The Arcane World of the London Taxi
By Andy Bannister
Possibly uniquely among the world’s major cities, if you hail a taxi anywhere in London it will be a purpose-built vehicle, not an adapted production car. Ordinary cars are unable to qualify as cabs in London due to a series of unusual rules harking back many decades.
These vehicles are officially known as “hackney cabs” and are regulated by the Public Carriage Office in London, a body which has its origins in legislation as early as the 1650s to regulate how coachmen operated in the British capital. The last horse-drawn hackney carriage in London hung up its reins as recently as 1947.
For today’s motorised cabs, the Public Carriage Office’s regulations are particularly tight in terms of both carrying capacity and capabilities. These sizeable vehicles need to have a 25-foot turning circle, for example, which has effectively restricted the market to purpose-built cabs.
Nowadays the market is completely dominated by a company called LTI Vehicles (it stands for London Taxis International), with its latest model, the TX4. LTI is a subsidiary of an outfit called Manganese Bronze Holdings plc, having started life back in 1919 as a coachbuilder called Carbodies of Coventry.
Employing 400 people, LTI is now the largest British-owned passenger vehicle manufacturer. Around 100,000 vehicles have been built since 1959.
The TX4 and its predecessors are undoubtedly some of the iconic vehicles of London, together with the classic (though sadly fast-disappearing) red double-decker Routemaster bus.
Other British cities have different and often less draconian rules, so LTI’s products, whilst still a familiar sight, are less omnipresent in the rest of the UK. The company has also successfully exported quite a few of these vehicles to around 35 countries across the globe.
The latest model, launched in 2007, has a more attractive classic front, but is otherwise similar to the TXI model first seen in 1997. This was, in turn, all-new but clearly inspired by the looks of the FX4 series which dated back to 1959, making it one of the longest production runs of any vehicle in modern times.
The original FX4, like its FX3 predecessor, was actually an Austin designed in conjunction with famous taxi dealership Mann and Overton. With its separate chassis, flat internal platform and rear “suicide doors”, the FX4 is still to many the quintessential London taxi. Later models, known as Fairways and fitted with more reliable Nissan diesel engines, are still to be seen plying the capital’s streets despite often huge mileages.
They are incredibly roomy, easily seating five in the rear, with a separate rear luggage compartment and room for more bags to be stored next to the driver, as there is no passenger seat – again, supposedly due to some old regulation about coachmen needing space to carry a bale of hay.
Occasionally competitors to LTI have tried to muscle in on this market. The most notable recent attempt was the Metrocab, a rather dull square-styled vehicle which had a troubled career, being made first by a bus builder, then later by coachbuilders Hooper and three-wheeler manufacturer Reliant. Production stopped and started numerous times – its most recent relaunch was with a new Toyota engine – but it now seems to have fizzled out altogether, leaving the market to LTI.
In recent years some the cab owners have cottoned on to the visibility of their machines. These make them easy to spot on the streets – “hailed the world over” is an LTI slogan – but also perfect for turning into mobile advertising hoardings.
Whilst they are often simply known to Londoners and tourists alike as “black cabs”, there is no absolute stipulation about paint schemes. Some of the special versions painted to advertise a particular attraction or company are gaudy, to say the least.
Quite how what is effectively a restrictive practice on competition has survived all these years is open to question. Supporters of the London cab say that their instantly identifiable status means they are reassuring for passengers in these days of unscrupulous fake “cabbies”. The vehicles are also undoubtedly sturdy, roomy and wheelchair accessible.
Opponents say LTI effectively has a monopoly and claim it could not really survive against the big vehicle manufacturers of faced with a level playing field, for these purpose-built vehicles are both expensive to buy and quirky in their details. Faced with open competition in America, Checker Motors – the US equivalent of LTI – couldn’t compete with Detroit and ceased production in the early 1980s.
Already there are some danger signals for the company. In the rest of the UK, a converted Peugeot van, known as the E7, has been making big inroads into the taxicab market, and is now licensed for use in many major cities and offers many more modern features than the TX4. If the Public Carriage Office ever agreed to allow the E7 into London it would be a huge challenge for LTI.
The other potential threat – or opportunity – comes from China, where LTI recently entered an agreement for Geely to build up to 20,000 TX4s. Given the painful experience of the collapse of MG/Rover, this deal is not necessarily good news for British jobs in the longer term, as there is bound to be a temptation to import more and more parts, if not fully assembled vehicles, from low-cost China.
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