taxi memories

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Below we take a look at the early origins of what would eventually become the LTI taxi company we know today.

Early Motorised London Cabs

The history of the LTI taxi (London Taxis International) is inextricably linked with that of the London ‘Conditions of Fitness’.

Long before LTI was established, a unique regulation came into force that was, in time, to become the mainstay of LTI taxis’ virtual monopoly in decades to come. It was in 1906 that the London Conditions of Fitness were first updated to include a mandatory 28 feet maximum turning circle.

In those days, most black cabs were still horse-drawn ‘hackney carriages’, but new-fangled motorised vehicles were starting to appear on the scene.

Apparently always resistant to change, the inherently conservative Public Carriage Office (then part of the Metropolitan Police Force), introduced the new ‘turning circle’ rule in an effort to avoid engine-powered cabs stalling during three-point turns – early clutches not being a patch on what we know today.

Remember, these were still pre-LTI taxi days. In fact, at that time major motor manufacturers like Ford and Renault were making cars as London black cabs. Yet no regular production vehicle had a turning circle under 28 feet, there being no logical reason to do so.

The manufacturers complained, the PCO stuck to its guns and London would never again see a mainstream vehicle as a black cab for sale for a full century thereafter.

LTI Taxi Origins

The first piece of the LTI taxis jigsaw came into being in 1899, when John Mann and Tom Overton established a motor dealership in London. Mann & Overton Ltd soon moved to specialise in selling to the taxi market and would later become part of the London Taxi Company (LTI).

The origins of what we now know as an LTI taxi can be traced to the period either side of World War Two. Due to the PCO rules, the only way to make a black cab for sale in London came to be to kit-build a taxi body around a standard engine and transmission.

By the 1930s, the Austin motor company was doing a roaring trade. Their cab bodies were built by a variety of coachbuilders, using different designs. These were sold in London by Mann and Overton, which was floated as a public company in 1936.

At the end of the Second World War, Austin developed a new London taxi, known as the FX1 but this didn’t make it to market. In 1947, however, the project was revived when Austin introduced Mann and Overton to a coachbuilder called Carbodies.

The resulting FX2 black cab was both coach built and assembled by Carbodies, with the cab project being jointly funded by Mann and Overton (50%), Austin (25%) and Carbodies (25%).

A year later, in 1948, the final prototype – now dubbed the FX3 – finally made it into production, now with an Austin diesel engine under the bonnet.

Meanwhile the BSA group, better known for their fabulous (if leaky) motorcycles, bought over the Carbodies company. Interestingly Carbodies’ FX3 chassis was also used for delivery vans. Followers of the history of the LTI taxi will doubtless note the irony in this.

FX4 Black Cab

A decade later, in 1958, Mann and Overton ventured forth with a new black cab, the FX4. Initial reaction was not good, the ‘Austin taxi’ being seen as too big, too noisy, too leaky and too rusty – challenges LTI taxis would revisit over the years. There were also found to be major compatibility issues between the engine and transmission.

Nonetheless, with Mann and Overton facing negligible competition the FX4 came to hold a dominant position in the London cab market – so much so, in fact, that the Owner Drivers’ Society went to considerable efforts to seek an alternative vehicle to give choice to their members.

Frustrated by rusty cab bodies, the Society was behind ultimately ill-fated efforts to produce and market a fibreglass bodied Winchester taxi in London.

Towards the LTI Taxi

With the birth of the LTI taxi company as we know it still in the future, 1973 was to prove a momentous year for black cab sales in London, for a number of reasons.

Already struggling under the dominance of Mann and Overton, the Winchester cab was finally killed off when the UK joined the European Economic Community and new vehicle safety standards came into force.

Despite being the dominant black cab on the market, the London taxi trade was increasingly dissatisfied with the quality of the FX4 black cab. Meanwhile selling taxis in London wasn’t enough to hide the much wider problems with Austin’s vehicles on the open market. Now part of the British Leyland group, Austin was shipping heavy losses.

As the British car industry wilted in the face of frankly superior competition from Europe and Japan, so did its once revered motorbike makers.

With once famous brands on their knees, an investment company called Manganese Bronze Holdings (MBH) seized the opportunity to buy over the BSA group, also now merged with Norton Villiers, meaning that Manganese Bronze now controlled BSA, Norton and Triumph motorbikes.

It so happened that the BSA purchase also brought with it Carbodies and their London black cab sales.

Cab Under Investment

Still, all was not well within the taxi maker and its new parent company. The famous or infamous union sit-in at Triumph motorcycle’s Meriden plant in 1973 wreaked havoc within the BSA Group, leaving it even more starved of cash and investment, not least at the Carbodies black cab making off-shoot.

Despite these pressures, directors at Carbodies became frustrated by what they saw as a lack of investment on product development on the part of their Mann & Overton partners. So much so, in fact, that Carbodies attempted to replace the FX4 with a new model, independently of M&O.

A prototype FX5 was developed and, had this project gone ahead, the future of the LTI taxi and of London taxis for sale as a whole would have been very different. However, the taxi project stalled and the FX4 struggled on.

Taxi production was soon to prove an increasing problem for Carbodies. While they assembled the cabs they were still dependent on Austin for engines and other components. Yet Austin’s nationalised parent group, British Leyland, had no stomach for further investment in the development of Austin taxis. By 1980 the situation became intense with production changes needed to meet impending new safety regulations in the form of European Whole Vehicle Type Approval.

Meanwhile Mann & Overton themselves encountered troubled waters, with the company eventually being taken into ownership by Lloyds Bank, in 1977.

The LTI Taxi Story Continues

The Austin-Carbodies partnership was finally falling apart. Read on in the next section for more on the birth of the LTI taxi.