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London - The entire production line has stopped mid-flow as if someone has pressed a giant pause button.
Scattered tools and wrenches bear witness to half-finished jobs that simply stopped on the afternoon of October 30. For that was the sorry moment when the company that makes one of the most famous vehicles in the world went into administration.
“It feels a bit like the Marie Celeste,” sighs Stephen Fitter, production manager for the London Taxi Company, surveying his dormant domain. “But I need only press one button and it could all get going again in an instant.”
The company has shed half of the 300-strong workforce since going into administration following a series of financial and technical problems. But if no new owner can be found, then what?
At one end of the dimly-lit production line, a pristine new vehicle is virtually ready to hit the streets. At the other, basic bits of bodywork are waiting to be assembled. Even the bare shells are unmistakable.
For this Coventry factory is where they make, or used to make, an automotive legend. Show anyone from Mali to Manchuria a picture of one of these cars and they will be able to say two things about it – it is a taxi and it comes from London.
No matter that the TX4 hails from the West Midlands and is to be found in cities all over Britain and, indeed, the world. It is inextricably associated with one metropolis.
The modern black cab dates back to the FX3 which came trundling off the Austin production line just after World War II. It was succeeded by the four-door FX4 in 1958, the classic design that survives to this day.
The manufacturer may have changed hands several times and the vehicle has gone through numerous redesigns and new editions. But today’s TX4 has that same sturdy posture and those same jaunty curves as its ancestor, if with better heating and a smoother ride.
Just as they have a timeless quality, so black cabs are entirely classless. Everyone uses them. The King of Tonga has a personalised model with leather seats, a drinks cabinet and a set of engraved Brierley Hill crystal. Celebrity owners, including actor Stephen Fry and the late Sir Laurence Olivier, came to love the anonymity and practicality of having one’s own cab.
The black cab appeared in the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies. It has acquired its own mythology. Some stories are utter rubbish, like a fabled law requiring every cab driver to keep a bale of hay in the back. But some are rooted in fact.
The dimensions of the London taxi date back to a set of 1906 Conditions of Fitness which stipulated that every cab should be tall enough to accommodate a man in a top hat and long enough to seat two people opposite each other without their knees touching.
Looking at a bare chassis awaiting its bodywork, I realise just how big the black cab really is. In its skeletal form, it could be a small truck. In 1906, it also had to be able to circumnavigate the tiny roundabout outside London’s Savoy Hotel at one go. Today, a London taxi must still have a turning circle of 8.5m.
Not that it was called a “taxi” then. It was only after the introduction of the “taximeter” – which calculates your fare – to the “motor cab” in 1907 that the word evolved.
Those early rules also decreed there had to be a partition separating driver and passengers, to stop drunks from grabbing the wheel.
Over the years, meddlers and modernisers have tried to tinker with these arcane rules, but they remain in place because they work.
LTC enjoys an enormous market share, accounting for about 80 percent of London’s 22 000 black cabs.
Just six years ago, LTC’s future looked rosy as its parent company, Manganese Bronze, was announcing grand plans and a joint partnership with a Chinese supplier.
But in 2008, a technical fault affecting thousands of cabs was coupled with the credit crunch. More recently, a new IT system mislaid millions in company money. And in October, a fault appeared in a new Chinese-built steering component. More than 500 new cabs had to be impounded while another 455, in service, were recalled.
Had Manganese Bronze been a giant like Jaguar or Ford, it might have weathered the storm. But in the automotive world, it is a pixie.
LTC has no robotic machines. All its vehicles are assembled manually. So when the money ran out in October, administrators PwC were called in to salvage what they could.
They hope to find a new buyer. But their priority has been to find a swift solution to the steering problem, secure new funding and then repair every cab with the faulty part. That process will be finished by mid-December.
But the problem is much wider. New rules mean no cab is allowed to work in London for more than 15 years (hence you will find elderly ex-London cabs in the regions).
So, day after day, cabs are coming up for retirement and drivers are asking themselves: do they buy a Mercedes or wait in the hope that someone will start making traditional cabs again? – Daily Mail