Preserving the Icon

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine):

The electric cab is nothing new. The Bersey was probably the first mechanically-propelled cab in the world on its launch in 1897. I don’t know how it went down with environmentalists, but it wasn’t a big hit with the drivers. It was a huge unwieldy vehicle, delivering nine miles per hour on a forty-mile charge. Forty miles might have been adequate in Victorian times, but while we struggle to reach nine miles per hour on TfL-controlled roads in 2021, this wasn’t acceptable in 1897. The following year’s model was claimed to reach twelve miles an hour, but the Bersey was removed from service in 1900 when drivers abandoned the cab due to its unreliability.

The first petrol engine cab, the French-built Prunel, arrived in 1903, and we never looked back. For a while we had a variety of vehicles to choose from, with a range of reliability – including those rental cabs I started out with in the late-1980s. What’s generally accepted as the classic shaped cab started as the FX4 in 1958. With the diesel-powered TX4 rapidly disappearing from London’s streets, I wonder if one icon will be replaced by another?

It’s essential that the trade can continue to offer up an instantly recognisable taxi. In many towns in many countries, the only recognisable difference between a taxi and a private car is a local authority plate on the back, a “Taxi” sign on the roof, and lurid stickers on the sides of an unremarkable production saloon. This has never been London’s way. Here, iconic status counts for a lot.

The TXE won’t look old-fashioned for some years yet. Not that it’s a problem. The classic body shape hasn’t changed much since 1958. Being old-fashioned helps in the icon stakes. Before the TXE, Mercedes took a lot of business from the London Taxi Company with their Vito van conversion. It’s modern and reliable, and it has it’s fans. I’m sure it’s a nice cab to drive, but it’s hardly an icon. It’s not something that sets us apart. It’s used as a minicab for God’s sake!

If the iconic cab goes, the trade will lose its iconic status. Most London taxis are still black. That helps, but the colour factor has been slightly undermined by the cynical use of black minicabs. As to styling, the shape of the TXE is radically different from the discontinued TX4, and the TXE is fast becoming the de facto London cab. It’s unique, and being unique is a big factor. The TXE will surely become as iconic as cabs from the FX/TX family over time.

There will be some TX4s on the road for some years to come, though they’ll be part of a much-loved minority. Much-loved by the public, if not the drivers, who realise they’re driving a museum piece that’s not high on reliability and rather cramped in the front. Cab drivers – like the vehicles they drive – have evolved over the years, and they demand more: something modern and affordable. Many of us like the 25-feet turning circle, but we ask why we can’t have a reasonably-priced purpose-built vehicle.

Many drivers would like to go electric, but trade will need to improve, and fast electrical points will need to be increased before the majority of drivers are onboard with the electrical revolution. Still, more electric cabs have been sold than I expected. Drivers were clearly thinking ahead. The TXE looks set to stay popular for longer that the first electric cab at least. The trade was forced to become part of the electrical revolution, but we wanted a better alternative anyway. We’ll all go electric eventually, so we might as well be pioneers and get on with it.    

If many drivers who de-licenced their cabs during the Covid depression return, there will be a shortage of cabs to rent. None of those thousands of cabs that were de-licenced and sold up north can return as TfL can’t re-plate cabs that were de-licenced under the scheme (my cab is living out its last days in Birmingham and I still wonder how it’s getting on). The options are to try to find a cab to rent, or to buy one. Buying an old TX4 or Vito is a retrograde step. We know there are more modern and reliable alternatives available now, and we also know that every authority involved in controlling the roads are hostile towards diesel. It’s not an option that many drivers wouldn’t contemplate unless in an emergency. Maybe we are in an emergency? Only time will tell. It’d be a leap of faith to buy a new TXE or Dynamo, as we’re not sure the work will be there to sustain such a huge investment in our business. I think a popular choice will be in the shape of used TXEs coming on the market.

One thing we’ve never had in my lifetime is a price war. Perhaps with two cab manufacturers to choose from we’ll see some competition. No, I wouldn’t bank on much of it. I’m confident one icon will be replaced by another, but the question remains: must style come at such a high price?

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