by Murray Jackson
Every day, thousands of London’s residents and visitors hail a licensed taxi, a unique vehicle that is as much a symbol of London as Big Ben and the double-decker bus. The operators of these taxis are legendary for their encyclopedic knowledge of the British capital but the fascinating history of the vehicles they drive is less apparent to the casual observer.
Selections from the London taxi driver’s lexicon:
Butterboy – newly licensed driver
On point – taxi at the front of a rank
The specifications of London’s taxis have been regulated since the days when horse drawn carriages plied the streets for hire. Concern for passenger safety led to the development of Conditions of Fitness in 1679. These requirements, modified as necessary over the years, continue to exist and are strictly enforced by the Public Carriage Office, a division of the Metropolitan Police.
The first motorized London taxi, the 1897 Bersey, was electrically powered and was called the Hummingbird because of its sound. Its limited range led to the introduction of gasoline-powered taxis in 1903 and the French-built Prunel was the first example. In the ensuing decades, many domestic and foreign manufacturers including Vauxhall, Unic, Rational and Renault would offer vehicles built to conform to the Conditions of Fitness. Since 1930, London’s licensed taxis have been British-built by various manufacturers including Morris, Beardmore, Winchester and Austin. The most familiar of these are the Austin FX3 and FX4.
The FX3, introduced in 1948, had a more streamlined body than pre-war Austin taxis. It had only 3 doors, thus providing easy access to the open baggage area to the left of the driver. The FX3’s passenger doors were hinged at the rear and it was equipped with a built-in hydraulic jacking system that could raise the front or rear of the taxi for mechanical service. The FX3 was originally powered by a 2.2 liter Austin gasoline engine and manual transmission. A 2.2 liter diesel engine was made available in 1954 and soon outsold the gasoline model by a ratio of 9 to 1. More than 7,000 FX3’s were produced during its 10 year life.
The FX4 replaced the FX3 in 1959. Its body design was updated dramatically and, with minor modifications, would remain unchanged for decades. Unlike the FX3, all FX4s had a fourth door enclosing the luggage compartment. The FX4 continued the rear-hinged passenger doors but the FX3’s hydraulic jacks could not be incorporated into the new design. Fully hydraulic brakes and improved instrumentation were among the FX4’s innovations and early models can be identified by “bunny ears” turn indicators on the roof. The spacious passenger compartment incorporated a bench seat for two or three passengers, fold-down jump seats for two additional riders and separate heater and lighting controls. The FX4 adhered to the requirements of the Conditions of Fitness, including an amazing turning circle of only 25 feet. The new vehicle was initially powered by the FX3’s 2.2 liter diesel engine and a Borg Warner automatic transmission but a gasoline engine and manual gearbox were offered as production continued.
The FX3’s bodies were manufactured and added to an Austin chassis by Carbodies of Coventry, a specialist coachbuilder, and this practice continued for the FX4. Carbodies was renamed London Taxis International in 1984 and assumed responsibility for all aspects of FX4 production. As a result, the FX4 was re-christened the Fairway and was improved by the incorporation of Nissan diesel engines and transmissions. London Taxis International currently has 80% of the U.K. market for purpose-built taxis.
The Austin FX3 and FX4 were exported to a number of countries. FX3s were used in New York in the early 1950s and FX4s were tested in Philadelphia and New York in 1959. They did not gain the favor of American taxi drivers who preferred the more powerful engines and automatic transmissions of domestic vehicles. In the 1980s, London Taxis International shipped the FX4, minus engine and transmission, to The London Coach Company in Mt. Clemens, Michigan. These “gliders” had a Ford 2.3 liter engine and automatic transmission added after arrival in the U.S.A. The finished vehicles were sold as the utilitarian London Taxi for $18,400 plus options or the upmarket London Sterling limousine at $26,000 plus options. Unfortunately, these vehicles were under-powered and expensive compared to their American competitors and, once again, the experiment failed.
In 1987, Metropolitan Cammell Weymann, a Birmingham-based builder of busses and railcars, introduced a competitor to the Fairway. The Metrocab featured a fiberglass body, large glass area, power steering, disc brakes and wheelchair access. It was powered by a diesel engine borrowed from the Ford Transit van. A redesigned Series II model, introduced in 1995, had updated exterior trim and more comfortable seating. The Metrocab now satisfies the portion of the London taxi market not held by London Taxis International.
With the exception of the Land Rover, the Austin FX4 had the longest life of any British vehicle. After a production run of 40 years, the FX4 was superseded by the TX1 that was introduced in October 1997. This thoroughly modern vehicle continues the distinctive shape and many of the styling cues of the FX4 while incorporating improved driver and passenger accommodations, wheelchair access and an integrated child seat. Prices for the new taxi start at 25,000 British pounds or approximately $42,000.
A London taxi must undergo rigorous periodic inspections and is retired after 10 to 12 years and hundreds of thousands of miles of service. After retirement, many taxis migrate to other U.K. cities with less stringent taxi regulations where they continue in daily service. Other retired taxis are dismantled for parts or sold to private buyers. A London taxi is an interesting choice for old car collectors. The private owner will find his taxi to be robust and easy to service and repair; hallmarks of a vehicle designed for almost continuous use.
Any right hand drive vehicle attracts attention in the United States but a London taxi is a guaranteed traffic-stopper. Almost everyone knows and loves the vehicle, even those who have only seen them in movies. It’s definitely not the vehicle for anyone wanting to keep a low profile. The author’s 1969 FX4, a veteran of over 250,000 miles in London service, draws huge smiles and, occasionally, interesting stories about memorable experiences in a taxi’s cavernous passenger section. Often, the first question is “How old is it?” followed shortly thereafter by “Could you do my daughter’s wedding?”.
Many private owners are members of the London Vintage Taxi Association, founded in 1978 and dedicated to the preservation and enjoyment of London taxis of all ages. The LVTA publishes a monthly newsletter and organizes frequent events for its members. The LVTA’s North American section has over 100 members and issues a monthly bulletin. Additional information on London taxis and the LVTA can be found on the internet at www.lvta.co.uk or by writing to LVTA Membership Secretary, PO Box 445, Windham, NH 03087, USA.