So often the chariot by which we make our way home after a night out with friends, or the vehicle used to get us to the airport in good time and refreshed before a long flight, the humble taxicab (or ‘taxi’, for short) is something of a British institution.
Sure, England isn’t the only country that has cars and vans waiting on stand-by for planned and impromptu trips, but it does offer possibly the most eclectic history of taxis.
In this blog, we’re going to take a drive down memory lane and see how taxis rose from their humble beginnings to the road masters of today.
The birth of the cab
England’s long relationship with the taxicab began way back in the 17th century. At around the time Samuel Pepys and Elizabeth I were born, the Hackney Coach was invented and quickly made its way onto the capital’s streets.
The name is thought to be derived from the French word ‘hacquenée’, which simply means ‘horse for hire’. And that’s exactly what the Hackney Coach was – a four-wheeled cart that was dragged along by a horse. Simple, but effective.
Although typically a solitary business venture, the first taxi rank was created by a chap called Captain John Baily, who used his considerable wealth to put four of the vehicles to work on the Strand.
From four to two wheels
The Hackney Coach design was deemed so effective that it survived for around 200 hundred years. That was until the French decided to get rid of two of the wheels in the 1820s, calling their new creations the ‘cabriolet’ (that’s where the term ‘cab’ comes from).
Not long after the invention of the original cab came a new version which featured a lower centre of gravity, making it faster and more stable in the corners. Designed by Jospeh Hanson, this new public carriage quickly became very popular indeed.
A brief flirtation with electric taxis
Believe it or not, the first electrically-powered taxi to hit UK roads was the ‘Bersey’ in 1897. Built by the London Electrical Cab Company, they were unfortunately highly expensive and very unreliable, leading to several road crashes.
The ‘Hummingbird’ as it was known due to the noise it made while running, quickly fell out of favour with cab drivers and the public before being ditched entirely in 1900.
The arrival of Austin
Following the end of the first World War, the Austin Motor Company leapt into the taxicab scene and made the biggest impact on the sector of the century.
In 1930, they created the huge 12/4 ‘High Lot’, which proved immensely successful and even survived the onslaught of the second World War. It was followed by the petrol-powered FX3 in 1948, which was soon replaced with a diesel variant, due to increased running costs.
Fast forward a decade, and Austin gave birth to the FX4 which remained in production until 1997, making it one of the most famous and long-standing cabs of all time. Indeed, if you think of a ‘black cab’ in England, the image of an FX4 will probably spring to mind.
The FX4 has since been replaced on the black cab scene by the ‘TX’ line, but the private cab economy continues to provide the most eclectic collection of cars and services.
Despite many local authorities controlling the type and even colour of vehicles allowed for private hire, commuters can still be assured of four (or two!) wheels that will get them unhindered to their intended destination.
What’s next? With app-powered journeys, cashless transactions and a new wave of electric vehicles on the horizon, the future for taxis is very bright – and exciting – indeed.