor. But the army would not bite. “High power-to-weight ratios made for flash performances which could not be expected under conditions of actual combat,” one observer noted.
All the while, Christie had continued drawing up plans for slightly more conventional tanks. Heading the list was an innovative “convertible” tank with conventional tracks for off-road combat that could be removed, leaving large, rubber-tired wheels for faster road travel. On wheels and smooth roads, Christie’s convertible model could zip along at perhaps 60 miles an hour—an unprecedented and eye-popping clip. Christie’s convertible tanks never caught on with U.S. military men, but the uniqueness of their wheels would later be seen in the Soviet T-34’s characteristic large-diameter, rubber-clad main wheels.
Part of the reason for Christie’s struggles was, of course, his own hardheadedness. But he had also bulled into tank development at a time when federal funds were scarce. Further, this branch of weapons design was in considerable flux. World War I had produced cumbersome, fort-on-wheels British tanks with a top speed little higher than an infantryman’s trot as well as tiny, lightly armed and armored French “mosquito tanks” of greater mobility. Throughout the 1920s the armor community debated which type would be more productive: huge, heavily armed, rolling pillboxes to support the infantry, or light, mobile cavalry tanks to cut through the front lines and attack an army’s support structure. Christie firmly favored the latter and in time turned his attention to suspension design. Until he devised what would become known as the “Christie suspension,” tank bogies had been mounted on classic leaf springs, just as horse-drawn coaches, wagons, and carts had been for centuries. But leaf springs provide a harsh ride over uneven ground and constrain a tank’s speed.
Christie’s new suspension system solved this problem. It too would show up later as part of the T-34 and British cruiser tanks of World War II. Since there was only so much room for springing directly above a tank’s bogies, Christie converted their vertical motion into a horizontal component via right-angle bell-cranks, and the bogies’ movement worked against long-stroke, laid-down coil springs inside the tank’s hull. The system could absorb substantial deflection of the tracks and wheels, which allowed tanks to power more smoothly across rough terrain. It also made a tank a more stable gun platform while providing “marching fire.”
Christie introduced his new suspension to the tank world with his convertible M1928. He called it the “National Defense Machine” and often referred to it as the M1940, because, he said, it was 12 years ahead of its time. The army’s chief of infantry and its tank school, however, had years earlier recommended that the government have nothing further to do with Christie.
The Tank Board of the Ordnance Department was not impressed by the M1928, at least not as a tank. Its armor, Christie was told, was far too thin, penetrable by even the smallest-caliber antitank-rifle rounds. Christie had tried to ameliorate this failing by sloping the front armor—the glacis plate—to help deflect enemy fire. This was a relatively new concept for tanks, which typically featured strictly upright surfaces. The army did want to develop the convertible tracks-or-wheels M1928 as an armored car—but again, Christie would have none of it. Instead, he modified and improved the tank on his own to create the M1931.
Ultimately, the War Department rejected the M1931 and chose the CCT5 “combat car” designed by the Ordnance Bureau, the distant predecessor of the World War II M4 Sherman tank. In 1933 the War Department set aside $200,000 for tank development and urged Christie to bid on the Request For Proposal. But as a civilian, Christie had little concept of real-life military requirements. His tanks were fast but couldn’t carry the necessary armor and ordnance, and they were difficult to operate, since he provided little crew room.
THOROUGHLY EMBITTERED BY THIS REJECTION, Christie tried to find a foreign buyer for the design. He’d already sold one to Poland, but after a contractual dispute failed to deliver it. The Soviets had shown interest in Christie’s tanks, but at the time, the United States and the Soviet Union had no diplomatic relations. Moreover, the Soviets’ heavy machinery plants weren’t yet up to the task of building the tanks from blueprints. In the end, Christie simply sold them two complete models as patterns for $60,000. The deal was illegal, since Christie lacked army or State Department permission, so he shipped the tanks overseas turretless as “agricultural tractors.”
Following initial tests, Soviet engineers concluded: “The Christie tank in the form in which it was presented at the trials is a highly interesting machine with universal movement, [but it] requires extensive development as a fighting machine and the introduction of a number of design improvements and changes.” For once Christie was in no position to protest. Over the next several years the Soviets developed a series of Christie-inspired derivatives known as Bystrokhodny Tanks (high-speed tanks), or BTs. Modifications to their BT-2 through BT-7 models included the elimination of Christie’s troublesome and fragile convertible feature, though the big road wheels and Christie suspension were retained inside the treads. The Soviets adopted Christie’s sloped front armor, and applied it to their tanks’ sides and turret as well. They also replaced their BTs’ gasoline engine (originally a Russian copy of the big Liberty V12 aircraft engine that Christie used) with a Soviet diesel, to decrease flammability. All of these features would be carried over to the next production Soviet tank, the legendary T-34 designed by Soviet tank expert Mikhail Koshkin, hordes of which would eventually help turn the tide against Nazi forces on World War II’s Eastern Front.
Christie subsequently managed to sell an M1931 prototype to the British, with new versions to be built by Morris Motors. This time he eluded U.S. export rules by shipping it in crates marked “grapefruit.” The British retained the tank’s general features and suspension but completely reworked the design into what became the Cruiser Mark III, the first in a string of C-named British tanks (Crusader, Cavalier, Centaur, Covenanter, Cromwell, and Centurion). With that, J. Walter Christie’s contribution to armored fighting vehicle technology was complete. Broke after making and losing millions over his long career, he was still working on new designs in 1942, at age 77.
Christie died two years later, even as the Soviet T-34 was proving a winner on Eastern Front battlefields. MHQ
Stephan Wilkinson is a longtime automotive and aviation writer. His first assignment, in 1975, was to visit an innovative car company called BMW.
PHOTO: The fast M1928 tank showed Walter Christie’s influential wheel–track design, but the U.S. Army rejected it. Bettmann/Getty Images
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue (Vol. 28, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Outer Limits of Armor.
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