Perhaps the most famous incarnation of this highly flexible but somewhat expensive mode of public transport is the Austin FX4 on 1958, a car that took the beautiful crisp lines of the old world car design, and married them with the space and practicality of a modern day Taxi cab.
The Austin FX4 was designed by Austin in collaboration with London Taxi dealer Mann & Overton to replace the 10 year old Austin FX3. The FX3 of 1948, although a very novel little car, was sadly a very much dated design, and was a mite inconvenient, largely due to the very large gap where the passenger door should have been, but was instead used for securing large cases, making journeys very draughty and cold for the driver! As such, the London Taxi companies desired a car that would be much more modern (comparatively) in design, but could also have enough space to carry large items of luggage without the Cab Driver suffering numerous bouts of Pneumonia en-route! The design for this car was coined by Austin designer Eric Bailey, and bodies were assembled by the Coventry based coachbuilder Carbodies. Power was derived from an original 2,178cc Austin diesel engine with a Borg-Warner automatic transmission, but this was altered in 1962 to a 2,199cc petrol engine. The car also had the novel feature of originally being fitted with indicators mounted on either side of the roof, being dubbed affectionately as ‘Bunny Ears’. These were later moved to the more conventional position, and taillight clusters were carried over from the Austin 1300.
The first taxi to be delivered was in July 1958, and after extreme tests were carried out at York Way Motors, the car was officially launched at the Commercial Motor Exhibition later that year. The car was an immediate critical success, being praised for the huge amounts of internal space for both passengers and baggage, combined with its almost legendary tight turning circle so that it can negotiate those narrow and sharp streets not originally built for cars! Very soon the car had become a symbol of London, and both the public of Britain and the world could instantly recognise the London Black Cab as a piece of British culture. So much so that many other countries bought their own, largely those in the Commonwealth or former colonies of the British Empire.
However, trouble came-a-brewin’ in 1968 when Austin was merged to form British Leyland. At first the production of the FX4 was undaunted by this, as the cars were built at the Carbodies factory and thus were immune to the industrial ransacking that BL was accomplishing, but there were troubles at home. Carbodies was a subsidiary of BSA, or Birmingham Small Arms, an industrial combine of weapons manufacturing companies and small car/motorbike builders. In early 1973, the worst recession since the war struck and BSA began to suffer heavily financially, resulting in near bankruptcy of both it and its subsidiaries, including Carbodies. Salvation thankfully arrived in the form of the Manganese Bronze Holdings, who bought BSA and subsequently ended all of their other production apart from their most profitable part, the construction of the FX4.
The car had survived the darkest years of the company, and with a few minor updates to the design were incorporated following the rescue. New moulded rubber overrriders were added, burst-proof door locks and push-button door handles were installed to make the car easier to access. During the restructuring of British Leyland by new Chief Michael Edwardes, Austin engines were no longer available on the British Market, being outsourced instead to India, the result being that the FX4 was fitted instead with engines from the Land Rover Series, a 2,286cc diesel. Some after-market customers would later opt for Mazda engines instead, seeing as reliability for Land Rover at that point wasn’t its best. In 1982, Carbodies took the bold step of buying up the intellectual rights to the FX4 design, after British Leyland began to phase out the Austin badge. Carbodies was eventually named London Taxi’s International in 1984 after merging the company with Mann & Overton. The result was an upgraded Land Rover engine, and some other tweaked versions including the FX4W, built for Wheelchair access, and the FX4S, a totally rebuilt design incorporating all the modern features of contemporary cars such as Power Steering and a redesigned dashboard to replace analogue push-button layouts that dated back to the mid-1950’s.
The biggest change however came in 1989 when the FX4 was replaced by the LTI Fairway, another major upgrade on the original design making all models available for Wheelchair access, and replacing the Land Rover engine with a much more reliable Nissan TD27 diesel. The Fairways have often been considered the best of the FX4 designs, being quick, reliable, spacious and comfortable, and international exports rocketed skyward!
By the 1990’s however the design was starting to look very tired, and 39 years after the first ones rolled off the production line, the FX4 and its Fairway successor were axed on the 1st October, 1997, with the final car of 75,000 vehicles registered R1 PFX (RIP FX) being donated to the Motoring Museum at Beaulieu. The direct replacement of the FX4 and Fairway was the LTI TXI, a car that continues to take on the beautiful FX4 styling that was right from day one, although with some modifications. In fact all of the taxi’s since the iconic FX4 have followed the same trend, even the new electric MetroCab that is making its way onto the streets of London.
Today the FX4 continues to be a cultural icon of Great Britain, one of the points of interest of London, and the car that started the Black Cab trend. Name any film or TV show shot in the UK and chances are one will show up in the background. Although many of these cabs have been retired as their Nissan engines don’t comply with the 2006 Euro 3 Emission Rules, a large number remain in the humble service of family cars, their spacious interiors and comfortable seats making for the perfect road trip. Stephen Fry uses one, and takes it abroad with him, whilst Richard Hammond on Top Gear raced it against other taxi’s from across the world, going as slow as hell and having to take a few shortcuts mind you, but at least it wasn’t flipped like the German Merc or torn in half like the Russian Limo!