It was car designer Gardner who first came up with the idea, when trying to figure out a way to make Indy Car machineries more drivable in the Gas Turbine era (the late 1960s). His innovative thinking led to the idea of fitting your regular racing car with 4 wheels in the front, in order to improve the car's stability when pushing the gas pedal.
Although the idea was not initially picked up by the North American racing body – as the powerful gas turbine Indy cars were soon prohibited in the USAC – Gardner did not let go that easily. Half-of-decade later, while working as chief car designer for Elf – Tyrrell Racing, he decided to give it another shot. This time, however, the 6-wheeler design was aimed at improving the car's speed in straight line rather than provide better stability after exiting the corners (as initially planned in the IndyCar).
As explained by Gardner when finally revealing the design to his team boss, if an F1 machinery would benefit from 4 smaller wheel in front and 2 regular wheels in the rear, that would lead to less lift on track. While the other cars would counteract this effect by using larger front wings, the 6-wheel car would take care of the problem while using a narrower front wing, therefore improving its performances in straight line.
Although crazy to begin with, the idea was soon picked up by Tyrrell, who immediately rolled it into production (as a prototype, of course). The project was nicknamed “Tyrrell P34” – to differentiate it from the past Tyrrell cars, having the code 005, 006, 007 and so on – and was first presented to the media at the Heathrow Hilton Hotel on September 22nd 1975.
More, both Tyrrell drivers – Patrick Depailler and Jody Scheckter – had to adapt their driving styles to the higher-front end and smaller front wheels fitted to the P34. Needless to say, both were having difficulties positioning their car in the corners, which led to the famous “port holes” in the cockpit side. This way, the drivers were able to keep an eye on their tires continuously, with the overall view also helping them evaluate their car's position in corners at any time.
The Tyrell P34 finally debuted in Formula 1 as a competition car at the 1976 Spanish Grand Prix, with Depailler (it was only him to drive the P34 in Spain) managing to score the 3rd fastest time in qualifying.
Starting the next race in Belgium both drivers were given the P34 to drive and the results were amazing. Scheckter scored P34's first (and only) win in Formula 1 during the Swedish Grand Prix at Anderstorp – after scoring a pole position – as he was followed by teammate Depailler.
All in all, the P34 ended the 1976 season with an overall one win, 8 additional podiums and 2 fastest laps. Scheckter eventually finished 3rd in the overall classification, while Tyrrell also ended their maiden P34 campaign in 3rd place.
After a series of developments through the 1976/77 offseason – with Ken Tyrell setting up a new R&D centre at Ockham, UK – the 1977 campaign begun miserably for the “improved” P34. Neither newcomer Ronnie Peterson, nor Depailler managed to finish the first race, despite the newly-introduced fiber glass body shell. The entire season would go down in the same manner – mainly because, regardless of the new developments, tire wear and brake cooling were never solved – forcing Gardner to leave the team and Tyrrell Racing to renounce the idea completely.
However, the Tyrrell P34 was not the only 6-wheel F1 car to see daylight. The March 2-4-0 was another project aiming to make its F1 debut in 1977, only financial difficulties in developing the design of the car made it impossible for Max Mosley (co-owner of March Cars) and designer Robin Herd to eventually start it during an actual Grand Prix.
Unfortunately, due to the lack of funds from the March team, a functional gearbox able to drive the 4 wheels in the rear was impossible to manufacture. During the car's very first demonstration lap at Silverstone, before the media, the gearbox casing flexed and the gears became unmeshed, turning the 2-4-0 into a 2-wheel drive car. The project was eventually scraped by March Team.
It was only Frank Williams, some 5 years later, to take the design of the 2-4-0 and try to turn it into a race winner during the 1982 season. Commonly known as the Williams FW08B, the car never saw grand prix daylight either, as the team was unable to further develop the 6-wheeler in order to become faster than the 4-wheel variant. “Old Frank” finally renounced the idea to revive the 6-wheel concept a year later, following FIA's decision to ban 4-wheel-drive from Formula 1.