The best kept secrets...

The story of the first Tyrrell was a cloak-and-dagger affair, as Neil Davis tells Rob Widdows

Neil Davis was one of Ken Tyrrell’s most trusted and loyal employees, preferring to down tools rather than move to Brackley when BAR took over the team.

“I wasn’t terribly impressed with Adrian Reynard when he came to talk to us in Ockham so I decided to call it a day,” says Neil. “He told us he’d never designed a car that hadn’t been on pole. Well, I thought, this is Formula 1 and you’ve got a surprise in store, mate.” And he was right.

But that’s another story. Our tale begins in the winter of 1970 when Tyrrell decided to build his own Grand Prix car. Only three other people knew of this plan – Ken’s wife Norah, designer Derek Gardner and of course Mr J Y Stewart, their driver.

“I was driving into Guildford with Ken and I said, ‘These Marches we’re running are heaps of rubbish. Why don’t we build our own car?’ And he said, ‘Well, I’ve been thinking along those lines’ and that was the first I knew,” Neil smiles. “Then he got Derek Gardner on board, shook hands on the deal in a pub in Twyford, no contracts or any of that, his word was always his bond. Then I took an engine and a gearbox up to Derek’s place and there, in his garage, was this wooden mock-up of what would become Tyrrell 001. That made me smile, but Derek was a good man, an innovator and a true engineer.”

From this point, still in absolute secrecy, things moved forward rapidly.

“Jackie went for a seat fitting in the mock-up,” continues Neil, “and then Maurice Gomm built the chassis. But it was still very much a secret project. When the chassis came down to Ockham I started building up the car with Roland Law and when he put the Cosworth on the back we could see that the whole thing wasn’t square, the chassis had a wind in it, so Derek drew up a special engine mount for the bottom of the engine which squared it all up.”

Nobody else in the paddock knew what was going on. All the parts, including wheels and tyres, had been sent to Derek Gardner’s house and anyone who asked questions was told some story about a Formula 5000 car. But how long could it last?

“We were racing in Austria with the Marches and both cars packed up,” says Neil. “So we loaded up as soon as we could. Then Ron Dennis, who was with Brabham, came over and said, ‘What are you blokes up to? You’re up to something aren’t you?’ He was very sharp, old Ron, even then – and he’d guessed we were involved in some big new project. Anyway, we said nothing, and went back to England. How we kept it a secret, I don’t know, but we were all so loyal to Ken. It was different then.”

So, in an old army shed, in a timber yard in Surrey, just eight people completed the first ever Tyrrell Grand Prix car to be designed and built by the team.

“As soon as we’d finished the car there was the press launch and then we went straight to Oulton Park for the Gold Cup. We had a hell of a lot of trouble with it, silly things going wrong all the time, we’d never done any testing. But Jackie started the race and he kept breaking the lap record, time after time, it was such a light and nimble car. Then the throttle stuck open and how he didn’t crash I’ll never know, but we fixed it and he finished the race. After that, we went to Ste Jovite and a stub axle broke, then at Watkins Glen an oil pipe let go and the engine blew. At the end of the year we went to Mexico and Jackie hit a dog that ran out from the crowd.”

It was a different story in 1971, of course, when Stewart won the World Championship in Tyrrell 003, having used 001 only once more at Kyalami at the start of that great season.

Neil Davis completed his apprenticeship with Coombs of Guildford before joining the Tyrrell Racing Organisation, where he stayed for 38 years. He is now happily retired, surrounded by memories of his time with Tyrrell.