“WHERE TO, GUV?”
Austin’s FX3 and FX4 taxis: forgotten heroes of the London streets reunited
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