Austin FX4/FL2 : Rival cabs
Although the FX4 had little in the way of serious competition (at least until 1980s Metrocab came along), it wasn’t for the want of trying.
From the 1950s through to the 1970s, a succession of manufacturers tried their hand at producing a cab of their own, but none made a singificant dent in the FX4’s sales, while some didn’t even make it into production. Most of these failed attempts met with a common stumbling block: the sheer economics to trying to produce a fully-engineered and supported vehicle, capable of complying with the PCO’s Condtions of Fitness and withstanding rigorous use, for a market that amounted to fewer more than 2000 vehicles per annum. By 1970, over 97% of the 9000-odd licensed cabs on London’s roads were FX4s (the remainder being a roughly equal mix of Beardmores and Winchesters, plus a solitary MCW Metrocab prototype), and out of the 1500 new vehicles to enter service that year, the FX4’s only remaining rival – the Winchester MkII – accounted for just 33.
Over the years, various other parties came up with ideas for new cabs – including Autocar magazine, who proposed converting Bedford’s CF van, and Lucas, who put forward an Ogle-built, electrically-powered cab – but none of these plans reached fruition. In the 1980s, Asquith managed to get their retro-styled cab through the PCO regulations, and for a while, a handful of these could be seen roaming the streets of London. However, with only ten examples having been built, they can hardly be considered a true rival to the FX4, and most have now been consigned to use as wedding cars. In fact, the 1986 MCW Metrocab was to prove to be the only viable alternative to the FX4, which of course was still going strong even then. But from the mid-1960s onwards, the sheer level of interest in finding a replacement was a clear indication that the FX4 was increasingly being seen as having had its day.
Here you can find out about the efforts of those brave companies who sought to rival it.
Beardmore Motors had a long-established history in the taxi trade. They had started making cabs in 1919, and continued to release updated versions until the Second World War intervened. Post-war, they became sales agents for the Nuffield Group’s Wolseley Oxford cab, but when Leonard Lord culled that model as a result of the 1952 Austin-Morris merger, Beardmore decided to develop a new cab of their own. Launched in 1954, the Beardmore Paramount Mark VII used the 59bhp, 1508cc petrol engine and gearbox from the contemporary Ford Consul MkII, with coachbuilt aluminium bodywork built by Windovers Ltd of Hendon, London, alongside their main business of producing bodies for the bus and coach industry. From 1958, Beardmore offered the option of the 43bhp Perkins “Four 99” diesel, which would comfortably outsell the petrol model in the metropolitan markets.
The Mark VII had a decidedly odd appearance, with its tall, narrow bonnet towering above its low-mounted front wings and headlamps. Nevertheless, it was to provide the FX3 and FX4 with their only viable competition until the launch of the Winchester cab (see below) almost ten years later, and could be seen (if you looked hard enough) in service throughout the 1960s. Production ceased in the summer of 1967, and Beardmore remained in business to service the remaining cabs until July 1969. Plans for a Mark VIII cab got no further than a scale model, as Beardmore’s miniscule share of the market made such a move unviable. However, the design was picked up by a new entrant to the taxi market, bus and tube train builders Metro-Cammell-Weymann, in a move that would prove to be of great significance in the long term (see Metrocab, below).
The Birch cab
Taxi operators Birch Brothers of Kentish Town, north London, were in the vanguard of the move to diesel power for taxicabs. When the Standard Motor Co introduced the UK’s first sub-3-litre diesel engine in 1953, Birch Brothers offered a conversion scheme for the FX3 at an all-in price of £325. Those who opted for the 2.1-litre, 4-cylinder Standard unit could enjoy savings of up to 50% on their fuel bills, so the conversion proved very popular, leading Austin to introduce their own 2.2-litre diesel option on the FX3 the following year.
For their next trick, Birch Brothers went one better, and designed a whole new taxi cab. Based on Standard Ten underpinnings, the Birch cab appeared in 1955, and boasted a modern – and in some respects, quite radical – design. Its most distinctive feature was a rear-hinged side door mounted aft of the nearside rear wheelarch, providing access to the luggage compartment from the kerbside. The cab’s bodywork was constructed by bus and coach builders Park Royal Vehicles Ltd, who incidentally would become part of the BLMC combine the following decade. The prototype cab (Park Royal body no. B38707) entered service in London, but without sufficient funding to put it into production, no further examples were ever built. However, the fact that the Standard Ten’s chassis had been successfully modified to meet the PCO’s requirement for a 25ft turning circle led directly to Standard-Triumph engineering a similarly tight tunring circle for the 1959 Herald.
In 1963, John Birch made another bid for a slice of the taxi market, this time using the chassis of the Standard Atlas van as his basis. He again commissioned Park Royal to build the bodywork (body no. 49760), but the project was abandoned after techincal difficulties relating to axle-loads emerged.
In 1963, the Winchester MkI was the first taxicab to feature fibreglass bodywork. It was the brainchild of the managing director of Winchester Automobiles (West End) Ltd (a subsidiary of a specialist insurance group which had been formed in the late 1940s specifically to cater for the insurance needs of owner-drivers). The deisgn had been developed in consultation with a team composed of cab drivers, opertors and mechanics, with the aim of producing a design which would excel in all areas. The plastic bodywork, initially built by West Drayton-based fibreglass specialists James Whitson over a chassis constructed by Rubery Owen (best known for their classic “Rostyle” wheels), gave the cab two key advantages over the FX4 and Beardmore Paramount MkVII: lower weight and panels that couldn’t rust.
Originally launched with the same Perkins engine as used in the Beardmore, the launch of the MkII version in September 1964 saw this give way to the much quieter and brisker 1.5-litre petrol unit from the Ford Cortina, with the cab’s lower weight ensuring that performance remained adequate. From 1965 the bodywork was made by Wincanton Transport and Engineering (who also built milk floats for their parent company, the United Dairy Group), and MkIII version followed, with minor modifications.
In 1968, the Winchester MkIV appeared, with an all-new body design giving it a much more modern appearance. Chassis production moved to Keewest Development Ltd in Hampshire, who also carried out the necessary modifications required for it to accept the new bodywork (which was still produced by Wincanton). The Winchester MkIV remained in production until 1972, before the laws of economics proved it to be unsustainable, due to its pitiful 2% share of the market. Indeed, total production for all versions failed to reach 200 over the 9-year run.
As you may have read above, the Metrocab grew out of a proposed replacement for the antiquated Beardmore Mark VII. Cammell Laird, a division of the Midlands-based engineering firm Metro-Cammell-Weymann (MCW), acquired the rights to the Beardmore design and developed it into a fully-engineered prototype, which entered service in London in June 1970. The Metrocab mated a 52bhp 1760cc Perkins diesel engine to the gearbox and other running gear from the Ford Transit, while the headlamps, indicators and grille were borrowed from the Mark II Ford Cortina. The fibreglass bodywork proved to be even lighter than that of the Winchester, and with various other features in its favour, the Metrocab was looking like a serious contender. Based on feedback from the original cab’s first year in service, a slightly modified second prototype entered service in December 1971. Furthermore, with the might of MCW behind it, full-scale production looked like a certainty. It was time for FX4-builders Carbodies to sit up and take notice.
During the trial of the second prototype, Cammell Laird’s managing director visited Carbodies to view the production process. After showing him around, Carbodies chief Bill Lucas calmly informed him the he would ensure that the FX4 sold for £100 less than whatever price MCW might put on the Metrocab. While this might not sound a lot, at the time it would have represented around 5% of the purchase price, enough to sway the fleet buyers’ choice of supplier. Moreover, Carbodies had the production capacity to build sufficient cabs to supply the whole of the market if need be. This kite-flying exercise on the part of Lucas proved to be a significant factor in MCW’s decision – taken within two weeks of that meeting – not to build the Metrocab.
However, for MCW, the dream of breaking Carbodies’ effective monopoly on the supply of cabs did not die. Some 15 years after their first attempt had faltered, an all-new, MCW Metrocab burst onto the London scene, its plastic bodywork being built under contract by Reliant. While it was by no means universally accepted (some felt it looked a bit like a hearse), it provided the FX4 with the only realistic competition it had ever had to face, particulary in suburban regions.
Written by Declan Berridge, with reference to:
A History of the London Taxicab by Nick Georgano
Park Royal Vehicles Ltd: Vol 2, 1942-1980 by Alan Towsin (ISBN: 0 90383942 3)