Mini-Cabs are now a colourful part of the London scene and because I admire anyone who is prepared to “have a go” in a worthy cause, I arranged an interview with Mr. Michael Gotla, Managing Director of Welbeck Motors Ltd., who besides being a very large hire-car firm, used-car dealers and Ford agents, operate London’s Mini-Cabs.
It might be thought that Mini-Cabs have no place in Motor Sport but if you think deeply enough about them and the adventurous task of launching 200 of them on London’s streets, you will see that they can be regarded as a form of motoring sport.
How Mr. Gotla built up the vast business of Welbeck Motors Ltd., building Welbeck House in Crawford Street, W.1, as a new showroom and office block, with nearby the Mini-Cab centre comprising control room, service station, and garage, with his luxury flat above it, all in the space of fifteen years, is a truly romantic story. But I was not concerned with the legal, political and administrative aspects of this new venture when I met this tall, dark, slightly greying, very restless and gently forthright man who has created so much from so little. I was more interested in details of the cabs themselves.
“Why,” I asked, “did you choose French cars?” I was told that B.M.C. (who make real taxi-cabs) were not in the least interested in Mr. Gotla’s project and that Ford couldn’t decide whether or not they wanted to help. But it is no secret that Renault were willing to supply Dauphines at a substantially reduced price – Welbeck collect them on their own two-tier transporter.
They use 4-speed versions because hire-car experience has taught them that these are more stable than the 3-speed cars (the reason was outlined in Motor Sport‘s last Dauphine road-test) – not that high-speed cornering is involved, of course. Welbeck do their own conversion to 12-volt electrics, to enable the Pye two-way radio sets to work. These sets are serviced by Welbeck, who now operate the largest private radio station in Europe, with aerials at Crystal Palace and Forest Hill, but not above the administrative building.
The first purchase was 200 Dauphines, the 4-door body of which is highly suitable to taxi work. The meter is placed near the floor in the front compartment, easily seen but not obstructive to the front passenger’s feet. Luggage goes into the front boot but roof racks are not fitted.
The fare is 1s. a mile, waiting costs 7s. 6d. an hour and, with three passengers, the cost can undercut suburban train fares. The Mini-Cabs operate over any distance – London to Scotland if you wish – and runs of less than five miles are left to larger taxis.
The Dauphines are on normal Michelin tyres but when these wear out they will be replaced by Michelin “X ” which, it is expected, will last the life of the car. They are run exclusively on National Benzole petrol and Energol 30 oil. As to servicing, this is done by Welbeck, the opportunity being taken of greasing, changing the oil, etc., when a Mini-Cab comes in for attention to minor body damage or freshening up of the advertisements it carries (which Welbeck fit themselves), rather than keeping to definite servicing routines.
In contrast to the opposition from the Taxi Trade and from the police (on the day I called, exactly a month after the Mini-Cabs went into orbit, Mr. Gotla was handed a weighty load of parking summonses!), the G.P.O. has been extremely helpful over the radio installation.
Mr. Gotla considers that another two months are needed before his ambitious public service runs absolutely smoothly and Welbeck is as well-known as any great brand name. Because 24-hour operation of each Mini-Cab is essential to economical functioning at the low fares charged, overloading at peak hours cannot be eased by increasing the number of Dauphines or too many would be expensively idle during the dark hours. It is, however, hoped to increase the fleet at the rate of five every day. Shortage of drivers is another problem and if any keen reader wants such a job he or she is invited to ‘phone Welbeck 4440 for details of such employment. Casual student labour or “holiday-with-pay” types are not wanted, and two years’ driving in London without an accident is a stipulation, and there is a test to pass, but reimbursement is on the basis of a percentage of fares taken, tips being retained. It could be as profitable as becoming a motoring journalist! You also call Welbeck 4440 to call a cab, or stop one in the street, whose driver will radio your order.
Mr. Gotla is the most enthusiastic person I’ve met for a long time. A motoring enthusiast, he used to drive a Volkswagen in London, now replaced by a Triumph Herald 1200 convertible, which he regards as a very good car indeed. For faster motoring he has an Aston Martin, in which to drive to Rustington, where he keeps his boat. Polite to a degree to his staff, all of whom seem well content to work for this ingenious and ambitious organisation, this son of an Indian doctor, who is a bachelor incidentally, is full of ideas. For instance, back at Welbeck House I was confronted by a 1919 model-T Ford tourer, which, brought in in a poor condition, has been rebuilt for sale by the firm’s apprentices.
Michael Gotla, who has hit the headlines, lives for Mini-Cabs, and probably dreams about them. But has he, I wonder, read the only worthwhile book on the subject, “Taxi,” by Anthony Armstrong, late of Punch? Come to think of it, it’s not in my library. Has anyone a copy to spare?