The wipers are rather ineffectively keeping the drizzle from a wedge on the windshield as my garrulous taxi driver – having recognized a Canadian twang to my accent – recounts a recent pilgrimage to Ypres and quizzes me on Passchendaele. Meanwhile, I’m wondering where the heck I am. I’ve driven between these two points more than a dozen times, lived in the neighbourhood for five years and I couldn’t even tell you what direction we’re headed.
So it’s pretty much my average taxi journey. London cab drivers, who study the city landscape for three years to earn their licence, are remarkably adept at shortcuts. Only today is extra remarkable, as I’m being ferried in one of the last FX4 black cabs on the road – by the guy who owns it, Alex Kaye, whose family has operated a fleet since 1954. My ride isn’t about getting to a particular destination: It’s more a trip down memory lane.
The iconic FX4 took its first spin with three doors (the front passenger side was open for sliding in luggage) built-in ashtrays and a prescient swinging nickname – “Austin.” The classic bulbous shape carried on through the 1980s, when the car was rebranded the “Fairway” and given a steadfast Nissan diesel engine that, according to cabbie lore, could chug on for 1.127 million kilometres. When Daniel Craig pulled up to Buckingham Palace in a skit for the Olympics opening ceremony this summer, he did it in a Fairway. Just as the Spice Girls danced on five Fairways to close the Games.
“It’s drafty, a bit uncomfortable, but it’s a good, practical vehicle,” is the worst thing Kaye can say about the car, as he turns into another street I’m sure I’ve never laid eyes on.
But the mayor’s office has stopped licensing the Fairway, and the last one will be pulled off the road sometime this winter after its license expires.
The replacement TX-series cabs are more fuel efficient, in keeping with increasingly rigorous European Union standards. They have an extra passenger seat up front, adaptable child boosters, climate control, TV screens and credit-card terminals.
But they’re just not the same. For one thing, they’re not black, at least not all of them. A few years back the mayor relaxed the colour regulations, meaning cabbies can have their car painted hot pink or silver, or have the entire livery branded with advertising. (“Bacardi cab” doesn’t have the same ring to it.)
So why don’t they issue new cars with the same classic look?
“Why not keep the hansom cab?” says Kaye with a fatalistic sigh. “Nothing lasts forever, does it.”
It’s an attitude conservative Londoners have learned to adopt more belatedly and reluctantly than most, with the red postboxes and phone booths almost as common in museums as on the street.
After we’ve pulled up to his garage, Kaye shows albums filled with glamour shots of horse-drawn cabs, including the turn-of-the-century “Growler” (a hansom cab with a trap door in the roof so the driver could converse with his fares). “The best cabs ever made,” says Kaye, before joking: “They had some emissions, yes, just not the diesel kind.” Barrump bump chhh.
His grandfather and great uncles, pictured in framed portraits on the walls, drove some of the first motorized vehicles in the 1920s and ’30s.
In Kaye’s opinion, things started turning in 2000 when licensing changed hands. The Metropolitan Police, who had controlled it since 1850, ceded licensing to the mayor, who started imposing emissions regulations to be more green (and keep up with the EU).
“At least with the police, you knew where you stood with them,” Kaye says. “They wouldn’t allow heating in the driver’s area, in case he fell asleep, and they wouldn’t let you have music playing. But they wouldn’t tell you how long you could keep your own car.”
Except for that one FX4, today Kaye’s entire fleet of 100 is made up of the TX series, purpose-built “good, practical vehicles” – like the FX4, just not as photogenic. He hasn’t gone in for the new generation of Mercedes “people carriers,” retrofitted with taxi trappings, such as partitions and intercoms.
“Sure, I’ve driven them,” he says.
What are they like?
“Like driving a van,” he says with a shrug.
Then he gives it the worst condemnation of all: “Did you know, now they’ve even got them in New York.”