Along with Beefeaters, Transport for London’s typeface, red double deckers and Big Ben’s bongs, the black cab is a fundamental part of the London landscape. But, as I have noted previously, it may not be for much longer.
Introduced in 1958, the Austin FX4, which was also my first cab, caught the spirit of the age with its combination of timeless proportions and streamlined styling – the cab enclosed in a swooping cocoon, the bonnet tapering to a puckish snout. A scuttling black beetle, it was perfect for a city of black-suited businessmen – as close to a bowler hat on wheels as a vehicle could become.
But it is not only the black cab’s alluring style that accounts for its longevity. Famous for its manoeuvrability in congested traffic, the London taxi can ‘turn on a sixpence’, or within a circle of 25ft – a requirement dating from 1906 and originally dictated by the diminutive roundabout in Savoy Court outside the Savoy Hotel.
That agility made the vehicle an attractive option for celebrities in search of anonymity. Sid James, Laurence Olivier, Stanley Kubrick and the Duke of Edinburgh have all driven their own personal cabs, as have Stephen Fry and Kate Moss. Arnold Schwarzenegger even had a fleet of black taxis shipped out to California.
But the ubiquity of the FX4, originally designed by Austin’s Eric Bailey, was not, particularly due to its success – indeed, it had many faults (slowness, draughtiness, noisy and a heater that couldn’t be turned off). The car soldiered on for 40 years because neither Austin nor its manufacturer, Mann and Overton, could afford to replace it.
It was finally updated in 1997 with the inspirationally named TX1. Criticised by cabbies as looking like a Noddy Car, the TX1 represented the original model’s surrender to middle-aged spread – those corners smoothed out into a streamlined bulge.
The black cab went through two more iterations, retaining the essence of its original self, with flip-down seats, a reassuring engine rattle, and the comforting clunk of the doors. Now progress has caught up with this icon of London, it is now replaced by its prosaic electric successor.