Hailing a piece of history

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The London Black Cab may have been an attraction to visitors from places like America, but the age of taxi-appeal for vintage car enthusiasts has long gone.

I remember how, in the late 1920s, I used to cajole my mother, when we wanted a taxi to get home to SW London from the West End for instance, into waiting until a make I had not previously experienced went to the head of the rank. This could involve a long time hanging about, because there were usually many Unics ahead of what I wanted to ride in.

There was quite a choice: a few very old two-cylinder Renaults were said to still ply for hire, but there my luck was out. But with patience, I could add Austin, Hayes, Citroën, Beardmore and Belsize to my list, or settle for a much newer Morris if my parent became impatient We avoided the new-fangled W & G Yellow cabs, however.

Taxis were fun then, different from a vintage car due to the great many strict regulations about dimensions, including wheelbase and ground clearance (the latter, at 7.5in, high enough, in theory, to save any pedestrian careless enough to fall under the vehicle). The driver had to be exposed sufficiently to see to drive properly as the Carriage Inspectors of the Metropolitan Police saw fit and, to avoid adding, to London’s increasing traffic-congestion, the turning-circle had to be under 25ft. There had to be a flat space beside the driver for passengers’ trunks. Home Office regulations about fire extinguishers alone ran to some 50 items.

All of which made manufacturers’ conversions from private-car chassis very expensive. So, luckily, old taxis survived, although they had to pass annually the 52 stiff ‘Conditions of Fitness’ test of the Commissioner of police at Scotland Yard.

The drivers also had to pass the intense ‘Knowledge of London’ test before they could earn a living in their costly cabs, assuming that they passed their own driving tests at the ages of 50 and 55. As the older taxis became less frequent I had to be content to go home in one of the new long-wheelbase Unics, luxury Citroëns, or in a Hyper Beardmore.

The first book about cabs, Taxi!, was by Anthony Armstrong, Punch’s celebrated editor, in 1930; it took him nine months to write and earned him only £32. Two more came later, a superficial one by cab driver Maurice Levinson and the very technical one by G N ‘Encyclopedia’ Georgano.

In older times cabbies had their own magazine, The Steering Wheel, and today Taxi Globe.

I recall their big Kennington depot and that W Bentley managed to keep a fleet of two-cylinder Unics on the road for the National Motor Cab Company, circa 1910.

In 1928, a taxi appeared in the play No 77 Park Lane, and years later my friend Tom Lush had a pre-1914 Unic which performed in London in Shaw’s Pygmalion. The snag was that it disliked starting on its meagre supply of cotton-wool soaked in petrol, so Tom was summoned every night to appease it, or if that failed, to help push it from the wings.

The Metropolitan Police rules did not apply to provincial taxis, so many country towns provided a feast of old cars used as taxis. I remember a fine selection of aged examples, some surely of Edwardian age, which you encountered after emerging from the subterranean bowels of Weybridge station. Parked round the corner on the lane one took to get into Brooklands by the tunnel beneath the Members banking, they must have been there into the early 1930s, but I was too anxious to see the racing to list them.

At the time when WO was taxi-minded, Londoners could have hailed a Wolseley, Charron, Fiat or Darracq cab and, a little later, a Napier, Vinot, Argyll or Panhard. Long gone, alas!

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