The Black Cab: London's Quintessential Icon

No trip to London is complete without a ride in an iconic Black Cab. Fareeda Kanga explains why.

Jun 02, 2023 FAREEDA KANGA No Comments Like

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London. A city steeped in colourful history and breath-taking architecture, it boasts some of the World’s greatest museums, and is home to diverse cultures. All of this is what makes it one of the most famous and wondrous cities in the world. Plus, a city with myriad icons: The London Bus, Buckingham Palace, The Clock-Tower of Big Ben, The Tower of London, to name but a few. However, for Londoners and tourists as well, the definitive London icon is its much-loved black cab, an indispensable part of London’s public transport system (which includes the underground Tube system and the London Bus).

The London cab has some very special features, most notably its incredibly tight turning circle (or radius), defined as “the smallest circle within which a ship, motor vehicle, etc., can be turned round completely”. Like many British traditions, there is a rather quaint story here. London’s famous Savoy Hotel’s entrance -- Savoy Court -- has a rather small roundabout, forcing any vehicle attempting to navigate it, to per force have a small turning circle, not exceeding 8.535 m (28 ft). Compare this with 10.4-10.7 m (34-35 ft), the typical turning circle for a passenger car, and we get some idea of the London cab’s agile manoeuvrability. The Savoy Court figure eventually passed into a law mandating the maximum allowable turning circle for all London cabs. This being a huge advantage in traffic-jammed London, where tourists invariably hail a London cab on the opposite side of the road they intend to travel. Additionally, London cabs have particularly wide-opening rear doors to allow large-luggage access. And naturally, they are all wheelchair enabled. Not least of all, London cabs are the only cars that are allowed on lanes exclusive to the London Bus. Incidentally, all London cabs are black. This is because, after the Second World War, they were all sold in black. And black became the standard. There are currently around 21,000 black cabs in London.

An integral part of any car is the driver, of course. However, the London cab driver is, by any standards, a unique individual. London’s 25,000 streets with its 320 routes are the most congested in the world (for any major city). In fact, INRIX, the Traffic information supplier which publishes an annual “Global Traffic Scorecard” (which includes global congestion), says, in its 2022 report, that London has lost a colossal 156 hours to traffic. This means that London drivers, on an average, are stationary for 156 hours! And, despite that, we have the resolute London cab driver apart from navigating these streets with consummate ease, being able to mentally calculate the quickest route to their destinations. To make matters worse, is the London one-way system, a drivers’ nightmare. Impossible? Well, not really.

These drivers have to pass a test called “The Knowledge”, evaluating and appraising their ability to remember London’s streets, monuments, important buildings, tourist attractions, and notable hotels and restaurants. To even attempt “The Knowledge” the drivers spend three to four years driving around the city on scooters and mopeds, valiantly trying to memorise central London within a 6-mile (10-km) radius of Charing Cross Station (Charing Cross itself being the so-called “centre of London” the point wherefrom all distances from London are measured). The reason being, this distance limit is the very basis of the drivers training. For example, let’s take a couple of tourists who want a meal at Roka, the famous Japanese restaurant. And let’s say that they don’t know Roka’s address: 30, North Audley Street, Mayfair. What do they do? Well, they’d simply jump into a cab and say: “the Roka restaurant, please”. And they’d unerringly be deposited there as fast as is humanly possible.

Interestingly, neuroscientists are fascinated with the brain development of the London cab driver. They say it is stimulated by the almost superhuman demands and rigours of studying for, and passing, “The Knowledge” exam (only 50% of the examinees are successful). Their research has revealed that these drivers have two veritably unique brain features. Firstly, their hippocampus, that part of the brain critical for memory development and spatial recognition and manoeuvring, is larger than average. Secondly, the longer one is a driver, the larger the hippocampus.

The best part, in my opinion of riding in a London cab is the interaction with the driver. I remember years ago, when the world was a smaller and less connected place, explaining to one cabbie how on the pound to rupee conversion he could easily visit India and fulfil his lifelong dream of seeing the Taj Mahal with his wife. Another time I learnt about the ins and outs of Kensington Palace as the previous passenger was Princess Michael of Kent on her way for a Wimbledon rehearsal.  

The London cab passed through several “avatars” to reach its present iconic design. It all originated with “Mann and Overton” a taxi dealership, who, in 1958, commissioned a car called the “FX4” from “Austin and Car bodies”, a company that had designed some of Britain’s most famous cars. The legendary Austin FX4 lasted for 39 years! An incredible feat, considering the rapid developments in the motoring industry. Finally, in 1997, the FX4 was retired and replaced by the “Fairway”. And thereafter came the “TX1”. The designer of the TX1, shrewdly retained the design of its predecessors, thereby embodying the iconic integrity that makes the London Cab so instantly recognisable. In fact, the London Cab is a “celebrity desired by celebrities”. Famous names such as Stephen Fry, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Stanley Kubrick, and Lord Laurence Olivier are among a few of its proud owners. There’s even one in a private collection in Mumbai! The TX1 morphed into the TX2 and jumped straight to the current TX4, without an intervening TX3. British tradition having its say, yet again. The reason? The number 4 was, of course, carried by its famous “grandfather”, the Austin FX4. A lesser reason: signifying the engine’s compliance with the “Euro 4” norms. For the car enthusiast, some of the London Black Cab’s notable engine features are the VM Motori 2499cc R425 DOHC 4-cylinder diesel, 16 valve twin overhead camshaft, direct injection turbo and intercooled. Bore/stroke 92mm x 94mm, compression ratio 17.5:1. Max power 74 kW @ 4,000rpm. Max torque 240 NM @ 1,800rpm, mated to a Chrysler 545RFE 5-speed automatic transmission or an Eaton FSO 2405, A 5-speed MT (Manual Transmission.) Needless to say, today its diesel engine is “Euro 6” compliant. Furthermore, from 2017, there is a new environmentally friendly London cab, the “LEVC TX”, an electric zero emission vehicle, which has thankfully retained the TX shape. There are also a few hydrogen-fuel cell powered taxis. Progress can never be denied.

Also, with the onslaught of Ubers the world has changed but for an unmatchable experience, it is a London black cab for me all the way!


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