River Wissey Lovell Fuller

The London Taxi

May 2002

All hail this remarkable vehicle

The London taxi is unique, no other city requires a purpose designed taxi. In Victorian times the rapid expansion in London's population and wealth led to a corresponding expansion in the number of cabs. In 1869, concern over the safety and suitability of some of these vehicles led the Public Carriage Office, a department within Scotland Yard, to lay down construction and licensing regulations. In 1903 there were over 11,000 licensed horse cabs, a number that has not been realised since. Motor cabs appeared in the early part of the 20th century, there were 19 in 1905 and in 1906 the Public Carriage Office laid down similar regulations for the licensing and design of motor cabs. The construction regulations were quite detailed and included the famous 25ft turning circle that is still required today.

Thereafter the expansion in the number of motorcabs was rapid, taximeters measuring distance and time were introduced in 1907, they were and are calibrated and sealed annually. Numerous makes of cab appeared in those early years but Renault and Unic soon dominated the market, by 1914 the ubiquitous hansom cab had almost disappeared but the four-wheeled growler lasted longer because of its luggage carrying ability and could still be seen as late as 1929. Citroen also made their mark in the early 20's, then Beardmore appeared, the first British manufacturer on the scene, and they soon took a significant share of the market. By 1930 British makes had seen off the foreign competition and in the 30's the battle was largely between Austin, a latecomer, and Beardmore with Morris, a creditable challenger, running third. Austin was winning the battle, largely on price, and by 1939 had well over half of the market, but Beardmore, using Humber mechanicals, was seen as a better quality vehicle.

Beardmore and Morris hung on against Austin and were still selling taxis up to about 1970, but in the post-war years Austin was dominant, their FX3 model, based on the Austin 16 and introduced in 1948, was a big success and this was followed by the all conquering FX4 model in 1958. Although it no longer has anything to do with Austin, of course, the FX4 has been the mainstay of the London cab scene ever since and has changed little in appearance since 1958, almost 50 years, which is quite amazing when one thinks of the changes that occurred between 1908 and 1958. It is only in recent years that there has been a significant challenge to the FX4's supremacy.

It is the strict regulation by the PCO that has maintained the unique character of the London Taxi. The introduction of modern concepts was resisted until they had been well and truly tested. Full windscreens were not permitted until about 1930, prior to that the top half of the screen had to be omitted and, at first, when a full windscreen was allowed, the top half had to be removable either by sliding or raising it out of the line of sight. A window in the driver's door was not permitted until 1937/38 and a door with a window enclosing the luggage space alongside the driver did not appear until 1958, which was also the first time that hydraulic brakes were permitted, prior to that the brakes were operated mechanically by rods. Even the adoption of four wheel brakes was resisted until well into the 20's. Not only does the PCO maintain strict control over the design of the taxis but they also require an annual test which is far more thorough than your average MoT and there comes a time when the age of the vehicle will result in the refusal to renew its licence.

The drivers were and are equally tightly controlled and regulated by the PCO. It is well known that they have to pass the 'Knowledge', a test of their knowledge of the roads, routes, public buildings, theatres etc within a six mile radius of central London, plus some knowledge of the suburbs. It is not just one test but a whole series of tests spread over a period, generally of two years at the very least. The drivers are also tested for driving ability. Any health problem that might conceivably adversely effect their driving could lead to their licence being withdrawn, as indeed, can any conviction of a crime. A licensed driver has a badge with a number which strictly should be visible to passengers at all times.

The old horse drawn cab driver was completely exposed to the elements, some of the early motor cabs were no better without even a roof for the driver. One wonders why they built them like that, but it was only very slowly that conditions were improved for the driver. My grandfather was driving London taxis before the first war, he drove a 1907 Renault and he also drove a Unic, you had to be a hardy type to stand up to the weather and you also had to be quite skilful to drive those old vehicles, nobody had even heard of synchromesh gears in those days, brakes were appalling by modern standards and road surfaces were like ice rinks when they were wet, the liberal distribution of horse droppings providing an excellent lubricant. My father drove London taxis from the early thirties and things were not a lot better then, there was a full windscreen but no side windows and there were holes or slots in the floor where the pedals operated, but he did have four wheel brakes , although they were not up to today's standard, and there were fewer horse droppings. For him, however, it was a big step forward from the buses that he had driven before which had no windscreen, solid tyres and rear wheel brakes only. He suffered very little from ill-health, despite, or perhaps because of, this exposure to the elements and he continued to drive taxis right into the 1980's.

The modern London taxi is a remarkable vehicle, it offers a surprising amount of passenger space within a limited overall size and makes a major contribution to London's transport problems. In its lifetime it covers an amazing number of miles of stop start driving. We estimated that one of my father's taxis had covered three quarters of a million miles. This was partly because, due to the war years, it was permitted a longer life span than was usual. It was, of course, rather like Trig's road-sweeping broom in 'Fools and Horses'. You may remember that he claimed that he had had the same broom for 12 years (or something similar), but he admitted that he had had 20 new heads and four new handles. Our taxi wasn't quite that bad, much of it was original, but the engine was overhauled, and sometimes switched, annually and the gearbox had been overhauled once. The bodywork was all original, including the leather upholstery, all of which was in excellent condition at the end.

Long may the London taxi continue to be a feature of the London scene.

Ron Watts

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