“WHERE TO, GUV?”

Austin’s FX3 and FX4 taxis: for­got­ten he­roes of the Lon­don streets re­united

Classic Sports Car - - Contents - WORDS AN­DREW ROBERTS PHO­TOG­RA­PHY TONY BAKER

If 1948 was the year of the Jaguar XK120, the Land Rover, the Citroën 2CV and the Mor­ris Mi­nor, it also marked the de­but of an­other car that mer­its the rare ac­co­lade of be­ing cor­rectly re­ferred to as ‘iconic’. It is no hy­per­bole to sug­gest that the Austin FX3 and its 1958 suc­ces­sor, the FX4, are ve­hi­cles that came to de­fine the land­scape of post-war Lon­don. The FX3 was com­mis­sioned by Mann & Over­ton, which then held the con­ces­sion for the Austin taxi chas­sis through­out the cap­i­tal, and Long­bridge gained the con­tract to design the new all-steel cab in 1945. The ve­hi­cle was to be con­structed by Car­bod­ies of Coven­try. Nat­u­rally, it would have to be ap­proved by the Pub­lic Car­riage Of­fice (PCO) of the Metropoli­tan Po­lice as com­ply­ing with the Con­di­tions of Fit­ness reg­u­la­tions. Its rai­son d’être was to com­bine an all-new chas­sis with mod­ern coach­work, while power was from the fa­mil­iar 2199cc ‘Big Four’, be­cause pro­to­types fit­ted with the 1535cc unit from the Austin Light Twelve proved in­cred­i­bly slow.

“The FX3 was quite an achieve­ment be­cause it was built un­der tight eco­nomic cir­cum­stances af­ter the Second World War,” re­marks Anthony Black­man, owner of our two cabs. “If you look at the grille and the body­work, you can see the way in which Austin made use of sur­plus Six­teen parts. The Car­riage Of­fice en­sured that there

were wide-open­ing rear doors and that the arm­rests were suf­fi­ciently nar­row for the width of the back seat – you can see that it’s a very ac­com­plished design.” The drive to the rear axle was by an open prop­shaft with Hardy-spicer uni­ver­sal joints, via a four-speed gear­box. A three-speed trans­mis­sion would have been less suited to the de­mands of work­ing in the city.

The FX3 took a bow at the Mann & Over­ton show­room on Wandsworth Bridge Road in June 1948. Cab­bies were im­pressed by the sealed cabin with a par­ti­tion to the left of the driver – pre­vi­ous Austins left the op­er­a­tor open to the el­e­ments. There was also the bonus of in­te­gral Jack­all hy­draulic jack­ing, while the FX3’S smart ap­pear­ance looked as con­tem­po­rary as any new A70 Hamp­shire or A90 At­lantic. The dash­board fea­tured full in­stru­men­ta­tion, the seats were up­hol­stered in leather and there was pro­vi­sion for a heater. The open­ing wind­screen aided both demist­ing and the ne­go­ti­a­tion of Pic­cadilly Circus dur­ing a pea-souper.

In 1949, the FX3 be­came one of the first city cabs to be fit­ted with a two-way ra­dio – this in­no­va­tion was cel­e­brated in the 1954 B-fea­ture Ra­dio Cab Mur­der – and in 1951 the hy­drome­chan­i­cal brak­ing was re­placed by an all-hy­draulic set-up. This was also the taxi that cre­ated the tra­di­tion of the ‘Lon­don black cab’; that was the stan­dard fin­ish, and many op­er­a­tors were re­luc­tant to pay ex­tra for an­other colour.

Austin sold the chas­sis alone for con­ver­sion into ice-cream vans, hearses, shoot­ing brakes and news­pa­per-de­liv­ery wagons, and also of­fered an FL1 Hire Car ver­sion, which lacked a di­vi­sion and fea­tured a bench front seat and four doors. The lat­ter re­mained a com­par­a­tively un­usual sight, how­ever, be­cause the FL1 was sub­ject to Pur­chase Tax, while this charge didn’t ap­ply to taxis from 1953 on­wards.

One be­lated de­vel­op­ment was the in­tro­duc­tion of the diesel-pow­ered FX3D in 1954, a Long­bridge re­sponse to the af­ter­mar­ket con­ver­sions to Stan­dard, Perkins and even Borg­ward units of­fered by sev­eral firms. Lower fuel bills more than off­set the price of the en­gine change and the D cost just £95 more than the petrol-pow­ered model. Its sales were fur­ther en­hanced by the im­pact of the Suez Cri­sis, which prompted a tem­po­rary re­turn to fuel ra­tioning. The FX3D even­tu­ally out­sold FX3 to the ra­tio of nine to one – which makes Black­man’s 1956 cab a rare ma­chine to­day.

As with all later mod­els, the traf­fi­ca­tors had been re­placed by ‘bunny ear’ in­di­ca­tors above the B-pil­lars be­cause the sem­a­phore arms had proved vul­ner­a­ble to dam­age by clumsy pas­sen­gers. From a 2018 per­spec­tive, the Austin FX3 ap­pears to be very tall and ex­cep­tion­ally nar­row. The height of the body­work re­flects an era in which men wore hats; the bowler did not dis­ap­pear from Lon­don un­til the mid-’70s.

‘A diesel-en­gined FX3 ap­peared six years af­ter launch, and even­tu­ally out­sold the petrol ver­sion by nine to one ’

But what is the Austin like on the road? “The FX3 is not es­pe­cially heavy to drive, pro­vid­ing you keep with the orig­i­nal crossply tyres,” says Black­man. “It is a well-sorted design, and it at­tracts at­ten­tion.” This is a mild un­der­state­ment, be­cause a huge num­ber of tourists want to pose with the FX3 – an un­der­stand­able re­sponse to a ve­hi­cle of such in­nate charisma.

The pas­sen­ger com­part­ment is akin to be­ing en­sconced in a gentle­man’s club and there is the sound of that en­gine, as redo­lent of the past as the gong on a Daim­ler am­bu­lance or the clank of But­ton ‘A’ in a pub­lic tele­phone box. The sur­round­ings of our lo­ca­tion in Chatham only in­ten­sify the il­lu­sion of be­ing en route to the Port of Lon­don Au­thor­ity head­quar­ters in Char­ter­house Street, although the fine weather is the an­tithe­sis of the stan­dard im­age of the Austin FX3. For true au­then­tic­ity, the head­lamps should be bat­tling with driz­zle or thick fog some­where near Wandsworth.

In the late 1950s, Long­bridge was claim­ing – with jus­ti­fi­able pride – that: ‘You see more Austin taxis on the streets of Lon­don than any other sin­gle make of cab.’ Which was no great sur­prise be­cause it had few ri­vals: the in-house Nuffield Ox­ford was a ca­su­alty of the cre­ation of the Bri­tish Mo­tor Cor­po­ra­tion, and while Beard­more taxis were lauded for their qual­ity, they could not com­pete with the dom­i­nance of the FX3. They were still ply­ing their trade in the West End in 1968, by then a sight on a par with steam trains or Lyons Cor­ner Houses as relics of the past that were still en­coun­tered dur­ing the 1960s. Nor was this the end of the nar­ra­tive, be­cause as re­cently as the early 1970s it was still pos­si­ble to find them look­ing for fares in sea­side re­sorts, by then ap­pear­ing highly in­con­gru­ous along­side Hill­man Avengers and Ford Cortina MKIIIS, but still ready to work.

Af­ter 10 years in ser­vice, the FX3 was the ar­che­typ­i­cal ‘Lon­don Taxi’ and vir­tu­ally a mo­bile land­mark, which posed a con­sid­er­able chal­lenge in the cre­ation of its suc­ces­sor. Work on the FX4 com­menced in 1956, with styling the re­spon­si­bil­ity of Jake Don­ald­son of Car­bod­ies and Eric Bai­ley at Austin. The 2.2-litre diesel en­gine (a petrol mo­tor would not be of­fered un­til 1962) was mounted fur­ther for­ward on the box-sec­tion chas­sis, which meant en­hanced cabin space. Mean­while, be­neath that new coach­work there was in­de­pen­dent front sus­pen­sion. The pro­to­type was passed for ap­proval by the PCO in July 1958 and tri­alled by York Way Mo­tors Ltd, with the FX4 be­ing the star of the Com­mer­cial Ve­hi­cle Show. Of­fi­cial sales be­gan in Novem­ber, although full production didn’t get un­der way un­til late 1959.

If the FX3 be­longs to a world of De­mob suits, po­lice tele­phone boxes, gas-lit al­ley­ways and films with Nigel Pa­trick as the debonair lead­ing man, the Austin FX4 was in­dica­tive of late-1950s

‘The FX4 was in­dica­tive of late-’50s re­newal, a cab for the cap­i­tal city of the Routemas­ter bus and Bru­tal­ist ar­chi­tec­ture’

re­newal. It was a con­veyance for the cap­i­tal city of the Routemas­ter bus and Bru­tal­ist ar­chi­tec­ture. Be­cause the FX4 was based on the same chas­sis as the FX3 it had a sim­i­lar wheel­base, but although it was just one inch wider and only four inches longer, the lat­est Austin taxi ap­peared a far more sub­stan­tial ma­chine.

The most re­mark­able as­pect of the FX4 was the lack of an open lug­gage plat­form, thereby bring­ing an end to the tra­di­tion of the cab­bie open­ing the side par­ti­tion to pull down the ‘For Hire’ flag on the me­ter. “A three-door pro­to­type was shown at the Com­mer­cial Ve­hi­cle Show,” says Black­man, “be­cause there was still the be­lief that there was a need to carry heavy suit­cases and steamer trunks along­side the driver.” This ver­sion never en­tered production, how­ever, and the FX4 be­came Lon­don’s first four-door taxi.

The front com­part­ment was bet­ter suited to the cab­bie’s needs, with a far more com­fort­able seat and an im­proved heater and demis­ter in con­trast to the op­tional set up on the FX3: “It was so con­vo­luted that you needed to be trav­el­ling at 50mph to feel the ben­e­fit!” This also meant a fixed wind­screen, while one item of equip­ment that was orig­i­nally ab­sent was a rearview mir­ror – left off to en­sure ad­di­tional pri­vacy for the pas­sen­gers in the back.

The last vari­ant of FX4, the Lon­don Taxis In­ter­na­tional Fair­way, was built in 1997, and at first glance Black­man’s taxi ap­pears to be all-too fa­mil­iar. Then you no­tice the badge on the bonnet, the ‘For Hire’ sign above the wind­screen, the side lamps atop the wings and those dis­tinc­tive in­di­ca­tors. In­side, the fold­ing seats face for­ward, and in place of a slid­ing di­vi­sion there is a porthole for com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the driver. WLP 316 dates from 1959 and it is be­lieved to be the old­est FX4 in the world.

The new taxi was con­sid­er­ably heav­ier than its pre­de­ces­sor, and Black­man notes that it can feel a lit­tle slug­gish when com­pared with the FX3. A lot of cab­bies ini­tially com­plained that they couldn’t pull away from the kerb with a full load of pas­sen­gers, while the Borg-warner trans­mis­sion in­creased fuel costs; many driv­ers re­garded an au­to­matic gear­box with some sus­pi­cion, too. BMC’S logic was to min­imise fa­tigue, but in prac­tice many driv­ers of­ten experienced some dif­fi­cul­ties in get­ting to grips with this new sys­tem. By 1961, the FX4 was avail­able with a man­ual ’box sourced from the Austin Gipsy.

The early Austin FX4 lacked sound­proof­ing be­cause the PCO be­lieved it to be a po­ten­tial fire haz­ard. The re­sult, as elo­quently demon­strated by Black­man’s taxi, is an en­gine note am­pli­fied in a Spinal Tap-style ‘up to 11’. The ar­rival of WLP 316 on lo­ca­tion has the power to quell vir­tu­ally all con­ver­sa­tion. This issue would not be rec­ti­fied un­til the FX4 had been in production for a decade; post-1968 mod­els are recog­nised via their ADO16 Mk2 tail-lights, more com­fort­able front com­part­ment and slightly more re­strained noise level.

By the end of the 1960s, al­most all Lon­don taxis were Austin FX4S. The Bri­tish Mo­tor Cor­po­ra­tion had in­tended it to be re­placed by the ADO39, a pro­ject ini­tially headed by Alec Is­sigo­nis and David Bache, but this was a vic­tim of new man­age­ment af­ter the Ley­land takeover. The Bai­ley/don­ald­son design would re­main in ser­vice for an­other 45 years, and when the last Fair­way was de­com­mis­sioned in 2012, two gen­er­a­tions of Bri­tons couldn’t re­mem­ber a time when it was ab­sent from the na­tion’s taxi ranks.

As with any great mo­tor car, it is the small­est de­tails of the FX3 and the FX4 that evoke the re­cent past. The sound of the me­ter flag be­ing low­ered, or the flash­ing ‘bunny ear’ as it ac­knowl­edges a cry of “Taxi!” on the mean streets of Kent. Best of all, an ad­ver­tise­ment above the par­ti­tion rec­om­mended that pun­ters call Water­loo 7722 for a ride. By the end of our day with these black cabs, it is very hard to re­sist the temp­ta­tion to make that call, or to imag­ine the fan­tasy jour­ney con­clud­ing with Sid James, Sam Kydd or Fred Grif­fiths grum­bling mis­er­ably about their 6d tip: “Are you sure you can spare that, guv’nor?”

It al­most seems alarm­ing to see the open lug­gage plat­form these days, but it was hugely use­ful for car­ry­ing large cases and steamer trunks

Clockwise from above: Black­man’s FX3 is a petrol man­ual from 1957; pe­riod ad­verts in the rear; Mar­coni ra­dio in­no­va­tion was the Uber of its day; ‘For Hire’ flag was unique to the FX3 – the driver had to open the par­ti­tion to use it; the cab is snug, but sep­a­rated from the open plat­form

The FX4 ar­rived to much ac­claim in 1958, and did away with the FX3’S sep­a­rate front wings and side-open­ing bonnet

Clockwise from above: sturdy diesel is slug­gish; Black­man be­lieves WLP 316 is the old­est FX4 in ex­is­tence; two-way ra­dio was in­tro­duced in ’49; vin­tage cues in­clude the il­lu­mi­nated ‘For Hire’ sign; early me­ter; Spar­tan cabin – it took cab­bies a while to get used to the auto ’box

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