Tag Archives: minicabs

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.

It’s Life Jim, but not as we know it

larson_med1Good morning everyone, today we are going to talk about . . . mini cabs, please! Do wake up at the back this IS important.

There have been 104 sexual assaults last year according to Transport for London’s figures for September 2008 down 44 per cent since 2002, mostly by unlicensed mini cab drivers.

The 80,000 private hire operators as we are supposed to call them now, are vetted but there are a growing number of bogus drivers.

They buy second hand cars at auction, complete with Public Carriage Office certification affixed to the cars’ windscreens, these vehicles usually fetch a higher price at these auctions and because the PCO certificate has a theft proof device it’s easier just to buy the whole car.

[B]y hanging around in the West End, apparently with immunity from prosecution for touting or parking violations, this low life inveigle young people into their cars, they often charge exorbitant rates, and some even carry weapons to enforce their high charges. While even legal mini cabs park for long periods on double yellow lines outside their offices, apparently with complete immunity from prosecution.

And did you know anyone can register their vehicle as a ‘private hire vehicle’? There is even a new Rolls Royce with the appropriate documentation on its windows possibly registered just to avoid the congestion charge.

The criteria to become a mini cab driver is very flexible they only need a medical form signed by their doctor, a criminal record bureau disclosure check, photocopies of their DVLA/EU driving licence and documentation to show a right to work and live here while some documents can be provided as photostats, easily forged and they do not even have to show a command of Queen’s English.

And have you noticed the speed of the people carriers used as private hire? They are usually working for a large transport company, their pay is very low, and they have to work very long hours and every job counts.

The solution is very simple: enforcement, enforcement, enforcement.

More officers, at present there are plans to double the number of Enforcement Officers which at present amount to only 34 to cover the whole of London 24 hours a day.

Arresting touts and illegal ‘cabs’, there have been only 4,000 arrests since 2003.

If they are convicted, jail them. If they are illegal immigrants deport them (I really sound like your average cabbie now).