Cultural Icon: The London Taxi
When I was young, one of my favorite places to visit was London. No, it wasn’t to see the Beefeaters or Buckingham Palace. It had a lot more to do with London’s transportation systems, namely the red double-decker and the ubiquitous black London taxi. (Incidentally, there is no requirement or law that says that the taxis have to be black, they simply are black by tradition.)
Hackney cabs, as they are called (the name is thought to come from the village of Hackney now part of London, which was well-known for horse-drawn carriages, although others say it is thanks to their non-motorized beginnings as horse-drawn carriages drawn by French Haquenée horses) are beloved by passengers for their roominess (for me, it was the thrill of sitting on the jump seat) and by drivers for their handling. London’s Public Carriage Office mandated a 25-foot turning circle in the early part of the 20th century to give the car maneuverability in tight spaces.
Only Checker cabs, which were manufactured in Kalamazoo, Michigan from 1956 to 1982 and were considered the typical New York City cab for as many years, ever occupied the public consciousness in the same way, but Checker is long gone and the few surviving Checker Cabs are used mostly for special events or in movies.
Today, the London Taxi Company (known as LTI), a division of Manganese Bronze Holdings, manufactures the London cab and sells over 2200 each year, with roughly one-third being exported. That number is on the upswing: the company recently closed a deal with the nation of Azerbaijan, which won the Eurovision Song Contest last year and is hosting this year’s. The country ordered 3,000 cabs from Manganese Bronze (1,000 for delivery before the contest starts), albeit in violet instead of the traditional black and with fewer options.
Geely Automobile Holdings, which owns Volvo, also owns 20% of the London taximaker and the two companies have a joint venture under which Manganese buys components and body parts from Geely’s supply chain in Asia. Geely holds the rights to sell the black cabs in China and other parts of Asia as well.
The current model is the TX4, which looks remarkably similar to its predecessor, the TXII, which didn’t look terribly different than the TXI. That model replaced the Austin FX4, which had been produced from 1958 through 1997 and which also had a close familial resemblance. Need I go on?
A new design for the Hackney cab is to be unveiled in 2014, and it was created in partnership with Geely as well.
A wise taxi driver once commented that “a city gets the taxi service it deserves.” That says something both about London and its taxi drivers as London is renowned for the best taxi service in the world.
Today, the business traveler can find the London taxi in numerous countries including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait but unfortunately, not in the U.S. except for one-offs, as almost anyone who has been a passenger in a New York City taxi has lamented.
(Photos: Jonathan Spira)