From Race track to Battlefield - J. Walter Christie
Only a few people of their time can be called both mad and brilliant at the same time, John Walter Christie (May 6, 1865 – January 11, 1944) was perhaps one of those people. He had a great role in turning the tide of the Second World War and even influenced car and tank design today. He was one of the first people to use coil spring based independent suspension which later turned up in Lancia Lambda and to design front wheel drive vehicles that wasn't popularized until BMC Mini.
In his early life he used to work on turrets for warships and later on started working on front wheel drive vehicles, he believed that an automobile drive system should pull the vehicle like a train and not push it like a boat. His vehicles were the first of its kind in America and he began to race at various speedways to promote his vehicles. He entered the 1905 Vanderbilt Cup in the hopes for further promoting his vehicles but a crash with Vincenzo Lancia who at that time was leading the race knocked both of them out. It was perhaps through this fateful crash that Vincenzo Lancia saw the unusual vertical-pillar coil spring suspension system of Christie's car that later turned up in Lancia Lambda.
Christe would later become the first American to compete in the 1907 French Grand Prix with his monstrous 20 liters V4 engine and despite the sheer size it was reported to weight only 1,800 pounds where as other competitors were struggling to meet the 2,200 pound limit. The vehicle was the first American-built car to contest a Grand Prix event, and despite the fact that Christie tested the car to a top speed of 120 mph before the event, it lasted only four laps before retiring with engine and clutch trouble. He was placed 33rd out of 37 entrants. Later in September Christie was critically injured when he collided at high speed with debris from an earlier crash. That accident left him with a concussion, a broken wrist, back injuries, and a cut on his right eye which could have crippled him for life.
While others might have taken this as a warning, Christie would later drive one of his vehicles at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to create a record of a flying quarter-mile at speed of 107 mph in 8.37 seconds. Although all these achievements generated a lot of publicity they did not translate into sales and by 1910 his company had only produced 10 cars out of which six were racers, two were roadsters, a touring car and a taxi cab prototype. Racing was proving to be an expensive distraction for Christie and worse his cars were getting bad image for heavy steering and challenging handling caused by the front weight bias.
Barney Oldfield became the first person to lap the Indianapolis Speedway at more than 100 mph using the Christie Racer
Although Christie's Taxi design had been deemed revolutionary, it was perhaps also too complex for its time and with a price tag of $2,600 in 1909 it found no buyers in the Taxi fleet. It wasn't until 50 years later with Alec Issigonis's BMC Mini that the idea of transversely mounted engine and transmission assembly became popular. Christie however found some success in selling FWD tractors to the fire department across the county as they allowed firemen to keep using steam powered pumps while ending the use of horses to pull them.
With the start of the First World War Christie began to submit designs for both wheeled and tracked vehicles to the US Army Ordnance Board, but again found little success. While he did produce an amphibious light tank for the US Marine Corps that model again did not go into production even though it was successful in the testing.
One of the major problems in his designs was the poor cross country performance, due to limited suspension capabilities. He spend five years to tackle this problem and created the first Christie Suspension. And subsequently used it on his most successful tank yet, the M1928. One of the unique features of the tank was a removable track that could be stowed during road operations and it could reach the maximum speed of 68 km/h on tracks and 112 km/h on wheels, for comparison M1A2 Abrams has a top speed of 67 km/h on-road and 40 km/h off-road. Incidentally Christie himself called the tank the "Model 1940" because he considered it to be 12 years ahead of its time. However even after extensive testing and praises from the Army Staff, the Tank board still rejected his vehicle although his technology was used to create the Medium Tank T3E2.
This tank had drifted at high speeds and skidded off the road, at a time when the average speed of tank was less than 30 km/h it was an unimaginable incident. Image from warspot
Frustrated with the bureaucracy of the Army and Ordnance Department, Christie began to sell his vehicles to the highest bidder and made a covert deal with the Soviets. Two M1931, falsely documented as "agricultural tractors" was sold for a sum of $60,000 and were redesignated as BT tanks by the Soviets. His suspension was again used in the development of T-34 and its variants. The last remaining prototype was sold to the British again as "agricultural tractors" with additional parts as "Grape fruit". In the hands of British engineers Christie's suspension was used in british Cruiser tanks which includes Cruiser Mk III, Cruiser Mk IV, Covenanter, Crusader, Cromwell and Comet.
Christie had continued his work and designed various vehicles including a flying tank but that again met with the same fate as his earlier projects. Frustrated and nearly broke J. Walter Christie died in Falls Church, Virginia on January 11, 1944. It is very hard to judge the impact he had on Automobiles shaping the world, while he was one of the first people to develop FWD and Coil spring suspension - it was only years later it was generally adopted. It is also estimated that nearly 1 million tanks had used suspension based on Christie's design as they fought wars across 3 continents. Yet as Tank development continued Christie Suspension became unpopular and today only Israel's Merkava uses a suspension system that is inspired by Christie. As such it seems that Christie is forever fated to the remain in the footnotes of history.
In the recent years with the rise of games and anime such as Girls und Panzer, World of Tanks and War Thunder, Christie's creations has gained popularity and some modern military historians have dubbed the BT tanks as "Race Cars disguised as Tank". In-particular Girls und Panzer has shown how Christie had intended to use the tank, which was one of reasons why the Ordinance Board had rejected his design, as Christie's idea of tank as a means to penetrate enemy lines and attack their infrastructure ran contrast with Tank Board's idea which was infantry support.
If you are curious about the background music, its a Finnish folk song called Säkkijärven polkka. Finns used the song to blow up Soviet radio-controlled mines in WW2. Video from Girls und Panzer Das Finale
Feel free to ask me any questions regarding the article. I understand that most of the Drivetribe readers are not familiar with tanks and weapons in general so I will try to answer your queries.