Some years ago, I drove a Mercedes-Benz diesel taxi from Yekaterinburg in Russia to Almaty in Kazakhstan, running up an impressive €2,800 ($3605 at today’s exchange rate) on the meter and adding a personal footnote to the company’s historic involvement with hacks for hire that stretches back more than a century.
Mercedes-Benz – which claims among its credits no less than the creation of the automobile itself – also makes a case for having built and sold the first internal-combustion-engined taxicab in 1897.
The decade following inventors Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler’s 1886 creation of the automobile was spent making it work better and figuring out what to do with it, besides selling them in small but pricey numbers to the rich as rolling novelties.
By the late 1890s, Benz had also motorized a bus and Daimler some trolley cars, a fire pump, some boats and even a balloon, but in 1897 somebody at Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschafft (Benz and Daimler wouldn’t become Mercedes-Benz for another couple of decades) had the bright idea of marketing its new “N” model as a taxi.
The first to take Daimler up on this novel idea was one Friedrich Greiner, who operated a haulage business and a fleet of horse-drawn cabs in Stuttgart. He ordered one of Daimler’s Victoria-style motorized carriages, powered by the latest twin-cylinder, eight-horsepower Daimler engine with four-speed belt drive (plus reverse). It had a top speed of 24 km/h and came with a folding landaulet top for the passenger compartment, fenders and solid rubber tires.
Greiner’s Daimler was also fitted with a taximeter, a mechanical device – invented in 1891 by a fellow German Wilhelm Bruhn – that calculated fares based on distance covered and waiting time.
What was likely the world’s first gasoline-engined cab cost Greiner a then-princely 5,530 Deutschmarks, which he promptly set out to recoup by hauling passengers an average of 70 kilometres a day, considerably further than you could convince a horse to haul a cab around. The return on investment must have been worthwhile as he ordered another half dozen by the end of the century.
His success didn’t go unnoticed. One of Greiner’s local competitors promptly ordered cabs from Benz & Cie, and Adolf Daimler (son of the founder) set up his own cab rank. According to a Mercedes-Benz history by Beverly R. Kimes, its uniformed and top-hatted drivers had a good time driving customers on the world’s first motorized “pub crawls” of Stuttgart gasthauses, into which they were invited for a pint.
Kimes also describes a publicity stunt in which a Daimler taxi competed against horse-drawn carriages in an eight-day tour from Vienna. The Daimler had its problems – including finding gasoline, then available only in small quantities from drug stores – but the horses lasted only four days before becoming lame.
By the end of the 19th century, motorized cab companies were proliferating around the world, employing a variety of vehicle makes and, by 1920, were a ubiquitous part of city life.
The history of hacks may go as far back as ancient Rome, with one source claiming a service existed that employed an early form of taximeter with balls that dropped with each rotation of the axle, and then were counted to determine the fare. What we know as taxis (derived from taximeter) were first recorded in the latter part of the 16th century, when one of Sir Walter Raleigh’s captains established a hackney coach company in London.
England passed its Hackney Carriage Act in 1635, the first effort to regulate what were coming to be known as “hackney hell carts” which fought over customers, and created accidents and congestion, not to mention “emissions.”
The name hackney (abbreviated to hack) is an anglicized version of the Norman French word “hacquenee,” meaning a horse for hire. Cab is short for cabriolet, and described a one-horse two-wheeler – a later version called a “hansom” shared London streets with big, four-wheeled “growlers.”
Similar vehicles were employed in most major cities until the arrival of gasoline and electric power in the late 1890s, with electrics initially more popular as they were silent, easy to operate, reliable and had adequate range for city use.
New York City had many electric cabs operating in 1897, one driven by Jacob German, who set the tone for future cabbie generations by becoming the recipient of the first speeding ticket in the United States. A year later, Henry Bliss became North America’s first taxi fatality when hit by a New York cab.
The first gasoline-powered cabs reportedly appeared in Paris in 1897, London in 1903 and New York in 1907.
Montreal was the first Canadian city with a formal taxi service, with Toronto following in 1833, when escaped slave Thornton Blackburn of Kentucky began a service using a four-passenger carriage named “The City.”
Cabs had perhaps their finest hour in 1914 when 10,000 French reserve troops were ferried to the first battle of the Marne in 600 Paris cabs. During the Second World War, British cabs served as ambulances and fire-fighting equipment.
A number of taxi manufacturers created vehicles designed for the trade, but few prospered as most operators found the products of local auto manufacturers met their needs. Checker had the longest run on this side of the Atlantic, a place the Vehicle Production Group hopes to take over with its MV-1. And Austin built Britain’s famed “Black Cabs” for decades, now a new design from London Taxis International.
Most cab companies still rely on standard gas- or diesel-powered vehicles, including SUVs and modified minivans. But Toyota’s Prius hybrid is a popular choice in some cities. And pure electrics such as Mitsubishi’s i-MiEV and Nissan’s Leaf are doing cab duty in Kumamoto and Tokyo, the cycle coming full circle back to the cab’s earliest motorized days.
The first taxi to wear the then-new Mercedes-Benz badge was the Porsche-designed 8/38 of 1927. But the model that began to create its taxi legend was the 260 D, the first diesel-engined production car that followed in 1936. Its descendants remain a top choice among European cabbies.
Back in 1897
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