Stephen Fitter, production manager for the London Taxi Company sighed as he surveyed his dormant domain.
“It feels a bit like the Marie Celeste,’ he said. “But I only need to press one button and it could all get going again in an instant.”
The company has shed half of its 300-strong workforce since going into administration following a series of financial and technical problems. I have come to meet the core team who are now on standby to resume production. But if no new owner can be found, then what?
At one end of the dimly-lit production line, a pristine new vehicle is virtually ready to hit the streets. At the other, basic bits of bodywork are waiting to be assembled. But even the bare shells are unmistakeable.
For this Coventry factory is where they make - or used to make - an automotive legend. Show anyone, from Mali to Manchuria, a picture of one of these cars and they will be able to say two things about it - that it is a taxi and that it comes from London.
No matter that the TX4 (to give it its proper name) hails from the West Midlands and is to be found in cities all over Britain and, indeed, the world. It is inextricably associated with one city.
Along with Big Ben, Tower Bridge and the Guardsman in his bearskin, it is a much-loved icon that shrieks ‘London!’ Pick any guidebook to Britain’s capital, whatever the language, and you can bet it will carry a prominent picture of a black cab, as surely as the Paris edition will sport the Eiffel Tower and the Venetian a gondola.
The modern black cab dates back to something called the FX3 which began trundling off the Austin production line just after the Second World War (with just three doors and an open-air luggage well where one might have expected to find a front passenger seat).
It was succeeded by the four-door FX4 in 1958, the classic design which lives on to this day.
The manufacturer may have changed hands several times and the vehicle has gone through numerous redesigns and new editions. But today’s TX4 has that same sturdy posture and those same jaunty curves as its ancestor, albeit with better heating and a smoother ride.
Just as they have a timeless quality, so black cabs are entirely classless, too.
Anyone and everyone uses them.
The King of Tonga has a customised TX4 with leather seats, a drinks cabinet and a set of engraved Brierley Hill Crystal (his predecessor found that a London cab was the easiest mode of car transport when travelling with a sword).
Security firm Serco commissioned a customised fleet of blacked-out cabs for ferrying suspects and prisoners to and from court as unobtrusively as possible.
Until recently a London cab has served as the official limo of the Governor of the Falkland Islands. Celebrity owners, including actor Stephen Fry and the late Sir Laurence Olivier, came to love the anonymity and practicality of having one’s own cab.
During the Sixties, oil magnate Nubar Gulbenkian, ordered a London taxi with a Rolls-Royce engine and Victorian carriagework. When asked why, he explained: ‘Because it turns on a sixpence - whatever that is.’
CONDITIONS OF FITNESS
The black cab appeared in this year’s Olympic opening ceremony and was there again in the closing one, too. It has acquired its own mythology. Some stories are utter rubbish, like a fabled law requiring every cab driver to keep a bale of hay in the back.
Some, though, are firmly rooted in fact. To this day, the basic dimensions of the London taxi date back to a set of 1906 Conditions of Fitness which stipulated that every cab should be tall enough to accommodate a man in a top hat and long enough to seat two people opposite each other without their knees touching.
8.5-METRE TURNING CIRCLE
Looking at a bare chassis awaiting its bodywork, I realise just how big the black cab really is. In its skeletal form, it could be a small truck. Back in 1906, it also had to be capable of circumnavigating the tiny roundabout outside London’s Savoy Hotel at one go. Today, a London taxi must still have a turning circle of 8.5 metres.
Not that it was called a ‘taxi’ back then. As taxi historian Bill Munro pointed out, it was only after the introduction of the ‘taximeter’ - which calculates your fare - to the ‘motor cab’ in 1907 that the word evolved.
Those early rules also decreed there had to be a partition separating driver and passengers, mainly to stop drunks from grabbing the wheel.
“Public carriages are frequently used by persons who are more hilarious than wise, getting beside the driver and interfering with the mechanism,” noted the police chief in charge of the Public Carriage Office.
MEDDLERS AND MODERNISERS
Over the years, meddlers and modernisers have tried to tinker with these arcane rules, but they remain in place for the simple reason that they work.
Several car makers have tried to establish a foothold in the black cab market. Some failed to crack the 8.5-metre turning circle. Others produced designs which might politely be described as hideous or which failed to meet new emissions standards.
Most challenging of all are the sums: how do you develop a design which a) complies with all these regulations and b) sells enough models to recoup your investment in such a tiny market? And that is the problem that has brought the London Taxi Company to its knees.
LTC enjoys an enormous market share, accounting for some 80 percent of London’s 22 000 black cabs. The other licensed models are the Vito, a newish converted Mercedes van with sliding doors, and the Metrocab, a boxy old thing which is no longer in production (the Duke of Edinburgh still uses one - in ‘Edinburgh green’ - for travelling around London).
Nissan also plans to introduce a new minivan-style taxi with sliding doors and a sun roof in the next year or so, but the vast majority of cabbies prefer LTC’s classic creation.
At about £35 000 (R500 000), it is marginally cheaper than the Vito and, while it is less efficient, it can easily clock up a million kilometres. As Fitter pointed out: “Other taxis are just adapted vans. This one was designed for the job.”
Just six years ago, LTC’s future looked rosy as its parent company, Manganese Bronze, was announcing grand plans and a joint partnership with a Chinese supplier.
But things did not go according to plan. In 2008, a technical fault affecting thousands of cabs was coupled with the credit crunch. More recently, a new IT system mislaid several million pounds of company money. And finally, in October, a fault appeared in a new Chinese-built steering component. More than 500 new cabs had to be impounded while another 455, already in service, had to be recalled.
Had Manganese Bronze been a giant like Jaguar or Ford, it might have weathered the storm. But in the automotive world, it is a pixie.
Unlike the average car plant, LTC does not have a single robotic machine. All its vehicles are assembled manually by a team of highly-trained technicians. So when the money ran out in October, PriceWaterhouse Coopers were called in to salvage what they could.
In due course, they hope to find a new buyer.
But their priority has been to find a swift solution to the steering problem, secure new funding and then repair every cab with the faulty part. That process, now well under way, will be finished by mid-December.
In the meantime, owners of faulty cabs have either had to scrabble around for a rented vehicle or twiddle their thumbs. But the problem is much wider. New rules mean that no cab is allowed to work in London for more than 15 years (hence you will often find elderly ex-London cabs in the regions).
So, day after day, cabs are coming up for retirement and drivers are having to ask themselves a simple question: do they buy a Mercedes or wait in the hope that somebody will start making traditional cabs again?
“We need this sorted urgently.”
Bob Oddy, deputy general secretary of the London Taxi Drivers Association, said: “It’s a huge problem because the overwhelming number of drivers do prefer the traditional cab.
“Within two days of the news, you couldn’t borrow or hire a new cab anywhere - and it’s been like that ever since.”
He pointed out that half of ‘black’ cabs are no longer black. Some drivers like a tasteful shade of blue or bronze - or any one of the 21 shades on offer at LTC, including Sherwood Green (mandatory for Nottingham cabs) and pink.
Many drivers, too, enjoy the revenue from an all-over advertisement, known as a ‘livery’. But whatever the colour, there is no question which shape the public prefers.
The liquidators insist they are confident of finding a buyer.
Matthew Hammond, 42, the PwC partner in charge of turning things round, said: “This a dominant market leader with an iconic brand and a huge level of international goodwill.”
He claims to have some clients ready to order up to 500 new cabs each and says that production will resume once the latest glitch is sorted.
I do hope so. London is the poorer without the old hop-on/hop-off Routemaster bus and would be drearier still without its classic cab; the West Midlands can ill afford to lose yet another car maker, and I think it is safe to assume that no King of Tonga will ever want to be driven around in a Mercedes van. - Daily Mail