What It Takes To Build A Tyrrell P34 From Scratch

Illustration for article titled What It Takes To Build A Tyrrell P34 From Scratch
Photo: Mike Hoyer and Jakob Ebrey

What happens to old race cars after their on-track tenure is up? If you think they all end up in museums or the hands of collectors, you wouldn’t technically be wrong, but you’d be making the same mistake Jonathan Holtzman made when he went out looking to get his hands on a Tyrrell Project 34—better known as the unique six-wheeled Formula One car. Most of those P34s have gone to museums or former drivers, but two were also destroyed after their successful season. And if you’ve got some money and really want to drive one, why not initiate the process to get some new ones built?

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“[This project] is cool on so many levels,” Holtzman said in a recent interview with Jalopnik. “The idea that somebody would put four wheels on the front of the car, then have it be incredibly successful... it’s innovation.”

Formula One regulations in the mid-1970s dictated that the front wing could only be 1.5 meters, or about 4.9 feet. While it sounds like a lot, it meant that the tires would stick out from above and beside the wing—not ideal for aerodynamics. Keeping the wheel tucked behind the wing raised its own problems: those wheels would have to be tiny.

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So, Tyrrell’s longtime chief designer Derek Gardner asked what would happen if, instead of just two small wheels up front, they added an extra set for increased contact and more total brake area? In September 1975, the Project 34 was revealed.

The P34 was only used for two seasons in 1976 and 1977, during which time it entered 30 races, won once at the Swedish Grand Prix, secured 14 podiums, and also had its fair share of retirements. Its innovative design was eventually regulated out of the rule books, leaving Tyrrell with a more conventional car going forward. After the 1977 season was over, two P34s were destroyed. The rest ended up in museums and private collections, tucked away from any interested eyes.

Holtzman, a former racer who left the sport to take up the mantle of the family business and now races in the FIA Masters Historic series in his free time, desperately wanted a P34 to add to his collection. When he couldn’t buy one outright, he started looking for other options.

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“There are 75 million baby boomers in American,” Holtzman said, identifying himself with the group. “These people aren’t retiring to old folks homes. They’re doing things, whether they’re charitable, or second careers, or education. They’re doing things they couldn’t do when they were younger because they either didn’t have the money or didn’t have the time.

“Who would buy a historic racing car? The baby boomers. I wanted to be a professional race car driver. I started reading about this historic racing, and it was amazing. All these famous drivers that you grew up with—you can buy the car they won races with and race that car on historic tracks they raced on.”

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Holtzman is clear couldn’t have done it by himself. He likens himself to the “ideas man,” the one who planted the thought into the heads of others more qualified to start making connections and sourcing parts. He commissioned a British company called CGA Engineering to license the designs from the Tyrrell family, who agreed to allow the group to create two “continuations.” Continuations are not restorations but are instead entirely new machines built using original designs. This isn’t the P34 that raced in Anderstorp, but CGA Engineering has made damn sure the it would be indistinguishable from the real one.

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It takes a lot more than just a look over the designs. CGA sourced old magazine articles and photographs to compare the designs to in order to ensure nothing major had changed during the fabrication process. It also gained permission to take apart a P34 in a private collection in order to yet again check that all parts matched the designs.

Then, in order to take advantage of modern machining, hundreds of the original hand-drawn designs had to be digitally converted. The team went out and bought every possible part it could need and even had to source a massive sheet of aluminum from Boeing because it was the only company that created sheets big enough to create the monocoque chassis. Add in some consultation with the car’s original designers, and you have a recipe for what is almost a perfect recreation.

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“I think everything was a challenge,” Holtzman says about the entire continuation process. But he’s also honest about his role: “I wasn’t the one who asked, ‘can we do this?’ I wanted to buy [a P34]. I wanted to drive one. We tried to buy one for a lot of money, but the owner said no. Alistair [Bennett, director of CGA Engineering] was the one who said that we could make two. Alistair, James, everybody that made the parts—they’re so talented. I didn’t bring that talent. I brought the American ‘we can do this’ attitude.”

James Hanson of Speedmaster, a company that specializes in buying and selling historic cars, was tasked with tracking down the original parts that had been sold around the world. Bits and pieces of old F1 cars are often sold as novelty items (who wouldn’t want to own a piece of a P34?). While those original pieces weren’t used on the continuations, it was crucial to have a reference point when designing the new parts.

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There was only a single change in the continuation process, one thing that makes these two newly built cars differ from their older siblings: the roll hoop, once made out of titanium, is now made out of steel.

The chassis alone took over 800 hours to build, with the full project coming in at around 7,000 hours of work. To put that into perspective, that’s almost 292 24-hour shifts, or 875 days of traditional nine-to-five work. The project took around two years to complete.

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When both Holtzman and Hanson speak about testing the P34 for the first time, a wide smile is audible in their voices.

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A skilled driver and engineer, Hanson was the one who performed the initial two-day test with the recently completed P34. When asked about getting behind the wheel, he seemed at a loss for words for a moment.

“It was very cool.” he said. “I’ve driven a few different cars, but it was a surprising sensation. You don’t really notice the six wheels until the car is at quite a slow speed. The amazing thing was how well the car had been built. From the moment it rolled out of the pits, the car just worked. Everything worked. I have to say, this was pretty much perfect.”

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“It was remarkable,” Holtzman said about having gotten behind the wheel for the first time earlier this week. He’s equally enthusiastic about competing in the FIA Masters Historic series generally, which is completely understandable. Having the opportunity to compete against legendary equipment in a car you’ve spent years building has to be one hell of a satisfying feeling.

“You could close your eyes and open them again and wonder, what year is this?”

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One of the two cars built will be Holtzman’s own to race in the FIA Masters Historic F1 series for the next few years. The other will be put up for sale—with a catch. Whoever buys that P34 will be contracted to race it for three year, after which point the owner can do whatever they choose. The whole purpose of building these cars, Holtzman maintains, is that they’ll be used.

Holtzman’s first race of the 2020 season is taking place this weekend, August 22-23, at Brands Hatch. It will be the first time in decades that the P34 will actually hit the track with the intent to compete.

Weekends at Jalopnik. Lead IndyCar writer and assistant editor at Frontstretch. Freelancer. Novelist. Motorsport fanatic.

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DISCUSSION

I dare say he spent more money recreating the car than than it’s current value. (Assuming one of the museums or private owners offered one for sale.) The last time one changed hands in 2012 it was listed at £750,000. It’s certainly worth more than that now but I’d bet Mr. Holtzman has at least a couple million dollars invested in this project. Pretty damn cool, regardless.

I think if I had the money to do something like this, the biggest problem would be deciding what car to do a recreation of.