1965 Austin FX4 London taxi
1965 Austin FX4 London taxi. Click image to enlarge

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Article and photo by Bill Vance

Of all the world’s taxi-cabs, whether tiny Citroen 2CVs in Paris or hulking yellow Checkers in New York, none better represents the genre than the London taxi. That tall and stubby, black, people hauler that resembled a bowler hat has undoubtedly made more media, movie and promotional appearances than any other.

The world’s first taxis began plying their trade in England early in the 17th century. They were coaches hauled by what were called hackney horses, and cabs subsequently became known colloquially as hackneys, then just as hacks.

Self propelled taxis started to appear in the very late 1800s. In 1896 Benz engine-driven cabs began service on the streets of Stuttgart, followed the next year by Cannstatt-Daimlers in Paris. Self contained electric cabs soon arrived, and for a while they held supremacy over the gasoline engine. The lack of good roads that usually confined taxis to urban areas complemented the electric’s limited driving range, but as gasoline engines improved engine-driven cabs soon triumphed.

Taxis got a real boost in popularity with the 1903 introduction in Paris of the taximeter which automatically computed fares on a time-distance basis. The standard cab was a cabriolet style, and the “taximetre cabriolet” nomenclature soon evolved into the now familiar taxi-cab.

Purpose-built taxis were produced from the early days by such manufacturers as Renault in France, Yellow Cab and Checker in the United States, and Wolseley and Beardmore in England. But when Austin entered the taxi-cab business in 1928 it soon reigned supreme.

Austin built taxis through the 1930s, and after the Second World War it introduced its FX3 model London Taxi. It came in 1948 bearing a strong pre-war influences in both styling and technology. Its tall, upright grille and headlamps mounted separate from the fenders were definitely of the 1930s.

The FX3’s front and rear axles were solid and suspended on semi-elliptic springs, and it had mechanical brakes. It was initially powered by a four-cylinder gasoline engine, but a diesel was soon optional. Both displaced 2.2 litres.

A very useful feature of the FX3 was a 7.62 meter (25-ft) turning circle, enabling it to make U-turns in the narrow and crowded streets of London. To further enhance manoeuvrability, the FX3 was only 4,426 mm (174 in.) long. An automatic jack at each wheel facilitated tire changing.

The FX3’s obsolete technology caught up with it by the late 1950s and it was replaced in 1958 by the more modern FX4 London Taxi, the model that came to epitomize the London taxi-cab. The FX4 was much more modern with independent coil spring front suspension and hydraulic brakes, and could be had with a 2.2-litre gasoline engine or a 2.5 diesel, both with four cylinders. They drove through a four-speed manual or automatic transmission.

The FX3’s individual jacks were gone, but the short turning circle was retained. With a curb weight of 1,664 kg (3,668 lb), performance was quite modest.

The styling of the four-door FX4 was in the modern mode, but with a rather tallish appearance. Headlamps were faired into the leading edges of the fenders, and the slabsided aspect was relieved by a moulded character line sloping from front to rear, with a kick-up over the rear wheel to suggest a fender.

The FX4, with upgrades along the way, stayed in service until it was replaced by the TX1 in the 1990s. The TX1 was an evolution of the FX4 but with a modern, more endearing face. The grille was shortened and tilted back, the headlamps were canted and the lines
were softened.

After 40 years of service the last of the fondly remembered FX4s rolled off the assembly line in 1997. The change-over to the new TX1 was so well coordinated that the first TX1 came off the line right behind it. That last FX4 resides at the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu, Hampshire, England.

No London Taxi story would be complete without mentioning the rigorous qualification required by the London taxi driver, probably the best in the world. Known as “The Knowledge,” it takes two to three years of intensive familiarization with every street, public building, hotel, theatre, etc., in the City of London, and the most direct routes between them. A good knowledge of the London suburbs is also needed.

Candidates acquire The Knowledge by riding around London on a moped with a street map propped up in front of them. The private Knowledge College is also available. To qualify, a candidate must successfully pass several oral examinations conducted by the Metropolitan Police Public Carriage Office, as well as a driving test.

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