Tag Archives: London cabs

125 Years of the Black Cab

(Even if it was yellow at the time)

It’s 10.30 on a winter’s evening, stopping at a set of traffic lights, I can just recognise a familiar face approaching through the falling snow. It is Jeremy Clarkson making his way towards my cab’s warm interior. “Sorry Jeremy, I’m booked”, I have to inform him. Pulling away to pick up my fare which was actor Bill Nighy who took great delight at being given priority over the scion of right-wing opinion.

Once, the inside of a cab didn’t offer a warm refuge, far from it, Hansom carriages, pulled by a horse were open to the elements for the cabbie who sat unprotected from the wind and rain and gave scant protection for his passenger. Surprisingly horse-drawn cabs were still to be found in London after the Second World War, in fact, the last Hackney carriage licence was surrendered on 3rd April 1947.

One hundred and twenty-five years ago in August 1897, Walter Bersey introduced to London’s roads twenty-five of his eponymous electric cabs. Affectionately known by cockney cabbies as ‘The ‘Umming Bird’ because of the sound they made, they had 40 batteries strapped under the body, and weighing ¾ ton could travel for 40 miles at a maximum speed of 9mph! The Bersey was almost certainly the first mechanically propelled cab in the world, and curiously like its famous predecessor, today’s latest cabs are now also propelled by electricity.

My first cab, now some 26 years ago, also had very little protection from the elements, it was the ‘classic’ that could have been featured in a post-war Hollywood film with Cary Grant waving it down on a rain-swept London street.

The designers of this Austin FX4 taxi had incorporated some rather novel features. Naturally, it wasn’t blessed with power steering, but to compensate, it had a steering wheel so large it wouldn’t have looked out of place on an ocean liner. The vehicle also had the rather startling habit of swerving wildly just as you approached a narrow road restriction. The rise in summer temperatures, due to global warming, has necessitated the need for air conditioning, which was, of course, absent in the post-war engineering of the FX4. However, another novel feature was included: heating that was continually activated. A clever piece of British technology ensured that hot water from the engine could by-pass a valve meant to arrest the flow, and couldn’t be turned off. Not only were the windscreen wipers ineffective, but careful positioning of the dashboard vent also ensured the driver’s portion of the glass wasn’t troubled by any de-misting air. All these features might have been engineering at its zenith when it was designed, but the problem was the vehicles were still in production nearly half-a-century later. Which made them considerably more enduring than Walter Bersey’s prodigy, his electric vehicles stayed in service for only six years before being overtaken, literally, by the first internal combustion petrol-driven cab, the Prunel.

Another concession for the FX4 to 20th-century motoring was a radio. I suppose passengers were forever complaining to the Public Carriage Office about cabbies talking too much. Today 24-hour Talk Sport radio broadcasting has relieved many passengers from listening to their driver’s opinion of the shortcomings of England’s manager being now replaced by hearing some bloke’s opinion on the same topic blaring out of the radio instead.

The London cab trade is far older than the ‘Umming Bird’, or even some of today’s elderly cabbies. In 1634 the first recognised cab rank was established at the Maypole in the Strand, where St. Mary-le-Strand church is today, by Captain Bailey, a member of Sir Walter Raleigh’s expeditions. Twenty years later Oliver Cromwell, ever anxious to control every aspect of English lives, brought in an Act of Parliament, which set up The Fellowship of Master Hackney Carriages licensing 200 cabbies. That original Act some 368 years ago makes the London cab the oldest regulated public transport system in the world.

It might not come as a surprise to a lot of people that regulation of London’s cabs and its drivers would later be the responsibility of the Sewers Office. Maintaining the city’s pipes and gullies, as well as the paving of the streets, was originally funded from the licence fees of public vehicles, carts, drays and cabs. Today London’s cabs are licensed by the catchily named ‘Transport for London (London Taxis and Private Hire)’, or TFLTPH, formerly known as the Public Carriage Office.

Taken from my contribution to This England Annual 2022.
Featured image: An 1897 Bersey Electrical Cab Rear at the British Motor Museum, Gaydon © Vauxford (CC BY-SA 4.0).

A moving London monument

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.

Clipper Cabs

I was brought up by a generation whose mantra was ‘Make do and mend’, so for many of us, this obsession with obsolescence is an anathema.

One company trying to break the new is better mould is Clipper Cabs.

In his quest to parade his green credentials, Mayor Khan proposes to scrap all diesel vehicles from London’s roads. But the taxi industry may have found an interim solution to scrapping by quickly converting more of its current fleet into more cost-effective and environmentally friendly taxis.

The firm behind the technology, Clipper Automotive, aims to turn diesel black taxis into Zero Emission Capable (ZEC) vehicles. One of the company’s founders Janosch Oppermann was kind enough to offer CabbieBlog a demonstration, unfortunately, health issues prevented me from having a test drive.

The London taxi industry has already invested heavily in new EV taxis since new vehicle regulations were introduced in January 2018. Since then over 5,000 electric taxis have been licensed by Transport for London, leaving just under 8,500 licensed diesel cabs still working in the capital.

Although some city regulators have expressed an interest in this environmentally friendly alternative to scrapping perfectly serviceable vehicles Transport for London insists on what is called type-approval that costs a fortune and might include multiple crash tests, even though the vehicle body has already gained approval with its diesel engine.

So there you have it, cabbies will have to drive a vehicle costing north of £70,000, while passengers’ fares will reflect the driver’s overheads. Certainly not make do nor mend.

The world’s most luxurious cab

Occasionally here at CabbieBlog, we bring interesting cab conversations. Situated on St. John’s Wood roundabout, and passed by thousands of cabbies every day, Clive Sutton has produced the ultimate cab. Dubbed the world’s most luxurious black cab, the Sutton VIP LEVC Taxi starts at £104,680, with the fully-loaded vehicle costing £121,480.

Fitted out to your specifications, among those offered include automatic push-button door closing mechanisms used by Rolls-Royce, leather-clad reclining seats, a drinks fridge, sunroof with blinds, 20″ TV screen, electric footrests, ambient multi-colour mood lighting and for London’s inclement weather – matching umbrellas.

Now, where’s my wallet . . .

Where to Now, Gov?

Last January I wrote Parting company with TfL, laying out the demise, as I saw it, of the London black cab.

Little did I realise then just how successful Transport for London would be in reducing the number of wheelchair accessible vehicles on London’s streets.

On 1st August TfL published its fortnightly statistics covering the number of vehicles and licences in service on London’s streets.

The previous week there was a decrease of 20 licences (22 surrendered and 2 issued}, while 13 vehicles were taken off the road and 14 new vehicle licenses issued.

On the face of those figures not much seems any different from any previous week in August.

Until you drill down to the cumulative figures. Comparison with 10 years ago show a very different story: 2011: 22,558 vehicles (2021: 13,461), all London drivers’ licences 2011: 21,499 (2021: 18,341). Private hire record an even more dramatic change with operators numbering 3,111 in 2011 (2021: 1,955) and drivers recording a dramatic rise to 61,200 in 2011 (2021: 105,329).

All this has not gone unnoticed in the national press. The Daily Telegraph ran a piece by Oliver Gill, their chief business correspondent with the headline ‘Black cab slump to the lowest level since 1983 as a quarter of drivers quit’.

The transport union RMT have called on ministers to work with London Mayor Sadiq Khan to introduce emergency support measures following Department of Transport figures showing a catastrophic 29 per cent drop in the number of licensed vehicles, the lowest since 1983. From that, they extrapolated there has been a drop of more than 5,000 wheelchair accessible vehicles operating in the capital.

So there you have it. Get caught on a TfL vehicle without a face mask, and a valid excuse, you get fined or refused transportation. Find yourself in the vulnerable position of needing some kind of aid (wheelchair accessibility, low steps or swivel seats), and I’m afraid you’ll have to wait some considerable time.