Tag Archives: London’s cabs

Back to Black

It now has been 17 years since I started pushing a cab around London looking for fares and in that time I’ve probably driven most post-war taxis.
Even before I had qualified going to a trade exhibition at Islington’s Business Design Centre got me a test drive in one of those boxy Metros.
They always had trouble shifting those utilitarian boring beasts.

[W]hen I was first let loose on the streets of London my baptism of fire was an old – no very old – FX4. Registered in 1982 at a time when air conditioning was something an East Ender massaged into their hair, and without power steering, your arms would ache negotiating its two tonnes of steel around London with a penchant for swinging left unannounced when squeezing between tight gaps.

When the old girl gasped its last (well the drive to the meter broke) it was saying just let me die in peace, I’ve taken my last paying passenger.

A succession of Fairways followed some you couldn’t lock the doors, others that the only means of exiting the driver’s compartment was via the window and opening the door from the outside. One vehicle accumulated rainwater beneath the for hire sign to ensure the driver had a shower whenever he had occasion to brake heavily.

I’ve owned a more modern TX1, its shape unfairly likened to a blancmange, as with most of its siblings it had the ability to track down top secret transmissions. Perplexedly at certain ‘hot spots’ (outside the Langham Hotel is one of them), the central locking on the fob key would fail to work, occasioning a complicated procedure punching in PIN numbers to get the vehicle started again.

I should have headed this post ‘Tickled Pink’ but some enterprising cabbie has beaten me to that for recently I have been driving a pink cab in what must be the most photographed cab in London.

A neighbour, also a cabbie, declared that it matched my eyes, while I’ve received opprobrium from Aussies standing outside a local hostelry, “strewth mate!” I think was the refrain at the time.

My postman just had to knock to deliver a parcel which clearly fitted the letterbox, so he could voice his mirth at seeing ‘Pinky’ parked outside.

Ladies would choose my distinctive livery over my more conservative colleagues while many will strike up a conversation, rather a novelty for decades the fair sex have ignored my presence.

Henry Ford might have generated the quip:

any customer can have a car
painted any colour that he wants
so long as it’s black

He realised that drying paint took the longest of any step in the assembly line and had his factory switch to the fastest drying paint they could find, which, of course, was black. But I think old HF would be speechless at the sight of Pinky.

What is a cab?

. . . and what’s not.

For years the London cab has been easily recognisable by tourists and residents alike, its design reminiscent of a more gentle age of old fashioned continuity and dependability – well sometimes.

It had its faults – Kamikazi steering which when confronted by a narrow gap would take it into its tiny brain to swerve without the intervention of the driver.

[T]he old FX eventually transmogrified into the imaginatively named TX series looking remarkably similar to its predecessor it was easily recognizable. Apart from the small number of Metro cabs on the street this vehicle has dominated the cab trade; with cabbies inevitably complaining that that there was no choice in which vehicle they drove.

Like London buses, you wait for one to come along and three arrive at once.

Mercedes-VitoFirst was the Mercedes, looking like a van with windows apart from being – sometimes – painted black and an attempt to distinguish it from white van man, while it most certainly doesn’t resemble a London cab. For the driver it has been a revelation in driving, it feels as if you are behind the wheel of – well a Mercedes. Rear wheel steering manages to overcome the elusive 25ft turning circle required by TfL’s Condition of Fitness for taxis.

Nissan-NV200Next off the starting blocks is the Nissan NV200. Claiming to be the world’s taxi it has already beaten off competition to be New York’s official taxi of choice. Boasting much improved fuel consumption and a glazed roof from which passengers will be able to observe London’s leaden skies, it has Boris dancing a little jig as Nissan have promised to introduce an electric version by 2014 bringing his promise to introduce by 2020 an all electric taxi fleet closer to reality.

Karson-Concept-VINow hot on the two pretenders’ heels a third cab comes along. Turkish car manufacturer Karsan (no doubt to be dubbed Karsi), has shown their electric Concept VI which appears to tick all the boxes. Right hand drive, zero emissions, 25ft turning circle and uniquely electronically operated wheelchair ramps which can be used on either side of the vehicle. But unlike the others, with the exception of the TX4, it was designed as a cab from scratch. This vehicle won New York’s popular vote for their taxi of the future.

Ford-Transit-TaxiAlso in the pipeline is the Ford Transit Taxi and that will really make London’s cabbies White Van Men. Picture from Taxi Leaks.

End of the road

They were once described in Parliament by Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli as “Hansom cab are the gondolas of London”.

In a recent poll by Hotels.com based on responses from 1,600 travellers found that passengers were more than twice as likely to ‘become amorous’ in a black cab, with 26 per cent of global travellers having kissed in the back seat.

[T]he poll which put London cabbies ahead of all other cities’ cabs, passengers admitted to feeling so safe that 56 per cent had nodded off in the back seat. But this commodious form of transport more akin to gliding through London’s streets with the air of a liveried gentleman is threatened with its very survival.

The symbol of quiet dependability and polished tradition is under threat as Manganese Bronze, the company that has made the iconic cab since 1947 but has not made a profit since 2007 has now been put into administration.

The black cab’s demise will come as little surprise to its owners. The FX4 which first appeared on London’s streets some six decades ago was a beautifully engineered vehicle and a quantum leap in comfort and reliability from the other vehicles plying for hire on London’s streets. Its successor, the Fairway, which went some way to resolving the issue of the FX4’s brakes which seemed to have a mind of their own, is now to be withdrawn from London’s streets at the behest of Transport for London.

Beset with reliability issues, the recent incarnations by Manganese Bronze, the FX1, 2 and 4 have been prone to leaks (don’t ever leave anything not waterproof in the boot), spontaneous combustion and most recently steering problems. Seemingly cobbled together from parts made by other manufacturers, driving one seems to take one back to the early 1970s when British cars were synonymous with shoddy workmanship.

There has always been something pleasingly dignified about a bespoke vehicle for London rather than using vehicles which can be bought at a local car showroom. With ample headroom and legroom it has none of the scrunch and squeeze of a regular automobile, or looking like a converted van by a quality German manufacturer.

But it looks that unless something appears at the 11th hour the gondolas of London are doomed to be replaced with the ubiquitous black vans manufactured in Germany or Japan.

Old cabs never die . . .

A few days ago I was contacted by a retired London cabbie to tell me to his obvious delight that his 54-year-old cab he had bought new was still alive and kicking. The vehicle had somehow found its way across the Atlantic to a car dealer in Cape Cod rejoicing in the name ‘The Cape Crusader’ who had recently had the cab shipped half way round the world to his customer in Australia. Old cabs never die; they just turn off their meters.

[T]hen at the weekend one of London’s first cabs was auctioned for a staggering £22,000. The vehicle which featured last week on the Radio Taxis website was a 1910 Panhard Levassor, one of only 674 cabs sent to England from France to become the nucleus for London’s early motorised taxi service, which slowly replaced the horse drawn Hansom carriage.

Old cab in barn

The vehicle was believed to have worked as a London cab until 1921 when it was used for commercial transport, resurfacing again appearing in the 1955 movie ‘The Man who loved Redheads’ staring Moira Shearer.

It was later bought by a founding member of Historic Commercial Vehicle Club who among its members included Lord Montague of Beauleu.

The vehicle had been left in a barn for 15 years before the current owners contacted Wotton Auction Rooms in Gloucester at which time regular contributor to the BBC Antiques Roadshow Philip Taubenheim became involved.

The winning bidder intends to restore this very rare example of an early cab which still has its meter and many original features to its former glory.