There are certain features of London’s transportation network that seem emblematic not merely of modes of travel, the simple passage from A to B, but of the city itself: the blood-red buses, the warm dusty air of its underground stations, the flicker of bicycle wheels through wet streets. And prince among them stands the black cab, all dark beetly curves and illuminated orange crown, a symbol of quiet dependability and polished tradition, the vehicular equivalent of a well-made brogue.
But this week it appears the future of the black cab is under threat, after the vehicle’s manufacturer, the Coventry-based Manganese Bronze, announced that it was going into administration. The company, which has been making black cabs since 1948, has not turned a profit since 2007, and last-minute discussions with its largest shareholders have failed to secure any kind of bailout.
Should no solution to Manganese Bronze’s financial woes be found, it will mark the end of a long and majestic era: the first hackney carriages were horse-drawn vehicles introduced in the 17th century, and officially regulated in 1654. Motorised versions arrived in the early 20th century, and today some 21,000 licensed black cabs spill out across the city’s streets, congregating by her railway stations, hotels, airports and theatres.
There has always been something pleasingly dignified about the black cab – it travels with the air of a liveried gentleman, a faithful manservant to be summoned discreetly – no bawdy whistling in the street, no flailing of limbs, only the crisp raising of an arm, the muttering of a destination through an open window.
By comparison, the mustardy smear of the New York cabs seems rather vulgar, and the common-or-garden private hire minicabs rather workaday. The cab is a much-coveted creation – famous owners include Kate Moss, Bez from the Happy Mondays and Yvette Fielding, and in recent years it has even played host to a series of music performances, named Black Cab Sessions. Much of this is thanks to its distinctive design – from the early years of the Beardmore Marks I to VII and on to the Austin FX3, throughto the TX4 of today, the black cab has been distinguished by its peculiar spaciousness – none of the scrunch and squeeze of a regular automobile, but lofty roof and acres of leg-space in which to contemplate mirror, intercom and driver’s head beyond the sliding glass partition.
Black cab drivers are of course the stuff of legend – famed not only for their familiarity with the city’s streets (a wisdom called The Knowledge, gathered over the course of two to four years’ study) but also for the quality of their conversation. In the 12 years I have lived in London, I have encountered cab drivers ranging from furious racists to theoretical physicists, aspiring screenwriters to accomplished musicians. I have sat behind drivers who have railed at the football commentary, the traffic, the Olympic lanes, who have shaken fists at cyclists, shown love letters and snaps of newborn daughters, turned up the love songs on the radio and sung along, full-lunged and lusty.
And if you are to fall in love with this raucous, rattling city, I swear there is no sweeter way than sailing through its streets in the back of a black cab, west giving way to east, windows rolled down to let in the drizzly air, in the knowledge that in this black automobile, all hums and clicks and shudders, you are more than just a passenger, a fare, but somehow a part of London itself.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010