Foreigners always have associated London with Big Ben, red telephone boxes and… the famous black cabs of course. The strong connection between London and its black taxis have long and interesting history. It starts back in the mid 17th century with the first official carriages and have gone through many changes over the years. In the last 50 years a new type of taxis appeared – so called Minicabs – a service similar to traditional taxis. Now London have led the taxi transportation services into a new era of comfort, suitability and luxury. And the future is even more interesting.
Let’s see the story of the black cab with all its diversity and interesting facts.
The very first hired transportation service in London was called “Hackney Carriages” carried out by horse-drawn coaches. The name comes from hacquenée, the French term for a general-purpose horse. “Hackney Carriages” got their admission to operate legally in 1662. This was the first licensed coach service for public transportation in UK and in the world. After 1662 driving a taxi became a profession.
In the beginning there were a few horse-drawn carriages, but 1636 the owner of “Hackney Carriages” brought his four coaches all together outside Maypole Inn and the first coach rank was created. Later fares were set up for only specific routes in London- to various places. “Hackney Carriages” is still a term, which describes taxi cabs.
Hansom’s Two Wheeled Cabs
For over 200 years the first horse-drawn carriages remained in usage. In 1834 a new form of vehicle appeared on the London streets. It was called “Hansom cab” – designed and patented by Joseph Hansom. The new coach was similar to the French wheeled cabriolets – again horse-drawn vehicle, but with only two wheels for a higher speed and improved safety. The commonly used word “cab” comes from “cabriolet” thanks to Hansom’s cab integration.
In the same century the taximeters were introduced to London drivers. The most spread story about the appearance of taximeters is that they were invented by the German Wilhem Bruhn. The first taximeters were mechanical- they had clockwork mechanism to measure fares-and placed outside of the vehicle. Later they were moved inside in the driver’s cabin. The electronic meter was first introduced in 1980’s.
In 1897 a manager of a Cab Company – Walter Bersey invented an electric car. Ironic, but the first motorized cars used for taxis were electric, which is a goal for modern taxi operators. The Bersey car was silent, but had limited range and many people perceived it as dangerous due to the many road accidents. Bersey car soon got out of usage and was replaced with petrol-powered vehicle.
With a bit of French influence the petrol powered cars came into the industry- vehicle called “Prunel” in 1903. In the next years some British manufacturers started to build similar vehicles. Some of the most famous British cars are Simplex and Herald. These models however soon left the market for taxi vehicles.
The Classic London Cab
Over the next years with the impact of the First and Second World War a few major developments have been made, although the interest to motor vehicles had grown. One of the biggest steps in taxi design industry was the creation of Austin Motor Company. Austin’s Company invented FX3 and FX4 – the most iconic London taxi car ever created. These two models were so successful, that they remained in usage until 1997. The FX3 model was petrol-powered vehicle introduced to the market in 1930.
Later Austin decided to make improvements to the model replacing the petrol engine with a diesel one. The FX4 model had diesel engine as well and additional luggage compartment door. The design on FX3/FX4 taxi cab is still associated with the classic London cab look, although is no longer in use. Austin’s cabs ruled the market nearly 40 years but also other car models appeared during the years.
Metrocab and Fairway
Not many people, except maybe for UK citizens know about the Metrocabs. They had extremely ugly design, compared with the old FX4…. But they also had a hidden ace – wheelchair space. The new wheelchair-friendly taxi car gained some popularity, but FX4 didn’t fell behind. FX4 was redesigned into a wheelchair-friendly car with a new look. The car was renamed into “Fairway” after local organization of companies decided to take responsibility for its manufacture. The last Fairways were taken out of service in 2012 and now models of Fairways are kept by vintage car collectors.
Changes in the 90’s
The 90’s changed the scene with the arrival of a new competitor – Mercedes. Austin experienced troubles and Mercedes saw the opportunity to get a foothold into UK taxi industry. Mercedes brought “Vito” model to the market – a six passenger vehicle. Comfortable car, perfect for business rides, soon it took over the market and became favorite. Soon Austin disappeared and London Taxis International / LTI/ took over the rights for manufacture. TX1 was created in 1997 and this is one the major steps in taxi production in UK. TX1 kept the unique design of FX4, but made it more comfortable, completely modern and suitable both for drivers and passengers. In the forthcoming years TX1 was followed by some similar models-TX2 and TX4, which are the taxi cars we can see now in London.
The Birth of Minicabs
Sometime in the 60’s when the only known option was FX4 model, a pioneer of new service started to attack the traditions. Carline Cabs used a hole in the Carriage Act, which states, that a cab is a car, which “ply for hire” in the street or rank. Calling for a hired car on the phone seemed not to be stated in the Act. Carline used 12 vehicles- Ford Anglia 105Es. With just 12 cars and fares at least 1/3 cheaper than the normal black cabs Carline won 500 rides for just one week. Carline offered rides to distinct parts in the city, where black taxis were difficult to find.
Later model of Fiat appeared on the streets- it was quite ugly, but had an advantage- it was six seater. The rental car firm Welbeck Motors continued to develop the minicab carriage and integrated Renault Dauphines. The manager of Welbeck Motors- Michael Gotla decided to take a big risk – he spent £ 560.000 for red Renault vehicles. His plan was to offer advertise space on the cars doors and collect more £75 per week.
Later the minicab companies tried to bring better services, started to hire licensed drivers, who had spent 4 years learning “The Knowledge”. The competition between minicab operators and standard black cabs led to confrontations and accidents with minicab drivers / that Gotla claimed to be true/ and brought minicabs sympathy among the customers. Trying to get round the low minicab firms asked the customers to arrange their inquiries with the dispatcher on the phone. Now minicabs use mainly web booking, but back then this was a new era of car hire.
Minicabs continued to develop and brought newer models of vehicles, more comfort and bigger cars for 6 and even more passengers. Minicabs have state of hired cars, they are not official taxi services, but most of the passengers doesn’t make the difference. The two services both have licensed drivers with great knowledge of the city. So now is matter of budget and preference to choose what kind of car to hire.
Taxis and Minicabs – Now and into the Future
Current black cabs are turning again into electrical energy with zero emission cars. Lotus Fuel Cell Black Cab is powered by hydrogen fuel cell combined with lithium polymer batteries. New electric cars are the future of taxi production. Soon all old diesel-powered cars will be replaced with “green cabs”. This tendency applies both for black cans and minicabs. Now we have a huge number of companies, which offer online booking, online price calculation, mobile apps for car hire and many more modern improvements.
In the future we should expect satellite controlled, small-sized vehicles without drivers. Will this be a good option for the passengers to travel with driverless vehicles? Will it be safer, quicker, who knows? But as for now, you can always hail for a cab.