Chariot of Hire – London cab – USA
Feature Article from Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car
June, 2015 – David LaChance
A movie director would call for rain, to give the moment a truly authentic feel, but I’m grateful for the sunshine as I step outside Grand Central Station and wait by the curb on Vanderbilt Avenue for my ride to arrive. Within a few moments it appears, tall, narrow and black, radiating good cheer with its old-fashioned upright grille and pair of round headlamps. It pulls over by the curb, and a smiling Dan Burke pops out of the back door to shake my hand and usher me into the passenger compartment.
Even on the bustling streets of New York City, a London cab stands out. White letters on the back doors of this one announce that “It’s your lucky day,” and the friendly wishes seem to be picked up and reflected back by the supposedly jaded inhabitants of Gotham, who smile and wave as we pull away.
I settle onto the gray vinyl of the back seat while Dan perches on one of the two jump seats to face me. On the other side of the partition, driver Austin Lynch smoothly navigates the Midtown traffic. The meter isn’t running–this isn’t a taxi for hire, not in the usual sense. Instead, it’s part of a business called The British Taxi, available for brand promotion, weddings, corporate events and other occasions, and Dan has brought it here to New York to get a bit of exposure.
In fact, Dan owns a fleet of 10 of these “black cabs,” all veterans of the London taxi trade now in working retirement in the United States. He explains that the one I’m riding in is, technically speaking, a 1987 Carbodies FX4S-Plus, one of four FX4-series taxis in his fleet. It comes by its homey, comforting atmosphere quite honestly; the body design dates back to the Austin FX4 of 1958, a vehicle commissioned by the London taxi dealership Mann & Overton, and constructed by coachbuilder Carbodies on an Austin chassis.
“They’re a trusted, iconic brand. I think if you see any movie set in London, that establishing shot is always going to have that London bus or that British taxi,” Dan, a transplanted Briton, says, explaining the cab’s place in British culture. “That London taxi rolling past is absolutely what you do. I’ve now studied it–having the vehicles, I’ve looked even more closely than most, and it’s incredible how often they surface. It’s right there with the red phone box.”
As the Checker is to New York, the black cab is to London–and the FX4 is the black cab. “Everyone likes them. That’s the funny thing I’ve found,” he continues. “It represents a night out, or a day out. It’s the beginning of adventure. Most of the time, you’re walking on the street, and it’s usually cold and pretty miserable, and anytime you can hop into a black cab and just take a moment to rest up and look out a window at London, I think people typically love that.”
Just like the Checker, the Austin cab has had an amazingly long lifespan, long enough to have become a classic in its own time. The FX4 and its descendants were in production until 1997–that’s a span of 39 years. Over time, there were plot twists–Carbodies took over the rights to the cab in 1982, putting its own badge on the grille, and installing a 2.3-liter Land Rover diesel engine in place of the previous Austin engine, the tooling for which British Leyland had shipped off to India. These cars were called the FX4R, the R standing for Rover.
In 1984, a company called Manganese Bronze Holdings (originally a maker of ship propellers) bought out Mann & Overton and formed London Taxis Incorporated, or LTI, to continue cab production. They introduced the FX4S, with a 2.5-liter Land Rover diesel engine in place of the 2.3, which had proved to be not well suited to the particular demands of taxi service. After plans for an all-new cab came to nothing, LTI unveiled the FX4S-Plus, with gray trim and a redesigned dashboard. That’s the cab that’s carrying Dan, Austin and me through the weekday traffic.
Like the rest of his fleet, this cab was in America when Dan bought it. “These cars get scrapped fast in the U.K. because their value deteriorates as the years go on,” he explains. “Ten years is the legal amount of time that you’re allowed to have a taxi on the road in London, and what is common is around year eight or nine the repairs don’t get done that should be done, because taxi drivers don’t want to put costly expenses into a vehicle that’s only got a bit more shelf life. And so consequently, they end up as scrap metal.
“The ones that made it to the USA are almost time capsules. That’s why I had so much fun finding them. I’ve got several that are incredibly rare, some I had never heard of and had never really been written about, and that was the advantage of finding them here.” His fleet resides in his hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina, though they’re ready to go wherever duty calls.
Our first destination is Lincoln Center–not because we’ve developed a sudden thirst for culture, but because we know that there are fashion models about. The reason Dan, Austin and the taxi are all together in New York in the first place is because this is Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, and Lincoln Center is the venue for the week’s events. Dan has had great success this week in getting fashion models to pose for photographers with the taxi as a prop, but on this particular afternoon, the nearest models we see are a hundred yards away across the plaza–just my luck. We do see lots of photographers staked out on the sidewalk, and it might be for that reason that the cops on the scene leave us alone as we park at the curb for some photos.
As we climb back in, Dan, who also runs a successful video production company, explains that his taxi business started by chance, when a client suggested that he might want to buy their rare, red Austin convertible taxi. (There was never a requirement that the London cabs be painted black; custom colors were always available, and blue and brown were added to the palette in the early 1980s.) “They essentially parked it outside my house, put the keys in the letterbox and said, ‘Please drive it around, you’d be perfect for this car,’ ” he laughs.
“Once that car got renovated, people wanted to ride in it for their weddings, and that was fun, not charging people. And that got really popular. So I said, ‘Well, wait a minute, there might be something here.’ So I found next the FX3, the 1956 vehicle, and I thought that would make a wonderful addition to the little red taxi for weddings. I wasn’t trying to make my main income with it, I was just looking for a little weekend project.”
The tipping point came when Dan was contacted by NBC, which was seeking British taxis for a promotion involving the Barclays Premier League, Britain’s leading soccer league. “I asked if they needed more taxis, and they said yes, so I went to work finding what I could,” he says. “It was a big moment in the evolution of the company.” That successful gig taught Dan that there was a demand for such a business, and that no one else was meeting it. “I started searching for every London cab I could find, the rarer the better.”
We’ve arrived at our second sightseeing stop of the day, the British Consulate General of New York on Third Avenue. There are no fashion models here, just a big British flag that Austin maneuvers the cab underneath for a few photographs. A security guard keeps an eye on us, but, fortunately, there are no international incidents–though a woman in a bright red beret mistakes us for a working cab, and tries to get in the back door, oblivious to the camera.
As you might imagine, keeping a fleet of vintage British taxis going in the U.S. is not without its challenges. Though some maintenance items like fuses and filters are easy to come by, more specialized parts are not. “The longest I’ve ever waited for a part was for my 2003 TX2 taxi, which is the newest of the bunch, ironically. It’s been off the road for four or five months, because there’s an electronic dashboard part that’s incredibly hard to find, and very expensive,” Dan says. He’s built up a support team of a dozen or so part-time employees, including three mechanics. It’s a huge change from when he was a one-man operation, and he tells me that it was a double-booking that made two brides late for their weddings that made him realize he needed a staff.
For our final stop, Dan suggests Times Square, that great tourist magnet, and why not? I’m thinking that even in the unlikely event that we find a spot to pull over, we’ll be shooed away by the police, or by a security guard. But, miraculously, a space appears right on West 42nd Street, across from the Regal Cinema and a stone’s throw from Seventh Avenue, where we can capture the ambiance of the Crossroads of the World. From here, Austin plots a course back to Grand Central, where I can catch my evening train north.
Like Dan, his cabs seem to be thriving in the New World. “I can take them anywhere in the country. They look great,
and they run great,” he says. (He reveals that he’s just landed a job for Charlotte Tilbury, one of the U.K.’s leading makeup brands, for which he will be shipping vehicles to Texas.) He’s developing an event design service, where the entire fleet can service a large party or function, tailoring each unique ride for each unique passenger. “We’ve come so far, leaps and bounds in terms of trust of the vehicles, knowing what they can do, their maintenance scheduling, and all that good stuff,” he says.
“These cars were designed to absolutely run and run. With the right maintenance, they really do have so much potential to just go and go and go,” he enthuses. “There’s no reason why this fleet of vehicles couldn’t continue taking passengers back and forth well into the distant future.”
I thank Dan and Austin for the lift, and watch the cab until it disappears from sight, swept away in the traffic.
Engine: Land Rover four-cylinder prechamber diesel, cast-iron block and cylinder head
Displacement: 2,495 cc (152.3-cu.in.)
Bore x stroke: 90.47 mm x 97 mm
Compression ratio: 21:1
Horsepower: 67 @ 4,000 RPM
Torque: 114-lb.ft. @ 1,800 RPM
Fuel system: Lucas-CAV DPS rotary pump
Transmission: Borg-Warner three-speed automatic
Suspension: Front, A-arms and coil springs; rear, live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, anti-roll bar, tubular shock absorbers
Steering: Worm-and-wheel, power assisted
Brakes: Four-wheel drum, power assisted
Wheelbase: 110.6 inches
Overall length: 180.3 inches
Overall width: 68.5 inches
Overall height: 69.7 inches
Curb weight: 3,439 pounds
Top speed: 78 MPH
For the story of the day Dan Burke made two brides late for their weddings, visit HMN.com/Londoncab
This article originally appeared in the June, 2015 issue of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
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