Before there was Uber

This Sunday marks 55 years of London’s minicabs, correctly termed private hire. Before 1961 the black cab reigned supreme on London’s streets.

The drivers had spent years riding around the capital on push-bikes at that time, learning The Knowledge and many cabbies on gaining their badge had used their army gratuity to start purchasing the iconic FX4 recognised as a London cab.

[A] few months earlier Tom Sylvester had found a loophole in the 1869 Carriage Act, which meant ‘ply for hire’ was restricted to black cabs but if one telephoned his cab office – Carline Cabs – you could circumvent the Act as his drivers weren’t plying for hire, simply responding to a telephone call.

Starting on 6th March 1961 his small fleet of 12 Ford Anglia 2-door 105E vehicles hardly posed a threat to the thousands of black cabs stalking London’s streets. Yet, incredibly, in the first week of operations they carried 500 passengers.

Their passengers liked the genuine door-to-door service he offered and spurred on with its success Carline Cabs ordered 25 black-and-grey livered Fiat Multiplas a 4-door long wheelbase genuine 6-seater [pictured above].

The challenger to the Black Cab’s supremacy on London’s roads came on 19th June 1961 – fifty-five years ago when an exceptionally publicity-conscious young law graduate named Michael Gotla fronted an outfit called Welbeck Motors. Welbeck’s had ordered 800 bright red Renault Dauphines garnering press attention with its £560,000 price tag, a small fortune in those days.


Welbeck Motor’s Renault Dauphine Dinky toy

In the days when telephone numbers carried a quaint indication of their owner’s location calling WELbeck 0561 would summon a driver resplendent in a beige corduroy suit and forage cap ready to transport you for a mere 1/- (5p) per mile. As with Uber today, public support was strong. Dinky toys even produced a model of the company’s vehicle.

The Times warming to the public’s enthusiasm for this new form of public wrote:

The reaction of the hard-done-by travelling public to the coming of minicabs is – the more the merrier . . . men of wealth have been heard to cry out against the taximeter – men who think nothing of signing away many thousands in seconds in the wiggle of a pen, but find it very painful to sit helplessly in the back of a taxi watching their money dripping away in three penny stages.

The paper’s editor had forgotten that his paper some 60 years previous had been at the forefront of a campaign for the introduction of the taximeter.

London’s streets had never before, or since, seen what followed as the press would dub the confrontations: “Minicab Wars”; “Gotla’s Private Army”; and “The Battle of Belgrave Square”. Gotla would claim that six of his drivers were attacked while another 15 were threatened.

Time magazine wrote colourfully:

. . . their exhaust pipes billowing clouds of diesel smoke, their cabbies shaking irate fists and shouting unprintable war cries


Public sympathy was inevitably with the underdog, who just happened to be a millionaire businessman trying to scratch a living; such was the ability of Gotla’s persuasive rhetoric.

As we see today with Uber, rules were meant to be broken, when private hire is trying to get fares. They would tout for fares but then hand their car phone to the customer and ask him to place his order with the dispatcher – who would then repeat the same order to the driver.

Twelve months later after scenes of hostility regularly featuring in the media a court ruling on 31st May 1962 decreed that some private hire drivers had indeed been plying for hire, and therefore were breaking the law.

The sage then took a bizarre twist: Legend has it that Gotla’s entire army was instantly demobbed via a frantic radio message ordering them to drive their Dauphines to the nearest convenient dark alley and strip it of all advertising.

Welbeck’s went into administration with total liabilities of £50,000. It was rumoured at the time that the millionaire Mr. Isaac Wolfson, who had put most of the finance into place, had been told that the bad press surrounding his private hire venture could well prejudice his coveted knighthood. Soon after he did received his gong.

It only goes to prove that, as today, when it comes to transporting the public around London; for some – be they Black cabbies, Gotla’s corduroy army or Uber – rules were made to be adhered to, and its only enforcement from the authorities that protect the public.

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