May 6: J. Walter Christie, early front-wheel-drive pioneer, was born on this date in 1865

6 May 2013

A vast majority of the new cars sold today owe some debt of innovation to J. Walter Christie, a somewhat eccentric engineer from New York who wowed crowds at the turn of the 20th century with his "freaks" — massive race cars built with front-wheel-drive. Despite power and speed advantages, Christie never found success with his cars, between the limitations of tires in that era and what we now know as torque steer. After a close call in a race crash, Christie turned to passenger cars, and in 1911 designed a front-wheel-drive taxi that set a pattern for front-wheel-drive cars to this day; unfortunately, his engineering predated the invention of the U-joint, and his design never caught on.

Christie's most lasting success would come from World War II — where the Soviet Army adopted Christie's design for tanks that had been rejected by the U.S. Army. None of Christie's massive race cars survive today, but you can see one take a corner at 3:40 in the video below:

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