Austin FX4/FL2 : Proposed replacements
The FX4 may have enjoyed an epic production run, but that’s not the way it was planned.
Like the FX3 before it, the FX4 was only intended to remain in production for ten years, which coincided neatly with the maximum number of years for which a cab would usually remain in service. Thus, the FX4 should only ever have been part of the London scene for 20 years or so. In fact, it reigned supreme for almost 40 years, and would remain a familiar sight on London’s streets well into the 21st century. Here you can read about the various designs which failed to succeed the seemingly unstoppable FX4.
ADO39 (LM11) and ADO69
By the time of the 1968 merger, with the FX4 already 10 years old, plans were being laid to produce a replacement, codenamed ADO39 (but also referred to as LM11, a designation which would coincidentally be used for the Austin Montego in years to come). ADO39 was to have been based around a proposed replacement for BMC’s 250JU van. Work got underway following the merger, with the project being led jointly by Alec Issigonis and David Bache. Quite what sort of working relationship these two headstrong personalities enjoyed one can only imagine, but it was not to last long. According to former Carbodies MD Bill Lucas, the full-size mock-up which Issigonis and Bache presented to him was the most appalling thing he had ever seen! His colleagues Jake Donaldson and Peter James quickly came up with their own version, which Issigonis and Bache actually preferred to their own design. This new design got as far as being built up into a prototype bodyshell before the Stokes axe, ruthlessly being wielded on any project which was seen as being dispensible, fell on ADO39. For Bache, the cancellation of the project may have been a merciful release, as it freed him to work with Spen King on the Range Rover, which ironically would one day form the basis of a successor project to ADO39. Incidentally, the records at Gaydon also include an entry for a further taxi project, ADO69, but unfortunately nothing more is currently known about it.
Although project ADO39 had foundered, that did not mean that the issue of how replace the taxi had gone away. The cabbies were pretty much stuck with the mildly-facelifted FX4, for while a variety of companies had attempted to launch their own rival designs (see below), none of these would manage to stay the distance. Nor had they made so much as a dent in the FX4’s sales, but the sheer level of interest in providing an alternative was a clear indication that the FX4 was increasingly being seen as having had its day. As the 1970s dawned, Carbodies were getting plenty of feedback from disgruntled drivers who had a whole list of complaints about the FX4. So much so that when Manganese Bronze Holdings took over BSA in 1972, Bill Lucas advised Chairman Dennis Poore never to mention to a cabbie that he owned the company that built them, or he’d never hear the last of it. It was clear that a replacement was still required, and with Austin’s masters at BLMC taking less and less interest in the vehicle, it fell to Carbodies to take the initiative. As it turned out, this suited Bill Lucas just fine; he’d had his fill of trying to wring approval – and funding – for new projects out of the ultra-conservative Mann and Overton, and grasped the opportunity to go it alone. Thus, project FX5 was born.
With outline approval from his chairman Dennis Poore, Lucas set about specifying the vehicle, enlisting the help of Carbodies designer Jake Donaldson. In order to keep costs at a manageable level, it was felt that a donor car should be sought which could provide the majority of the body panels, thus avoiding the need for costly body tooling. Serious consideration was given to the Range Rover, whose separate chassis and squarish design seemed to lend itself to the project, but after a couple of years’ evaluation, it was concluded that the proportions were not really suitable, and as a result the panels would require extensive alteration; not to mention the fact that at the time, no four-door bodyshell was available.
By 1976, Lucas had begun to favour the idea of designing all-new bodywork to get the cab the way he wanted it. Quite how he’d made the leap from trying to avoid having to produce new tooling isn’t clear, but his instincts told him that the drivers and operators should not have to tolerate a compromise design just because it suited him as the manufacturer; that was to prove a fateful decision. Lucas had become smitten with Rover’s new SD1 3500; he and a colleague bought one each as their personal transport in order to evaluate it, and Lucas became convinced that it would provide the ideal basis for his cab. The idea was to clothe its running gear in bespoke bodywork, and to that end a quarter-scale model was produced. This was enthusiastically received by Dennis Poore, and the go-ahead was given for a full-scale mock-up to be built. So far so good, but Carbodies did not have the resources to undertake the production engineering that would be required in order to start building the vehicle, and the costs of farming this work out to a third party saw Poore go cool on the idea.
In February 1979, with the FX5 prototype still not quite finished, Lucas was forced to retire on health grounds. His successor, Grant Lockhart, wasted little time in deciding that FX5 was a non-runner. He saw it as backward-looking, not really trying to move the game on, and felt that it would soon fall prey to exactly the same kind of criticism that was being levelled at the FX4. For Lockhart, the future lay with CR6…
Having cancelled the FX5 project, Grant Lockhart began to realise his own vision for a cab to replace the FX4. Designated CR6 – “CR” standing for City Rover (a name which would later see service, albeit without the space, on MG Rover’s Tata Indica-based supermini), and the “6” providing continuity with the previous project – this new venture was to be an amalgamation of old ideas, and during its troubled life it would see the involvement of the father of the Range Rover, Spen King, and former Leyland engineering director, Dr Bertie Fogg, who was taken on mid-term as project leader.
Lockhart revisited the idea of using the Range Rover’s body panels, which would sit on a modified version of the SD1-derived chassis from the aborted FX5, with power being provided by the Land Rover diesel engine (as had recently been adopted for the FX4R) driving through the SD1’s five-speed transmission. One of the key factors leading to the revival of the idea of using the Range Rover as a basis was the fact that BL had embarked on a project to develop a 4-door version in 1978; this meant that Carbodies would not now be faced with having to shoulder the full weight of the costs involved in engineering a four-door bodyshell, as would have been the case had they chosen that option for FX5. A different design of rear door would be needed, due to the wider opening required to comply with the all-important PCO regulations, but Lockhart was convinced that with the opportunity to use most the Range Rover’s remaining body panels, CR6 was now a viable option. As things turned out, Carbodies secured the contract to supply Land Rover with fully-built front doors, to the design they had devised for CR6, for the first couple of years of 4-door Range Rover production (after which Land Rover bought the tooling and started building the doors in-house, to a slightly modified design).
The first styling sketches of CR6 depicted a barely-disguised Range Rover, and the press soon took to referring to it as the “Range Rover taxi”. This must have caused some concern at Land Rover HQ, bearing in mind the increasingly prestigious role that the Range Rover was carving out for itself. In an attempt to play down the association, the fully-engineered prototypes featured a redesigned front end which used the headlamps and indicators from the Morris Ital, along with a smoothed-out bonnet panel which dispensed with the Range Rover’s distinctive “turrets” at each leading corner. In 1981 the first prototype was given an outing in London (as seen here) and was quite well received, although some concerns were raised about its cramped driving position. On balance, though, most cabbies would just have been glad that after having lived with the FX4 for over 20 years, there was finally the prospect of an all-new cab which would address most of that model’s many shortcomings. Press reports at the time confidently predicted that the new cab would be plying its trade on the city streets by 1984, but this was to prove somewhat premature.
As mentioned above, a key benefit of the CR6 was to be wheelchair accessibilty, something which had proved difficult to provide in the FX4 ever since the division bulkhead separating the front and rear compartments had been moved back a few inches in the late 1960s, to provide a little extra room for the driver. Of course, at that time, nobody had given a second thought to whether a wheelchair could be accommodated, yet even over a decade later, this provison was still to prove something of an afterthought. The initiative came from the Department of Transport, who wanted to be able to showcase the new cab during the forthcoming International Year of the Disabled in 1981, so approached Carbodies with the idea.
Following initial resistance to what was perceived as a potentially expensive diversion, it was only when it was found that, almost by chance, a wheelchair could be wheeled through the back doors, that a the interior of the second prototype was hastily adapted to allow the chair to be neatly secured once inside. A series of high-profile wheelchair trials were carried out in places such as Peterborough and Newcastle using the second CR6 prototype, and involving leading figures from various pressure groups for the wheelchair users. As a result of this process, it was decided that the CR6 needed a longer wheelbase and a higher roof in order to provide more acceptable accommodation. Thus, in 1983, a third prototype was built (seen here), four inches longer than the first two had been, and the release date for the new model was put back to 1985.
However, the project was already heading for serious trouble. First and foremost, as a result of the late running and specification changes, the costs had begun to spiral, and looked like they would continue to do so. And the initial attraction of using the Range Rover bodyshell had all-but evaporated, as CR6 now used entirely different panelwork – after all, not even the front doors were now interchangable with those of the Range Rover. Tests of the second prototype at BL’s Gaydon proving facility had been little short of disastrous, showing the cab to be heavier and more cumbersome to drive than the FX4.
To make matters worse, the noticeably longer and higher bodywork of the third (and final) prototype had resulted in a bulky and rather unweildy-looking vehicle. Factor in the financial difficulties that Carbodies had been facing ever since the FX4R’s poor reputation had led to sales of new cabs hitting an all-time low, and CR6 was looking increasingly untenable. The axe finally fell in 1985, when a Carbodies press release put a brave face on the situation by explaining that the body shape chosen for the CR6 no longer had the “commercial attraction” which had been perceived at the project’s inception in 1980. Significantly, it went on to say that many people within the taxi industry had an increasing preference for “the classic lines of the FX4 body styling”.
The FX4 had seen off yet another attempt to replace it, and would continue in production for a further twelve years. During that time, it received a great deal of development work, and in its final form it had won back the respect of the cabbies. Indeed, its eventual replacement, the TX1 paid tribute to its predecessor not only with its evolutionary body style, but also by virtue of the fact that that new body sat on what were essentially the FX4 Fairway Driver’s underpinnings.
Written by Declan Berridge, with reference to:
Carbodies: The Complete Story by Bill Munro, 1998 (ISBN: 1-86126-127-6)