The Hackney Carriage
The first black taxi in London was the hackney coach in the 17th Century. The name comes from hacquenée, the French term for a general-purpose horse. It literally means “ambling nag”.
In 1625 there were as few as 20 available for hire, operating out of inn yards. In 1636, the owner of four hackney coaches brought them into the Strand outside the Maypole Inn, and the first taxi rank had appeared. A tariff was established for various parts of London, and his drivers wore a livery, so they would be easily recognisable. ‘Hackney Carriage’ is still the official term used to describe taxis.
After the Civil War , in 1654 Oliver Cromwell set up the Fellowship of Master Hackney Carriages by Act of Parliament, and taxi driving became a profession. This makes the licensed taxi trade the oldest regulated public transport system in the world.
The Hansom Cab
In 1834, Joseph Hanson designed and patented the hansom cab. It was a two-wheeled horse-drawn cart that was designed to combine speed with safety, with a low centre of gravity for safe cornering. It replaced the four-wheeled hackney carriage as a vehicle for hire.
There are two versions of the taximeter story. One story is that the taximeter was invented by a German aristocrat, the Baron von Thurn und Taxis. There actually is a German aristocratic family by the name of Thurn und Taxis, and they set up the first postal system in Europe.
The other version of the taximeter story (and the more documented one) is that it was invented by Wilhelm Bruhn (not a Baron) in 1891, and that the word comes from the German word taxe meaning charge or levy.
Taximeters were originally mechanical. With the introduction of this clockwork mechanism to measure fares, the name of the vehicles became taxicab. Taximeters were originally mounted outside the cab, above the driver’s side front wheel. Meters were soon relocated inside the taxi, and in the 1980s electronic meters were introduced, doing away with the once-familiar ticking sound of the meter’s timing mechanism.
London’s Motorised Cabs
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. They were introduced in 1897.
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.
In 1929 Mann and Overton, the biggest taxi dealership, sponsored Austin to create a new and much more cost-effective cab which immediately dominated the market.
In 1947 a new Austin, the FX3, appeared on the market. The design of the FX3 is still considered to be the look of the traditional London taxi.
In 1958, the FX4 appeared. It became the best-known taxi in history over its long life. It remained in continuous production with various modifications, with five different engines, for 39 years.
In 1972, a prototype, called the Metrocab, was introduced. However, it failed to go into production until 1987.
Next came the Fairway. In 1989, the FX4 was revised to create the Fairway, including a fully wheelchair-accessible interior. Sadly, the last Fairways will be taken out of service in 2012. In spite of being upgraded to Euro 3 emission standards, the Fairway will disappear from London streets as a hire vehicle. Happily, many will still be kept by vintage taxi enthusiasts. You can even buy and run a Fairway as a family car!
From the mid 1990s, Mercedes broke into the London taxi market with the Mercedes Vito. With room for 6 passengers and two 12v power points, the Vito is popular for executive travel.
In 1997, the TX1 was possibly the biggest single step forward in the history of London Taxis. The design combined the unmistakable silhouette of the traditional taxi with huge advances in usability and refinement.
In 2002, the TXII emerged onto London streets.
And finally, in 2006, the TX4 is the latest taxi model to be approved for use as a Licensed London Taxi Cab.
Zero Emissions Taxis
Intelligent Energy has unveiled a full performance, zero-emissions Fuel Cell Hybrid London taxi.
While the taxi looks and drives like an iconic London black cab, the Fuel Cell Black Cab is powered by an Intelligent Energy hydrogen fuel cell system hybridised with lithium polymer batteries; allowing the vehicle to operate for a full day without the need for refuelling. Capable of achieving a top speed of over 80 mph, it has a range of more than 250 miles on a full tank of hydrogen, refuels in about 5 minutes and produces no emissions other than water vapour.
A satellite navigated, driverless taxi? Paul Piliste has conceptualized the OPTI, an ecofriendly driverless taxi for London, which could hit the street with sheer style and smartness in 2025.
Would you feel safe in one of these driverless taxis? Or would you still prefer the sound of that Cockney voice asking “Where to, mate?”