The Evolution of the Black Cab: From Horse for Hire to App-Powered Pick Ups

By Aatif Sulleyman on at

The black cab is changing. It’s getting with the times. Growing up. Yet also going back to its roots, sort of.

In a couple of years, the iconic cars zipping around our streets will be a little different, both aesthetically and mechanically. From 2018, all of London’s black cabs will be electric, as well as becoming more spacious and modern, with each featuring Wi-Fi, a glass roof and a snazzy new aluminium body.

Little do many people know that this won’t be the first time we’ve had electric black cabs on the streets. More on that further down the page, but I’ll tell you that the first attempt didn’t go well. At all.

The Beginning

London’s long relationship with the cab kicked off back in the 17th century, around the time Samuel Pepys and Elizabeth I were born, with the creation of the Hackney coach. Its name is believed to come from the French word ‘hacquenée’, which is essentially a horse for hire. As such, Hackney coaches were simple four-wheeled carts dragged along by our hoofed friends. In the 1630s, a rich git called Captain John Baily put his four vehicles to work on the Strand, thereby creating the first taxi rank.

Two Wheels

The original coach was so good that it remained unchanged for around 200 years. In the 1820s, the French decided to get rid of a couple of wheels and introduced a new take on the Hackney coach, called the cabriolet. That’s also where we get the word ‘cab’ from. Shortly after, in 1834, Joseph Hanson designed the hansom cab, a two-wheeled, horse-drawn cart with a low centre of gravity. It quickly became popular, as it was fast and stable, especially when turning.

Clean But Dangerous

Astonishingly, our first flirtations with electric taxis, known back then as Berseys, came before 1900. They were dreadful, but still. Walter C Bersey, the manager of the London Electrical Cab Company, rolled them out in 1897, and they were soon nicknamed Hummingbirds due to the sound they made. Unfortunately, they were expensive and unreliable, leading to numerous road accidents. In 1900, everyone lost patience and the Hummingbird hummed no more.

Petrol (and More French Influence)

Our Gallic friends were seriously helpful in terms of transport. The French-built Prunel became the first petrol-powered cab to hit the streets of London when it was introduced in 1903. It looked a lot like Brum (you remember), and provided a springboard for a range of British manufacturers, including Herald and Simplex.

Austin’s Dominance

As motor vehicles started to gain traction, the first world war broke out, putting a temporary end to major new developments. However, Austin Motor Company came to the fore in its aftermath, dominating the cab scene with the monstrous 12/4 ‘High Lot’ from 1930 onwards, amid tough competition from Beardmore's Mk3. The second world war was subsequently fought, and Austin managed to ride out the lean years. It remained London's big cheese as the fighting stopped and Beardmore folded, going on to strengthen its position at the top.

Austin created the petrol-powered FX3 in 1948, but soon replaced its engine with a diesel-running one, due to running costs. A decade later, the firm gave birth to the FX4, which was an unbelievable success story. It remained in production until 1997, and is the vehicle many of us picture when we think of a black cab. A genuine icon.

The Wheelchair Race

The FX4, of course, didn’t go unchallenged during its 39-year period of supremacy. In the 1980s and ‘90s, it faced competition from a number of rivals, the most pressing of which came from the MCW Metrocab.

The Metrocab, first cooked up in the ‘70s, came out in 1987. Though it was undeniably hideous, it had one big advantage over Austin’s cab. It was wheelchair-friendly and, as such, prompted a major FX4 redesign. Austin's famous old cab was updated in 1989, with the new, wheelchair-accessible model named the Fairway.

Change in the Air

With the '90s came a number of huge changes. As Austin experienced tough times, Mercedes saw an opportunity to seize a chunk of the cab market, and introduced the Vito, a six-passenger beast with power sockets, which quickly became a favourite among business travellers.

Austin vanished around the same time, and the FX4 went the same way in 1997. The rights to its design were passed to London Taxis International, which went on to create the TX1. The new cab combined the much-loved design of the FX4 with advances in usability, making it an instant hit. It was followed by the TX2 and TX4, which is the black cab most of us use today.

The Future

London Taxis International became the London Taxi Company, which in turn was gobbled up by Chinese firm Geely. It's gearing up for the 2017 release of the TX5 (pictured up top), the electric, six-seat cab of London's future. Other than the change in management, the switch to clean energy and the redesign, it's pretty much as you were.

The black cab, of course, is now facing a very real threat from Uber, which offers a similar service but with lower fares and a slick bookings and payments system. Though the black cab's dominance is certainly being threatened by apps, it's being given new customer avenues through them too, with the likes of Kabbee. The battles that play out over the next few years will be fascinating to watch.

Images: Tony, Kevin Lane, CasketCoach, Ian Press via Flickr, DRS

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