There is another road vehicle as much an icon of London as the loved (practically everyone) / loathed (me) Routemaster bus. Regardless of the fact that they can be found in many other places outside London, and even in London they are available in practically any colour you like as well as black, the black taxi cab is inextricably linked with the wider world’s perception of the city. Witness, as just one example, an encounter I had in the toy department of Debenhams, Portsmouth, a few weeks ago:
Like the Routemaster bus, it’s one of those unusual transport vehicles that can be recognised not just by transport enthusiasts but also by the general public. Unlike the Routemaster bus however, there isn’t one specific black cab, but rather a whole range of which most people have a hazy grasp. When a non-transport geek talks about London black cabs, they’re probably thinking about something which resembles the Austin FX4, or its several successors in the TX series.
They’re probably not thinking about its predecessor, the Austin FX3 with its open passenger-side luggage compartment, despite the fact that for a time it achieved substantial cultural significance. It had a starring role in the film Carry On Cabby (dir. Gerald Thomas, 1963) and Tootles the Taxi, of Ladybird Books fame, was also an FX3:
The FX4, the FX3’s replacement, was introduced in 1958, and it’s this one that has become lodged in our subconscious as the classic London black cab. I’ve always thought there was something a bit Mini-like about its headlights; the Mini being introduced a year later and produced by the same company. But the Mini attracted the design talents of Alexander Issigonis who was already a famous car designer. The FX4 was the work of Eric Bailey of Austin, and Jake Donaldson of Carbodies, the firm which actually constructed the vehicle. Bailey only got the job because Austin’s regular in-house stylist wasn’t interested. Good for Bailey; he ended up being responsible for a transport icon. He referenced American car design, especially on the FX4’s rear flanks, where there is a suggestion of the big rear fins of 1950s cars like the Cadillac de Ville; Bailey had just finished work on a car for the American market. The curvy form of the FX4 with its round headlights, vertically arranged tail lights, and tall radiator grille has become the archetypal black cab.
The FX4 was commissioned by London taxi dealership Mann & Overton. In order for it to work as a Hackney Carriage (i.e. able to ply for hire on the streets, rather than being bookable in advance only, as minicabs are) it had to meet the strict requirements of London’s Public Carriage Office, now a part of Transport for London (TfL). The PCO’s “Conditions of Fitness” specified a turning circle of just 25ft (dictated by the circular turning area at the entrance to London’s Savoy hotel), a standard which remains in place to this day, along with a bewildering array of other technical standards including those related to passenger headroom, seat size and door widths. It’s such a tight specification that very few vehicles have ever met it, and it left the FX4 with a near monopoly of London’s taxi market.
The FX4’s manufacturer changed over the years, to Carbodies itself and ultimately London Taxis International (LTI), now trading as the London Taxi Company. All good things come to an end though and in 1997 the FX4 was replaced by the TX1. It took the look of the FX4 and brought it up to date. Responsible for this new look was industrial designer Kenneth Grange, who also shaped British Rail’s Intercity 125 train, another transport icon which broke through into the consciousness of the general public. The TXII followed in 2002 though you’d have been hard-pressed to spot the difference.
The TX4 arrived in 2007, recognisably a successor to the TXII but with a larger radiator grille that more resembled the shape of the one on the FX4.
It’s in some ways curious that the London black cab has become so iconic. As I mentioned earlier, lots of them aren’t even black these days. Black was a common early colour for cars, being cheap and easy to source (consider also the Model T Ford’s range of available colours) as well as practical, and it’s therefore no surprise that black was the colour early FX4s arrived in. But there is certainly no regulation that says that London black cabs have to be black.
There are other cities where particular colours are specified for hackney carriages, yet haven’t got anything like the same degree of recognition for their taxis. Brighton’s are white with teal/turquoise bonnets, but only locals or transport geeks know this. New York’s yellow taxis are perhaps the only challengers in this regard. And London’s black cabs aren’t even unique to London. They are and have been used in plenty of other cities too, as seen in the earlier photo of one in Brighton.
But for Londoners, the black cab (regardless of its actual colour) is something special, and that’s as much due to its drivers as the vehicle. As a major report into London’s taxi trade, Saving the Black Cab (Policy Exchange, 2016) points out, “Many Londoners entrust their most precious things, their children, to a black cab driver, a total stranger, in the certain knowledge that they will be safe.” It’s hard to imagine any other mode of transport in which parents would place such a degree of trust. And that’s because the training to become an all-London black cab driver is so incredibly demanding as make it highly unlikely that an unsuitable driver could slip through.
To become the holder of a green badge, and therefore be able to ply for hire in central London as well as in the suburbs (the latter of which you can do with a yellow badge), you have to pass the Knowledge. The test requires you to memorise 320 routes within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross. “You will need to learn these routes, plus all the roads and landmarks within a quarter-mile radius of the start and end points of each route,” explains TfL (see here).
Learning the Knowledge is a ferociously difficult task and it takes years to do. It actually induces physical changes in the brain of a taxi driver, and holders of the Knowledge are regarded with no little degree of awe by Londoners, who can otherwise be difficult to impress. Despite their reputation for a reluctance to venture south of the River Thames, if you put yourself in the hands of a London black cab driver, then you are all but assured you have put yourself into safe ones.
The esteem of black cab drivers was enhanced in 1980 when Fred Housego, a member of that elite profession, won that year’s BBC television Mastermind. It was proof that you didn’t have to be an academic or dripping with degrees to win what was then one of the most high-profile and challenging quiz competitions in the country. But it was proof that holders of the Knowledge were intellectual heavyweights. And it’s a subject which continues to exert cultural fascination. Only a few weeks ago Britain’s Channel 4 screened a documentary on the Knowledge (see here).
Ownership of a green badge comes with an additional perk, quite apart from Londoners thinking of you as a semi-magical route-planning marvel. Hackney carriage drivers are allowed into the hallowed interiors of the few remaining cabmen’s shelters dotted around the streets of London.
The vehicle itself is also something special. With a big boot (or trunk) capable of swallowing large suitcases, you can travel unencumbered in the passenger saloon. It’s amazingly capacious. It has great headroom, and space for three passengers on the back seat, all of whom can stretch their legs out, unlike in practically any other similar-sized vehicle. There are two rear-facing tip-up seats mounted on the partition behind the driver, so a black cab can comfortably accommodate a family, facing towards each other as a group rather than being placed in two rows. Then there’s the glass screen and partition itself, separating off the driver and maintaining their air of detachment, of being figures nearly of myth. The doors click as the journey begins and the central locking mechanism kicks in to prevent a passenger accidentally opening a door. And there’s a unique smell to the interior of a black cab, a combination of the materials used in the flooring and upholstery, and London itself. I reckon it was more distinctive in the FX4, but that’s probably just me being nostalgic.
London’s black cabs face a challenge from the global onslaught of Uber, the app-based minicab booking company which has disrupted taxi businesses in so many cities around the world. Saving the Black Cab noted that London’s black cabs are more expensive than Uber minicabs but that the quality of a London black cab journey is better. An Uber driver doesn’t have the Knowledge, for a start, and while Uber minicabs might have sat-navs, there’s no better system for finding your way through London’s unpredictable traffic than a human brain with the Knowledge installed as an operating system, and years of experience stored as updates to it (as the BBC once found). That said, the same report criticises the black cab trade for its failure to develop an Uber-like app which would allow similar cash-free payment by black cab passengers.
The report also criticises the black cab trade for diluting the concept of the black cab itself. Things the shape of the FX4 and the subsequent TX series, are what most people think of when they’re thinking about London black cabs. What they’re probably not thinking about is the Metrocab, produced by MCW between 1987 and 2000, and one of the rare competitors to the FX4/TX-series. It’s black cab-ish, but boxy and lacking the essence of what the collective consciousness recognises as a proper black cab. But what people thinking about London black cabs almost definitely aren’t thinking about is the Mercedes Vito. It passes the requirements set down by the PCO by virtue of a steering rear axle but in every other respect it doesn’t feel like a black cab at all; it’s basically a van conversion. “It was…wrong for the black cab trade to demand to use an undistinguished converted van, the Mercedes Vito, as a licensed taxi – and an even bigger error for the then Mayor, Boris Johnson, to let them,” says Saving the Black Cab.
Still, if Boris Johnson can be considered to have developed a speciality in anything during his two terms as London mayor, it was in making transport-related errors. Identifying another to add to his catalogue of blunders is hardly even noteworthy anymore, and by comparison with the New Routemaster or the Thames Cable Car, it’s quite a minor one. Nevertheless, Saving the Black Cab suggests that part of the reason that black cabs can justifiably demand a premium over Uber fares is the quality of the vehicle used, and the Vito just doesn’t cut it.
Perhaps another reason for the fame of London black cabs was that Prince Philip, husband of the UK’s Queen, drove one. It’s widely reported (here’s one example) that he drove an Austin FL2, a limousine version of the FX4 not intended for use as a taxi and notably without the illuminated “TAXI” sign above the front windscreen. However, coverage of retirement of the vehicle last month suggests it was a gas-powered Metrocab (unless that was his second taxi).
That’s far from the only off-beat use of a London black cab. Some have been modified to act as coffee bars or catering units (see here). One TX4 has been converted to act as an ambulance in the south-west of England, although further information on that vehicle is frustratingly difficult to find.
For all its recognition factor, the reign of the TX4 is coming to an end. There was a scare in 2012 when the parent company of LTI went into administration, and the resulting media coverage fretting over the possibility that the manufacture of traditional London black cabs had come to an end provided further proof of their cultural importance (see this story from The Guardian newspaper, for instance). LTI was taken on by new owners, but TfL now wants all new taxis to be zero emission capable from 2018. That means all-electric or hybrid with the ability to run for 30 miles off the batteries alone.
A TX5 hybrid is coming soon from the London Taxi Company (see here), while the new Metrocab (also a hybrid, but with a plug-in charging option) will ditch the boxiness of its predecessor in favour of something more, well, black cab-like.
It’s hard to define London black cab-ness, but you know what it is when you see it. What’s more, your non-transport friends do too. And that’s how you know that the London black cab has become a true transport icon.
Other Transport Icons in this series…
Concorde – read the article here
The InterCity 125 – read the article here
The Routemaster Bus – read the article here
Bibliography and Further Reading
Design Museum, The (2009): Fifty Cars That Changed the World. Conran, London
Ferrari, Nick (2016): Saving the Black Cab. Policy Exchange, London (available online here)
The website of the London Taxi Company, manufacturers of the TX series cabs, here
The website of the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association, here
…and anything else linked to in the text above.