Nov 11 2009

The Christie Front-Wheel Drive Car in the 1905 Vanderbilt Cup Race

Among the most unique entries for the 1905 Vanderbilt Cup Race was the front-wheel drive Christie, named after its owner and creator, J. Walter Christie. One of just two cars to use Goodrich tires it was the first front-wheel drive car. Spur gears on each end of the crankshaft applied the engine’s 60 horsepower directly to the front axle.


At one point in 1905 the car had a second engine in the rear, but it was damaged during one of the track or beach events Christie competed in prior to the Vanderbilt Cup Elimination Trial. As a result, it was removed.

The lightest car in the race, it weighed just over 2,000 pounds. The car was assigned to driver George Robertson. This combination presented the strangest start for the American Elimination Trial. A minute after Joe Tracy’s departure, a small group of men led by Christie, rolled the car back about 15 feet from the tape. Then they pushed it forward to attempt the start, which failed. They pushed it back again, this time to about 25 feet, and then tried another push start. The engine cylinders finally ignited, just before the tape, and only seconds before their start time. This clumsy start was rapidly followed by disaster in the first major turn of the race. George Robertson charged into the Jericho turn, blew a tire and destroyed a wood-spoke wheel. Robertson telephoned the referees for permission to change the wheel, and after some deliberation he was allowed to do so – but the race was lost.


After the race commission’s controversial decision to include the Christie racer in the Vanderbilt Cup Race despite its failure to finish in the top five of the American Elimination Trial, Walter Christie took over as the driver. Assigned to be the eleventh starter, Christie’s controversial “freak” front-wheel drive machine did not appear. The night before Christie was testing the engine by revving it with the front wheels jacked up off the ground. He may have over revved it because a connecting rod broke and punched a hole through the crankcase as well as cracking a cylinder.


Instead of starting at his scheduled time of 10 past the hour, Christie eventually sped past the starting line 30 minutes late at nearly 6:40 a.m. He was allowed a rolling start by the officials, but again, his race was lost before it was started. In this photo, Christie can be seen trying to make up for lost time at the New Hyde Park Turn on to Jericho Turnpike.


No single incident had more bearing on the outcome of the 1905 Vanderbilt Cup Race than the lap eight accident that involved leader Lancia’s FIAT and the Christie, Lancia, in a precautionary move, had decided to take advantage of his huge lead – at that point a lap on the entire field – by stopping for new tires at his FIAT station just east of Albertson. His mechanics were efficient and he was ready to return to the course in about six minutes. However, the American Christie was approaching at a good speed while only on its fourth lap. With Christie fast approaching flagmen shouted, “Car Coming!” and frantically waved their flags. Lancia either did not understand or made the poor choice of an impossible risk and pulled out into the path of the oncoming American racer. Christie swerved, but the road was not wide and his wheels partially slipped into a ditch in his evasive effort. The two cars hooked rear wheels, and the Christie swung 180 degrees around, throwing the driver and his mechanician, Nicholas Leightner, out of the machine. Christie was up and about immediately, but Leightner was taken by ambulance to Mineola hospital. Their car was a mess, the rear wheels crushed. Lancia’s FIAT was not damaged as severely, with only one rear wheel broken but his lead and hopes for the 1905 Vanderbilt Cup Race were gone.


Leave a Comment