The Hackney Coach and the Horse Cab
The term ‘hackney’, as used in hackney coaches and cabs comes from the Norman French word “hacquenée”, meaning a horse for hire. Hackney coaches first appeared in London in Tudor times, when wealthy people who owned coaches hired them out to recoup some of the high cost of keeping them.
When owners bought new coaches, they were sold their old ones, mostly to innkeepers, who continued to hire them out. They would charge the customers whatever rates they could get away with and let the vehicles lapse into a poor state.
In 1634, a certain Captain Baily, a veteran of Sir Walter Raleigh’s expeditions, put four coaches to work by the Maypole in the Strand, dressed his coachmen in livery and told them what fares to charge. In doing so, he set up what was undoubtedly London’s first cab rank and established a business model that exists worldwide to this day.
By the 1760s there were over a thousand hackney coaches thronging London’s streets, causing considerable congestion. They were still kept in a terrible condition, because they were expensive to run, as they required two horses to pull them. In 1823 a fast, two-seat, two-wheeled carriage, called a cabriolet was introduced into London from France. The speed of these vehicles and lower fares charged made them very popular and they soon began to replace the hackney coaches. It is from the word cabriolet we derive the term “cab”.
From the late 1830s, two new types of single-horse cab appeared; the two-wheeled Hansom, a fast and elegant carriage and the slower, four-wheeled “growler”, which, with its luggage carrying ability was to be found working the new railway stations.
Early Motor Cabs
London’s first horseless cabs were powered by electricity. They were called Berseys, after Walter C. Bersey, who designed them. 25 were introduced in August 1897. Unfortunately, they proved costly and unreliable and there were a number of accidents, including one fatality. They were withdrawn by 1900.
London’s first petrol–powered cab was introduced in 1903. It was a French-built Prunel. Early British makes included the Rational, the Simplex and the Herald, but these appeared in small numbers. When, in 1905, the General Cab Company introduced five hundred Renault cabs, the speculators who had held back from putting their money into cab companies, finally began investing and the number of motor cabs on London’s streets grew rapidly.
Rules for motor cab design and construction, the Conditions of Fitness were introduced by the licensing authority, the Public Carriage Office in 1906. One of these rules called for a 25ft diameter turning circle, which deterred many would-be manufacturers and resulted in some earlier makes being withdrawn.
The fitting of taximeters was made compulsory in 1907 and cabs thus fitted became known as “taxicabs”, abbreviated to “taxis”.
The most numerous makes of cab post-1906 were the Unic, introduced by dealers Mann and Overton and the Napier and the Panhard, both of which were operated by W & G du Cros. By 1914, the Unic 12/16hp was the most numerous cab on London’s streets.
Between the Wars
William Beardmore & Co Ltd., Scotland’s largest engineering concern, built London's first new post-war taxicab, which was introduced in 1919. Though expensive, it was robust and reliable and it became the most popular model during the 1920s. A revised version of the pre-war Unic appeared in 1920 and a cab based on a Citroën chassis was introduced in 1923.
The Conditions of Fitness had not been altered since their introduction in 1906 and by 1927, the only British manufacturer not deterred by the antiquated specifications, including the turning circle and a 10-inch ground clearance, was Beardmore. The Conditions of Fitness were reviewed to try and attract more makers, though a Morris-Commercial cab appeared before they came into effect. A new Beardmore, which was built to comply with the new Conditions of Fitness, also appeared.
The most important new make to appear following the rule change was Austin. Sponsored by taxi dealers Mann and Overton to replace the now defunct Unic, it was based on the Austin 12/4 car. Being cheap to buy, sturdy and reliable, it was an immediate success. A revised model, the LL "Low Loader" appeared in 1934 and it became the most numerous London cab. Neither Beardmore nor Morris-Commercial produced cabs in anywhere near the same numbers as Austin.
The Second World War
During the Second World War, the majority of younger cabmen were called up into the forces and the production of new cabs again ceased for the duration. The taxi trade was one sphere of work where women did not take over men’s roles, as it was considered that there was little time for them to undergo the “Knowledge of London”, the lengthy topographical test that cabmen had to undergo and still have to take to this day.
A large number of cabs, along with their drivers were requisitioned by the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) to tow trailer pumps. However, they were underpowered for the job and most were returned to cab work. Some drivers remained in the AFS (reformed as the National Fire Service) and served with distinction during the Blitz.
The restricted availability of spare parts, severely rationed petrol and blacked-out and bomb-damaged streets made the work hard. Although servicemen, particularly Americans provided some extra work, the trade went into decline.
The Post-war Years
Nuffield, the makers of the Morris-Commercial cab introduced their new Oxford model in 1947 and the following year a new Austin, the FX3, built by Carbodies of Coventry and financed jointly by Mann and Overton, Carbodies and Austin appeared. It would have dominated the market as the Low Loader had done, but its petrol engine was very uneconomical and this deterred buyers. A diesel version appeared in 1954, which, with its greater fuel economy soon put Austin back on top. Beardmore introduced its MkVII cab in 1954, but it sold in very small numbers and presented no threat to the Austin.
In 1958, the most famous of all London taxis, the Austin FX4 was introduced. It remained in production, with various modifications, for 39 years. This wasn’t because it was such a good vehicle – it had many shortcomings – but because neither Mann and Overton, Carbodies nor Austin could find the money to replace it in the troubled economy of the 1970s and 1980s.
Carbodies made two attempts to produce a taxi of their own, the FX5 of 1978 and the CR6 of 1982, but neither went into production. In 1982, Carbodies bought the production rights to the FX4 from Austin's owner, British Leyland. In 1985, Carbodies' owner, Manganese Bronze Holdings Plc purchased Mann and Overton and formed London Taxis International Plc (LTI) and they developed three new versions of the FX4 with Land Rover engines, being the FX4R, the FX4S, the FX4S-Plus. The final version, the Fairway of 1989 was powered by a 2.7 litre Nissan engine and was considered to be the best version of all. Production of the Fairway ended in 1997 after a total of more than 75,000 FX4s had been built.
Metro-Cammell-Weymann launched an all-new Metrocab in 1987. Like the 1972 prototype, the cab’s body was made of glass fibre. The Metrocab passed through four owners in twenty years of production, the most successful and longest lasting being the third, Hooper. 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.
In 1997, LTI replaced the famous FX4 with the TXI, which used the same highly regarded Nissan TD27 engine as the last FX4 model, the Fairway. Two further versions, the TXII, with a Ford engine and the TX4, with a VM engine followed.
The New Century
A legal challenge was mounted against the Conditions of Fitness by firms who were converting vans into taxis for the provincial market, who wished to sell these vehicles in London. These conversion vehicles complied with most of the rules of the Conditions of Fitness, the most notable exception being the turning circle, so the vehicle manufacturers mounted the challenge. In the light of this, in 2002 the PCO set in motion a review of the Conditions of Fitness, but in early 2006 decided in favour of retaining the turning circle.
Production of the Metrocab was suspended in April 2006 and a new, range-extended electric prototype appeared in 2014. To date it has not been put into production. The last taxi powered by an internal combustion engine to be approved for use in London was based on the Mercedes-Benz Vito Traveliner MPV, which appeared in 2008. Its designers achieved the required turning circle by installing rear-wheel steering, which only operated at very low speeds. It was not a popular choice with the London cab trade because it did not have the traditional appearance of a London taxi, which deterred customers from haling it on the streets. However, its comfort and space proved especially popular with corporate clients and with discerning passengers at London’s Heathrow Airport.
Transport for London, in charge of London’s cab trade from 2000, decreed that from January 1, 2017, all newly licensed London cabs should be zero-emissions capable. LTI, now under the ownership of Chinese automaker Geely and renamed the London Electric Vehicle Company (LEVC), introduced the TX-E, an all-new range-extended electric cab.
A new battery-electric zero-emissions cab came to the London market in 2019, based on the Nissan NV200.
London’s taxis currently carry a computer-printed rectangular white polycarbonate licence plate, mounted on the boot lid. The licence is issued annually and the plate bears the number of the licence, its expiry date and the number of passengers the cab is licensed to carry.
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 of licensing London's cabs in 1843, they continued to issue metal licence plates but later introduced the practice of stencilling a mark on the rear of a cab each time it passed its annual inspection. This mark showed the year the licence was issued and the initials of the current police commissioner. These stencils continued to be applied until the early 1960s, when they were replaced by a plate with the first one or two digits of its number indicating the month of issue. These were replaced in 1997 by the current polycarbonate plates.
A taximeter is, by definition what makes a “cab” a “taxicab”, or a "taxi". Early taximeters were totally mechanical in operation and the clock that recorded the waiting time had to be wound by hand. The clocks in the taximeters of the 1960s and 1970s were described as "electromechanical", with a mechanical drive for distance measurement and an electric clock for the time element. Taximeters in London cabs today are fully electronic. Like the older types, they calculate the fare payable through a combination of time and distance. When the cab is travelling at speeds above 10mph, the fare is calculated from the distance travelled. When that speed drops below 10mph, the fare is registered on a time basis.
The Bale of Hay
There are a number of stories that surround the London cab and its cabmen and some 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.
Why “Black” Cabs?
The name “black cab” originated as a slang term within the London minicab trade, whose members had appropriated the term “cab” (“cab” was the official term the PCO used until 2000 for the taxicabs they licensed).
Unlike the regulations of some British provincial taxi licensing authorities, the Conditions of Fitness has never specified that a London cab has to be a specific colour. Prewar cabs had coachbuilt bodies and were painted in a variety of colours.
After the Second World War, when the Nuffield Oxford and the Austin FX3 were introduced, they were supplied with factory-fitted steel bodies. These were painted in a standard colour of black, because it was the cheapest colour to supply. Different colours were offered at extra cost, but few, if any buyers were prepared to pay for them and so black became the standard colour for London taxis. The FX4 was actually offered in three colours; black, white and carmine red, though black remained the choice of almost all buyers. In the 1970s, Mann and Overton, the FX4's sponsors and dealers asked the maker, Carbodies to supply more colours. These were not taken up by fleet buyers, but when the finance regulations were relaxed at the end of the 1970s, more cabmen opted to buy cabs instead of renting them and chose from an increased range of colours. Now London cabs are found in all colours, including special advertising liveries.