There seem to be an awful lot of adverts about for that new Mercedes black taxi, the Vito Traveliner-whatever-the-hell-that-means. The appearance of this vehicle is old news – just over a year old in fact. I thought I’d blog about it for reasons that will hopefully become clear shortly.
You see, my beef with this vehicle is as follows:
It looks like a people carrier. It’s boring. It lacks the distinctiveness of the iconic FX4 or TX1.
See, certain forms of transport are icons of their city. I’m thinking about the Checker cabs of New York, the Glasgow Subway, the gondolas of Venice. And so it is with the black cab. Take the iconic vehicle, replace it with an off-the-peg model and you’re just asking for trouble. It would be like replacing the Routemaster with, I don’t know, some Mercedes articulated bus or something.
Which brings me, somehow, to the black sheep of the London taxi family. I refer, of course, to the poor old Metrocab.
The Metrocab these days seems to be viewed as a bit of a nonentity – you won’t see any little diecast models of it for sale on souvenir stands, but on the other hand it’s far from being a bad vehicle. It actually works, unlike many proposed replacements for the FX4.
London taxis are a tricky business. Firstly, they have to meet a rigorous set of conditions (see link at bottom of page). Secondly, they serve a relatively small market – there are a lot of cabs in London, but that’s peanuts compared to the numbers a regular production car would sell in. Plus there’s the fact that, in the early 1970s, the FX4 still held sway.
When MCW unveiled the prototype Metrocab (photograph on the left taken by Yr. Humble Chronicler on Saturday), Carbodies, manufacturers of the FX4, announced that they would basically bury this upstart with cheaper prices and faster production time. MCW got cold feet and production plans were scrapped. However, the concept was found to be acceptable in the ’80s, and 1986 saw the Metrocab going into production with bodywork by Reliant. Yes, the one make of car that James Bond will never, ever drive.
Its status as distant cousin of Del Boy Trotter’s van aside, though, the Metrocab was the first successful attack on the FX4’s monopoly. The fact that Carbodies felt the need to get all defensive about the prototype was an early indication of this. It was also the first London taxi to be wheelchair accessible from the start. Give or take an engine, they stayed in production until 2006 with relatively few chances. Also, Prince Philip has one, though whether you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of opinion.
Dan, whom I mentioned in my last entry as a person who Knows These Things, tells me that MCW advertised an ambulance variant. It’s not clear whether this was actually put into production, but it sounds pretty fun.
Despite the fact that the Metrocab is not actually a bad vehicle, it’s not exactly iconic. It’s not even particularly distinctive. It looks like a Range Rover’s conservative little brother. This, I think, is why it’s never been taken into the hearts of Londoners in the way that the FX4 was. Despite being designed specifically for the city, it looks depressingly off-the-peg. Early critics compared it to a hearse, which I think is a little harsh, but you can see what they were getting at.
Of course, if you really want to impress people with your shiny new taxi, you could do worse than this: