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London Taxi History


Hansom cab
A Hansom cab - Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli called them ‘the gondolas of London’

The term ‘hackney’, as used in hackney coaches and cabs comes from the Norman French word ‘hacquenée’ meaning a type of horse suitable for hire.

Hackney coaches first appeared in London during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, when the wealthy, who owned coaches, sought to recoup some of the enormous expense they incurred in keeping them by hiring them out to aspiring but less well-heeled members of the gentry. As the coaches aged and were replaced, they were bought by innkeepers and merchants and hired out, but the trade acquired a very poor reputation, both for excessive prices and badly kept coaches.

The first man who organized hackney coaches and coachmen in a form that we would recognize today was Captain John Baily, a veteran of Sir Walter Raleigh’s expeditions, who put four coaches to work by the Maypole in the Strand in 1634, and set up what was undoubtedly London’s first cab rank. More than that, he dressed his coachman in livery and told them what to charge. Many followed Baily’s example, although, it would seem, to lower standards, because by the 1760s there were over a thousand ‘hackney hell carts’ thronging the streets, causing considerable congestion.

In 1823 a two-seat, two-wheeled carriage called a cabriolet was introduced from France. It was very popular for its speed and comfort and from this vehicle we derive the term ‘cab’. From the late 1830s, two types of cab began to dominate, the two-wheeled hansom, a fast and elegant carriage and the ponderous four-wheeled ‘growler’ which, with its luggage carrying ability was to be found mostly at railway stations.


An early Unic cab
An early Unic cab, made in Paris

London’s first motor cabs were electrically powered. They were called Berseys after Walter C. Bersey, the manager of the London Electrical Cab Company who designed them, but were nicknamed ‘Hummingbirds’ from the sound that they made. 25 were introduced in August 1897 and by 1898 a further fifty of them were at work. Unfortunately, they proved costly and unreliable and there were a number of accidents, including one fatality. Public confidence in them evaporated and they were withdrawn by 1900.

The first petrol powered cab in London was a French-built Prunel, introduced in 1903. Early British makes included Rational, Simplex and Herald but these appeared in small numbers. An attempt to introduce the American Ford Model B failed through lack of finance, as did efforts by Rover and others. Some of the oddities that appeared, and disappeared almost as quickly included the Vauxhall hansom cab with its driver perched behind the body, and the front wheel drive ‘Pullcar’. At the end of 1906 there were less than 100 motor cabs in London, but the appearance of the General Cab Company’s five hundred Renault cabs revolutionised the trade. The introduction of rules for motor cab design, the ‘Conditions of Fitness’ were introduced by the licensing authority, the Public Carriage Office in 1906. One regulation, demanding a 25ft turning circle deterred many would-be manufacturers and resulted in some earlier makes being withdrawn. The most numerous makes of cab post-1906 were the Unic, introduced by dealers Mann and Overton and the Napier and Panhard, both operated by W & G du Cros. Also to be found were Fiat, Sorex, Belsize, Austin, Humber, Wolseley-Siddeley, Argyll and Darracq. The fitting of taximeters was made compulsory in 1907 and cabs thus fitted became known as ‘taxicabs’, abbreviated to ‘taxis’.

Industrial action by cab drivers in 1911 over fares and in 1913 over fuel almost crippled the trade and severely reduced the number of big fleets and the manufacturers associated with them. At the outbreak of the First World War there was just one make available to buy, the Unic.

The First World War devastated the taxi trade. Production of the Unic ceased for the duration of the war as the company turned to producing munitions. The majority of younger cabmen were called up to fight and those that remained had to drive worn-out cabs. By 1918 these remnant vehicles were sold at highly inflated prices, often beyond the pockets of the returning servicemen, and the trade deteriorated.


William Beardmore & Co Ltd was Scotland’s largest engineering concern, and a division of the company built the first new post-war taxicab in Paisley, Glasgow. The cab was introduced in 1919 and because of its sturdiness and comfort it became known as the ‘Rolls-Royce of cabs’. A new model, the Mk 2 ‘Super’ followed in 1923. A Citroën cab was introduced in 1921, as was an updated version of the pre-war Unic. In 1925, an attempt to introduce a two-seat cab nicknamed the ‘Jixi’ that would run at a lower tariff, in parallel with the existing four-seat cabs was vehemently opposed, and eventually repulsed by the trade. However, the lower tariff was introduced anyway and the trade, already suffering from the Depression, was severely hit. The Conditions of Fitness had not been altered since their introduction, and by 1927, no British manufacturer other than Beardmore was actually producing cabs for this small market. The Conditions of Fitness were reviewed in 1927 to try and attract more makers and revised rules were introduced in 1928, although a Morris-Commercial appeared before their introduction. Following the review, Beardmore introduced a Mk3 and both cabs proved very popular.

1930's Austin taxi
An Austin 12/4 Low Loader taxi from the mid-1930s. Cabs could be found in many different colours before the 1940s and fleets would have their own colour

In 1929, taxi dealers Mann and Overton sponsored a new Austin cab for London, based on the successful 12/4 car. Nicknamed the ‘High Lot’ because of its height it was an immediate success, significantly outselling Beardmore and Morris-Commercial. A revised model, the LL ‘Low Loader’ appeared in 1934 and became the most numerous cab of the decade, being cheap to buy, reliable and easily obtainable. Beardmore had moved to North London and its cabs were much more expensive than the Morris-Commercial and the Austin. Neither Beardmore nor Morris-Commercial, however could produce cabs in the same numbers as Austin.


During the Second World War the majority of younger cabmen were called up into the forces and production of new cabs again ceased for the duration. The taxi trade was one area during the war where women did not take over a man’s role, as there was no time for the women to undergo the extensive ‘Knowledge of London’ topographical test that the men had completed. A large number of cabs, along with their drivers were requisitioned by the Auxiliary Fire Service to tow trailer pumps. However, the cabs were underpowered for the job and most were returned to the ranks, although some drivers remained in the AFS and served with much distinction. For the trade in general, the remaining cabmen had to drive cabs that were maintained to the best of their owners’ limited resources on severely rationed petrol in blacked-out, bomb-damaged streets. Although servicemen, including the Americans provided some extra work, the trade again went into decline.


The famous FX-3 taxi
The Austin FX3 of the 1950s

Post-war, there was an urgent need for new taxis as all the pre-war models had been discontinued. Nuffield, the makers of the Morris-Commercial cab had tested a prototype cab throughout the war. It was introduced in 1947 as the Oxford and sold by Beardmore, who had not developed a new cab of their own. In 1948 a new Austin, the FX3, built by Carbodies of Coventry and financed jointly by Mann and Overton, Carbodies and Austin appeared and soon dominated the market. It was first produced with a petrol engine but this proved uneconomical to run so in 1952 a conversion for a Standard diesel engine was made available. In 1954 Austin produced its own 2.2 litre diesel engine. Austin also built a four-door limousine version of the FX3, the FL1, fitted with a bench front seat but minus a ‘For Hire’ roof sign. Beardmore introduced a MkVII in 1954, but it sold in very small numbers and presented no threat to Austin. The last Beardmore was produced in 1966 and sold in January 1967.

An attempt in 1956 by London cab proprietor John Birch to produce a revolutionary design of taxi, based on a Standard Vanguard chassis and a full-width four-door body, failed. His second attempt, in 1959, this time using the Standard Atlas van as a base was also unsuccessful.

The well-known FX4, introduced in 1958 and still common in
The well-known FX4, introduced in 1958 and a common sight in London for over 50 years. These examples belong to our members, pictured at a recent rally at Uxbridge

Austin’s next taxi, introduced in 1958 was the FX4. A Hire Car version, the FL2 was built between 1958 and 1976, and reintroduced briefly in the early 1980s as the London Limousine. The FX4, probably the most famous of all London taxis remained in continuous production with various modifications, with five different engines, for 39 years. This wasn’t because it was such a fantastic vehicle – it had many shortcomings - but because neither Austin nor Mann and Overton could find the money to replace it. Carbodies Ltd of Coventry made two attempts of their own, the FX5 and the CR6 but in 1982 they bought the production rights to the FX4 from Austin and, as London Taxis International Plc built the final version of the FX4, the ‘Fairway’ from 1989. Production ended in 1997 after more than 75,000 FX4s had been built.

The Winchester taxi, launched in 1963 from Winchester Automobiles (West End) Ltd, had a glassfibre body and was the first London cab built from this material. The first three variants shared the same rounded body but the Series IV had a very modern appearance. Production was small and ceased in 1972. In 1972, Metro-Cammell-Weymann, who had built the last Beardmore cabs introduced a prototype, called the Metrocab, based on Ford Transit running gear, but it failed to go into production.


In the face of demands by the trade for a new cab, and the failure of Carbodies to supply one, Metro-Cammell-Weymann launched an all-new Metrocab in 1987. The cab’s body was made of glassfibre and all but the last version, the TTT, which was Toyota-powered, used a Ford Transit diesel engine. The Metrocab has passed through four owners in twenty years of production, the most successful and longest lasting being the third, Hooper. Its present owner, Kamkorp suspended production in April 2006 and planned to continue developing the cab. In early 2008, pictures of a revised, hybrid power version, built by Kamkorp subsidiary Frazer-Nash appeared in ‘Taxi’ newspaper but nothing has been seen of the marque to date.

The Asquith, a retro-style cab based on the pre-war Austin LL was introduced in 1994. It was powered by a Ford Transit diesel engine. It was very expensive and only about twelve were sold in London. A modern style cab was proposed, but never went into production. Asquith went into liquidation at the end of 1998.

London metrocab
Hooper Metrocab

In 1997, London Taxis International replaced the famous FX4/Fairway shape with the TXI, which used the same highly regarded Nissan TD27 engine as the Fairway. An updated version with a Ford engine, the TXII followed but was unreliable and unpopular.

The Conditions of Fitness underwent a protracted review in the light of a challenge from the makers of van conversions that complied with every rule except the mandatory 25-feet (7.6m) turning circle. After a protracted wait, the PCO decided in early 2006 in favour of retaining the turning circle rule.

In November 2006 the TXII was replaced by the TX4, using the same body and chassis as the TXII but powered by a VM turbocharged diesel engine. It was named the TX4, rather than TXIII because it complies with the Euro 4 exhaust emission regulations.

The latest taxi to be approved for use in London is based on the Mercedes-Benz Vito Traveliner MPV. The base vehicle does not comply with the required turning circle, but this is achieved by the use of part-time rear-wheel steering. The Vito seats six people and is powered by a 2.2-litre Mercedes-Benz turbo diesel engine. Its introduction caused controversy within the London cab trade because it does not have the traditional appearance of a London taxi, but because of its comfort and space it has proved especially popular with corporate clients of the major radio circuits and with discerning passengers at London’s Heathrow Airport.


The laws governing London’s taxi trade go back nearly four centuries. Originally, regulation was in the hands of the City of London. In 1654, Oliver Cromwell authorised the founding of The Fellowship of Hackney Coachmen, but he disbanded it in 1657 because it became too powerful. Licensing was reformed in 1694 and London’s cabs have been continuously licensed since then, initially through the City of London and later through Parliament. In 1843, the Home Office took control and devolved authority to the Metropolitan Police who, through the Public Carriage Office governed the trade until 2000. Control is now in the hands of Transport for London, a part of the Greater London Authority.

A London cab driver’s licence is issued for a period of three years. In 1843 it became compulsory for cabmen to wear a metal badge showing their licence number, which they still do to this day.

London’s cabs are identified by a computer-generated rectangular white plastic licence plate, mounted on the boot lid. This plate is issued annually and bears a unique licence number as well as the number of passengers the cab is licensed to carry and the vehicle’s index number. The practice of displaying an identification number goes back to the 17th century. Between 1654 and 1714, Hackney Coaches displayed a hackney registration number on the carriage doors. After 1714 a metal plate showing the hackney registration number was displayed on the rear of the hackney coach. When the Metropolitan Police took charge, a mark was stencilled on the rear of a cab each time it passed its annual inspection, showing the year the licence was issued and the initials of the current police commissioner. This practice continued with motor cabs until the 1950s, when the stencil was abandoned and replaced by a plate with numbers indicating to the month of issue. This was replaced this century by the current white plastic plate.

Taximeter equipment
An Argo taximeter of the 1930s, as fitted to an Austin 12/4

A taximeter is by definition what makes a ‘cab’ a ‘taxicab’. Fitting of a taximeter was made compulsory in London from July 1907. The modern taximeter was a German invention and its name comes from its inventor, Baron von Thurn und Taxis. It was first used in Berlin but soon adopted worldwide. Taximeters in London calculate the fare payable as a combination of time and distance. When the cab is in motion, it records distance and when the cab is stationary it records the time spent standing still and adjusts the fare accordingly. Early taximeters were totally mechanical in operation and the clock that recorded waiting time had to be wound by hand. Meters of the 1960s and 1970s had a built-in electric clock but today, taximeters are fully electronic and operate on a time basis at speeds between zero and 10mph.

There are a number of myths and legends that surround the London cab and its cabmen and many of them are nothing but bunkum. For instance, it has never been law for a motor cabman to carry a bale of hay in his cab. In fact, it was never law for a horse cabman to carry one, although he was required to carry sufficient hard food (e. g. oats) for his horse’s midday feed.

Nor has there ever been a law that says that London’s cabs should be black. A cab may be any colour, but when the Oxford and the FX3 were introduced, their makers supplied them in a standard colour of black. Few buyers were prepared to pay the extra money for a special colour and so for three decades, black became the norm. In the late 1970s, Carbodies offered a wide range of pleasing colours for the FX4 to the ever-growing number of owner-drivers and now cabs are found in a very wide range of colours, including special advertising liveries.