The image of a black cab is as synonymous with London as a red double-decker bus or a Pret A Manger; it’s quintessential London. For many visitors to the capital city, a black taxi is the first thing they see when they arrive and the last thing they see before they leave. It’s iconic, it’s legendary, it’s just so very… London.
But where did they come from? How did they become London’s favourite transport design icon (as voted for by Londoners back in 2015)? And most importantly, why are they black? Well guys, don’t get too excited, but it’s time for another Secret London history lesson. Grab your cuppa and pull up a chair, because today we’re talking all things taxis.
The history of the taxi
Taxis have actually been a part of London life in some way or another for well over 300 years. They were originally referred to as ‘hackneys‘ (a term originating from the French word ‘haquenée’, meaning a horse available to hire) and first made an appearance on the streets of London during the Elizabethan times.
Hackneys (or hackney carriages) were used by inn keepers and merchants of the time to transport customers and patrons for a cost. These early taxis unfortunately earned themselves a bad reputation for being extremely expensive and of poor quality (can you even imagine?!).
The first official taxi rank was set up in 1634 by Captain John Baily, who put four coaches to work on the Strand. His coachmen would wear a specific uniform and a set price would be charged for each journey. The two decades following saw the explosion of London’s taxi scene and 1654 saw parliament pass the first regulatory bill for taxis.
The first motorised taxis were introduced in London in 1897 and were electrically powered (how forward-thinking of them, hey?). They ended up being too expensive to maintain at the time so were taken off the roads and exchanged for London’s first petrol-run taxis. Over the next few years, motorised cabs increased in popularity and by the time World War I broke out, motor cabs well outnumbered horse-drawn. The final horse-drawn hackney carriage ceased service in 1947 and the rest – so to speak – is history.
Why are London’s taxis black?
Okay, so now we’ve got all that out of the way – it’s time for the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Why are the taxis here in the capital city black? Well, the short answer is: because Londoners were as tight with their money back then as we are now.
The Austin FX3 is the car model that became the first version of the classic London cab that we know today, complete with the iconic silhouette and the orange roof sign (that originally read ‘For Hire’, FYI). There have since been new models created but all designed in keeping with the original. Up until 1948, taxis came in all manner of different colours, but the FX3 was produced in black, with buyers having to pay extra for the special colours.
For fleet owners, who had to buy a large number of the cars, the additional cost was too much of an expense, and so the vast majority of taxis on the road were left the standard factory black. There has never been a law requiring London’s taxis to be black but over the years, the black minicab began to develop a certain amount of cultural significance.
There are now approximately 21,000 black cabs in London, many of which are now the LEVC TX model (a purpose-built hybrid vehicle which complies with TfL’s Taxi Private Hire regulations). Although of course, the rise of ride-hailing apps have caused a bit of a stir in London’s taxi world; there’s still no feeling quite like that of hailing down a classic black cab in the middle of central London. Long may it continue.