London’s black cabs, built to the same design for 54 years, are following iconic red phone boxes and Routemaster buses towards extinction as their manufacturer fights bankruptcy.
Manganese Bronze Holdings PLC, which has made taxis in Coventry, England, since 1948, entered administration last month after a Chinese tie-up failed to yield savings, and 400 of its cabs, the TX4 model, were recalled with steering faults.
Ready to take over the market are the Mercedes-Benz Vito and Nissan Motor Co’s NV200. Based on commercial vans, the models could end five decades in which the black cab has become known to millions from films, books, postcards, and a star turn in the 2012 Olympics.
“That isn’t a London cab and never will be,” Michael Beere, a 14-year taxi driver, said outside Liverpool Street railway station while stabbing a finger at a silver Vito. “It’s a people-carrier.”
Known as hackney cabs from their origin as horse-drawn coaches, their drivers must pass a four-year “Knowledge” test to demonstrate an encyclopedic understanding of 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks across London.
London has almost 23,000 licensed taxis — those that can legally be hailed in the street. About 1,400 new ones are registered each year, according to Manganese Bronze, a market worth about £50m (€62.2m) annually. The company says it has supplied more than 100,000 taxis over the past five decades.
The Vito captured 23% of sales last year, or 355 versus 1,074 for the TX4. In the first half of 2012, the Vito’s share jumped to 38% of the market, or 324 taxis.