Between 1958 and 1997, the Austin FX4, FL2 and the Carbodies versions were an icon you could buy new and off the shelf. The history and development of the famous London black cab is inextricably linked with the rise and fall of BMC and British Leyland.
Declan Berridge tells the long and interesting story of the life and times of the Austin FX4.
Austin FX4: All hail the London taxi!
There’s no denying that the Austin FX4 had a tough act to follow. Since its launch in 1948, the original Austin FX3 (below) had become an indelible part of the post-War London scene, carrying thousands of people every day and appearing in countless black and white films of the period. Replacing it would not be a straightforward process. No one would have guessed that the FX4 would manage the task so enduringly.
Apart from having to take into account its iconic status and the fact that it was so well-loved, not only by the cabbies, but also by so many of their ‘punters’ (cabbie-talk for the paying customers), there was also the not-inconsiderable matter of the Public Carriage Office (PCO) regulations. The PCO (originally part of London’s Metropolitan Police, but incorporated into the Mayor’s Transport for London organisation since July 2000) has been responsible for regulating the Black Cab trade in London since 1850.
It governs everything from the testing and licensing of drivers, and the setting of fares for journeys, to the rules with which the vehicles themselves must comply – the so-called Conditions of Fitness. Perhaps the most famous – and useful – of these is the unfeasibly tight turning circle of 25ft (7.6m), something which even the smallest of cars would struggle to achieve. In addition, the conditions lay down precise specifications for such things as the width of doors, height of floors and seating capacity, with the overall aim of ensuring that all approved cabs are up to the job of plying their trade on London’s mean streets.
Devising the new London taxi
Thus, for any company seeking to develop a new taxi design for the London market, liaison with the PCO is a given. Of course, when work on the FX4 began in 1956, BMC had a head start, with having had many years’ experience with the FX3 and its pre-War antecedents produced by Austin and the Nuffield group. It’s worth noting here that the FX3 had been commissioned by the influential taxi dealership Mann & Overton, a company whose importance to this story should not be underestimated: as well as having a majority financial stake in the design of the cab, which would see them take the lion’s share of the profits it generated, the company also had a stranglehold on the supply and sale of taxi throughout the London area.
In 1945, Austin had won the contract to design the FX3 and provide its chassis, while the bodywork would be built and applied by independent coachbuilders Carbodies, which had been selected by Joe Edwards partly as a result of its involvement with the building of the Austin Three-Way van, but mainly due to the company’s ability to build the all-steel body in relatively small volumes at an acceptable per-unit price (something which a volume manufacturer such as Austin would have found difficult to accommodate in-house).
Incidentally, when BMC was formed in 1952, the group ended up with two purpose-built taxicabs among its glut of models: the FX3 and the Nuffield Group’s Wolseley Oxford which was distributed by Mann & Overton’s rivals, Beardmore. Leonard Lord swiftly saw to it that the much older Nuffield design bit the dust, thus strengthening Mann & Overton’s position.
Styling the icon
The FX4 would see Austin’s partnership with Mann & Overton and Carbodies continue. The project team for the new cab, codenamed ADO6, was headed by Albert Moore (Austin’s Chief Engineer), Jack Hellberg (Carbodies’ General Manager) and David Southwell (Managing Director of Mann & Overton). Work proceeded very quickly, and the first mock-up, produced at Carbodies based on drawings prepared by Austin Body Designer Eric Bailey and honed by Carbodies’ Designer Jake Donaldson, was presented for inspection on 4 June 1956.
At this stage, the design retained an FX3-style open-sided front ‘passenger’ area (actually reserved for luggage) but, as a result of the evaluation, it was decided that a fourth door should be fitted – provided that in doing so the cab’s luggage capacity was not compromised.
The bonnet design was also modified in order to address fears that it might be swept-up into the driver’s line of vision at speed (a fear which would later prove to all too real, despite the modification). The mock-up’s fixed windscreen was reluctantly accepted (the FX3’s screen could be opened in order to assist navigation through London’s notorious pea-souper fogs, but these were now seen as being a thing of the past), while the headrests fitted in the rear compartment were rejected for fear that they might provide a breeding ground for head lice.
Getting the Austin FX4 into production
Once approved, Carbodies set about productionising the design and preparing the first working prototype. Despite its all-new bodywork, the FX4 owed much to the underlying principles established by the FX3: like its predecessor, it relied on a combination of a separate chassis and the partition between the front and rear compartments for the body’s considerable rigidity, and the method of constructing the car’s superstructure was also carried over.
One key consideration at the design stage was to ensure that the outer panels, so vulnerable in the cut and thrust of London traffic, could easily be replaced – to this end, both front and rear wings, and the outer sills, were bolt-on items, while the doors were specifically constructed in such a way as to facilitate the replacement of the outer skins. In true BMC tradition, the company parts bin was raided to ensure that the FX4 could be fitted out in a cost-effective manner – understandable, given the car’s rather limited market and consequently low production volumes.
The basic chassis was carried over from the FX3, meaning that the FX4 sat on the same wheelbase, but it inherited the independent front suspension and rear axle from the similarly-sized Austin Westminster saloon. Various interior parts, such as the door pulls, were also taken from the Westminster (somewhat inadvisably, as we shall see), while the external door handles provided the only outwardly visible link with the new cab’s illustrious forebear.
What the trade think of the FX4?
Some 18 months after the mock-up had been approved, representatives of the London cab trade were invited to assess the first prototype at a viewing at the Carbodies plant in Holyhead Road, Coventry. Their reaction was not favourable, with one outspoken member of the party describing it simply as ‘bloody awful.’ Criticism was particularly directed at the car’s overall bulk and weight, although it was only some six inches longer (and very slightly wider) than the FX3, having grown to the maximum 15ft length allowed by the PCO. In his book Carbodies: The Complete Story, Bill Munro quotes one attendee at this viewing session as later recalling that ‘the doors opened the wrong way’, a reference to the fact that the FX4’s rear doors, like those of the FX3, were hinged at their rearward edge, whereas it had become the norm for the rear doors on post-War passenger cars to be hinged the other way.
The traditional arrangement had come to be known as the ‘suicide door’, on the grounds that passengers took their life in their hands when alighting from such a vehicle: if the door happened to be hit by a passing car travelling in the same direction, the passenger’s legs (at least) would almost certainly be crushed against the car’s bodywork, whereas in a similar situation, a forward-hinged door would simply be pushed out of the way. This comment indicates that there was a feeling among the cab trade that it was time to abandon the traditional, rear-hinged layout, but this was by no means universally held.
The PCO had always favoured rear-hinged doors, as it was felt that they somehow discouraged errant passengers from trying to abscond without paying their fare, while cabbies themselves had grown used to the convenience of being able to reach back and use the outside handle to open the rear door for passengers, without having to leave the driver’s seat. Above all, such doors also provided a more intuitive means of entry to and egress from the rear compartment. Indeed, in the absence of a legislative requirement stating otherwise, the FX4 would retain its rearward-hinged rear doors throughout its production life.
The prototype goes for approval
With the cab trade’s comments duly noted, the prototype (above) was swiftly submitted for PCO approval on 10 January 1958 and, within roughly five months, the first production-ready prototype – registered VLW 431 – was delivered for approval, being passed some two weeks later on 14 July. Why, you might ask, did this vehicle require PCO approval when the original prototype had been passed back in January of that year?
Well, PCO regulations state that every single cab that enters service in London must be granted a specific Type Approval certificate to ensure that it conforms to the Conditions of Fitness, and has not been modified in any way that might compromise its safety.
This certificate must also be produced at the subsequent quarterly inspections, where the cab’s continued compliance is assessed. Having gained its Type Approval certificate, VLW 431 entered service with a King’s Cross-based cab company for a period of evaluation, and became quite a celebrity, appearing in the official publicity photographs taken for the new vehicle, and also in a number of promotional films. The cab’s press launch, which would take place at that year’s Commercial Motor Show in September, was still some five months off, and it would not be until 25 November 1958 that the first production version would be granted Type Approval and the cab be officially put on sale.
Getting it ready for production
In the meantime, Carbodies was struggling with the complexities of gearing up for full-scale production. The problems mainly related to the pressing of the complex roof and bonnet panels, the former of which included the rear pillars and window surround. Carbodies’ Production Engineer, Percy McNally, had personally taken charge of the development and design of many of the pressing tools for the new cab, and had felt confident that these two main panels could each be pressed from a single sheet of metal.
However, it soon became apparent the roof panel in particular was just too large for the pressing machine to handle, with the result that time and again, the panels would emerge from the presses creased and puckered, meaning that they had be sent to an outside contractor to be refinished to an acceptable standard – an expensive and time-consuming process.
Realising they were in a fix, with the company’s ability to meet expected orders now in serious jeopardy, the Board of Carbodies’ parent company BSA persuaded the experienced former tool-room supervisor Bill Lucas (who had left in May 1954 as a result of the BSA takeover) to return and sort out the mess. With the assistance of toolroom foreman George Dodson, Lucas quickly diagnosed the problems and ordered changes to the tooling – as a result, the bonnet gremlins were completely eradicated, while the ill-effects of pressing the roof panel were minimised until such time as a more satisfactory solution could be implemented. All of this meant that deliveries of FX4s were delayed well into the second half of 1959. However, Lucas had saved Carbodies’ bacon; he stayed with the company for the rest of his working life, becoming Director and General Manager in 1969.
Austin FX4’s teething troubles
Once the FX4 had finally entered service, it did not take long for a raft of further problems to emerge. Those Austin Westminster-sourced door pulls were soon found to be unfit for purpose, bearing in mind the frequency with which a taxi door would be opened and closed within the course of its working day. A similar problem affected the cable used to pull the driver’s door shut, yet unbelievably this was not addressed until stocks of the original cables has been used up, almost a year later!
Rather more seriously, drivers reported that the bonnet would often be released onto its safety catch if a pothole was encountered, and in at least one case this led to an accident when the bonnet flew up and blocked the driver’s view. In addition to all this, further concerns were emerging regarding what remained of McNally’s original tooling for the body panels. Austin felt that much of it was simply unserviceable, while Carbodies was now losing money on every cab it built.
Austin reluctantly agreed to pay Carbodies a subsidy of £100 per cab and, in 1960, an agreement was reach whereby the costs of retooling the troublesome roof panel and the bootlid – amounting to almost £200,000 – would be split three ways between Austin (which carried out the work), Carbodies and Mann & Overton. Over the next couple of years, the doors, with their innovative construction, would also be reworked, for in designing them to be easy to repair, NcNally had also made them complex and labour-intensive to produce in the first place.
Manual transmissions needed
From launch, the FX4 had only been available with automatic transmission, using a new Borg-Warner gearbox which was seen as being ideal for intensive city use. However, this was met with fierce resistance by many of its potential customers, most of whom were unaccustomed to anything other than the manual change of the FX3. Many of those drivers who did try their hand with the autobox subjected it to such abuse that serious failures within a fraction of the transmission’s projected lifetime were commonplace.
Austin had little choice to offer the option of the Austin Gipsy’s four-speed manual gearbox from 1961, with a new type of Borg-Warner automatic being introduced in 1964. Cabbies were also finding that the FX4’s driving environment was not entirely to their liking. The driver’s compartment, having been based on the same dimensions as the FX3’s, was considered cramped for anyone of above average height – a problem that would also have been familiar to many limousine chauffeurs of the time, where design efforts were always centred on devoting as much space as possible to the rear passenger compartment.
The driver’s tolerance levels were further tested by the instrusive noise of the diesel engine, which had also been carried over from the FX3 – this particular problem was compounded by the PCO’s refusal to sanction the installation of sound-deadening material, as they considered it to be a potential fire hazard.
There would be no quick and easy solution to the lack of space, but in an attempt to address the noise issue, Austin introduced the option of the FX3’s original 2.2-litre petrol engine in 1962 – of course, this was little more than a gesture, as the city-based fleet operators continued to favour the diesel’s lower running costs (although the petrol version did find friends amongst owner-drivers, particularly those who frequently undertook longer runs). In fact, it was not until the curiously vocal Noise Abatement Society took up the cause in a 1968 report that the PCO finally relented on the issue of soundproofing.
Austin FX4 gets a mid-life facelift
In 1968, following the abandonment of the proposed ADO39 replacement model, the FX4 received its first (and only significant) facelift. The rear wings were redesigned to accept the tail lights from the MkII version of the BMC 1100/1300, thus doing away with the need for the roof-mounted turn-indicators; this also required the fitting of separate front indicators, which were mounted on the front wings below the headlamps.
While the drivers no doubt welcomed this update, they were surely far more grateful for the long-awaited sound-deadening, and the extra four inches of legroom which was liberated by setting the partition at an angle, thus allowing a less-upright driving position. One drawback to this modification was that the partition now encroached on the aperture of the rear door, preventing it from accepting a standard wheelchair, although this was not seen as being a significant problem at the time – after all, the cab had never actually been designed to take a wheelchair in the first place, and there was no legislation that required it to do so.
Three years later, in 1971, the FX4’s 2178cc diesel engine was replaced with an uprated version of the same Austin unit, bored out to 2520cc – this usefully raised the cab’s top speed from 60mph to 70mph, making jaunts along the M4 to Heathrow airport that much more tolerable.
Becoming a part of the British Leyland empire
In the period following the formation of British Leyland, many attempts were made to rationalise both the sprawling range of models and the similarly sprawling array of production facilities which the company had inherited. While the proposed ADO39 taxicab had been an early casualty of this process, another decision would have significant implications for the FX4 and Carbodies. Donald Stokes had put George Turnbull in charge of the Austin-Morris division, and, ever a realist, Turnbull had decided that the former Morris Commercial Cars plant at Adderley Park in Birmingham was no longer viable.
This move would see the production of the ex-BMC light trucks move to the Government-sponsored Bathgate factory in Scotland, but Adderley Park had also been building the chassis for the FX4 since production had been transferred from Longbridge in 1960. To Turnbull, the solution was obvious. He met up with Bill Lucas at the 1970 Commercial Motor Show and, during an impromptu meeting conducted in the back of a black cab on the Carbodies stand (above), Turnbull offered Lucas the chassis manufacturing equipment, with the proviso that his Austin-Morris division would retain control over the FX4’s design and developent programme.
Lucas warmed to the idea – he and Turnbull were old friends, having worked together in the 1960s when Turnbull, as Managing Director of Standard-Triumph, had outsourced the production of the Leyland 20 van and Triumph 2000 estate to Carbodies. Furthermore, the advantages of having the whole production process under one roof were not lost on Lucas, and he agreed to the idea there and then, providing it could be achieved without having to cut any jobs.
Sending the FX4 to Coventry
The not inconsiderable task of relocating the plant from Adderley Park to Carbodies’ Coventry factory was accomplished by the following Spring, and far from suffering any job losses, Lucas ensured that the workers actually found themselves on better terms than they had been under British Leyland. Furthermore, despite Turnbull’s insistence that Austin-Morris should remain in overall charge of the cab, the reality of the turmoil within British Leyland in the lead-up to the Ryder Report meant that the company took little or no further interest in the FX4, merely rubber-stamping any changes that Carbodies could get past the PCO.
With this newfound autonomy, the future looked bright, but Carbodies’ parent company BSA was in trouble. Its main business was building motorbikes, and it had suffered badly from the onslaught of astonishingly competent machines from Japanese manufacturers, notably Honda. Faced with crippling losses, the BSA Board brought in Lord Shawcross as Chairman of the motorcycle division, with the backing of their bankers, in the hope that he could rescue the company. In June 1972, Shawcross approached the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) for help in fund the development of a new range.
With Edward Heath’s Conservatives in office, the DTI looked to the private sector to find a solution, and came up with Manganese Bronze Holdings (MBH). MBH had recently purchased BSA’s rival Norton, and the DTI offered to make £20m of public funds available if the two companies merged. BSA had little choice but to accept, and so it was that Carbodies became part of MBH. At the time, there were those within Carbodies who felt that this would surely spell the end for the FX4 – this could have had far-reaching consequences for the PCO and the taxi trade in general, as the FX4 was by this time the only purpose-built taxicab in production. Around this time, Bill Lucas was personally offered the post of Managing Director of Lotus Cars by Colin Chapman himself. However, once the dust had settled, MBH proved to be fully committed to continuing production of the taxi, and Lucas was offered a package which banished all thoughts of his leaving for Lotus.
Getting the FX4 through tougher regulations
The next significant development for the FX4 came in 1973, when it was forced to comply with the new EC safety rules which were due to come into force the following year. The regulations required such measures as a collapsible steering column, burst-proof door locks and a safer facia. The regulations also meant that the FX4 had to be crash tested for the first time ever. This prospect naturally caused some consternation at Carbodies: if the FX4 failed the test, it could effectively be outlawed within in a matter of months.
The vaguely parochial nature of the company’s operation is revealed in the fact that it fell to the distributors Mann & Overton to supply the cab that was to be crash tested, as Carbodies themselves could not afford to do so. Austin carried out the required engineering changes to the steering and chassis, while Carbodies devised a soft-faced dashboard, and the modified cab was submitted to MIRA for the test.
In the event, they had little to worry about: the cab stood up very well to the test (which involved running it into a concrete block at 30mph), something which was attributed to its separate chassis. 1973 also saw the withdrawal of the 2199cc petrol unit, as it was not cost-effective to make it comply with the new exhaust emissions legislation which would take effect from January 1974. Indeed, since the demise of the Austin Gipsy and the LD van in the 1960s, this engine had been built solely for the FX4 and the FL2 hire-car. Thus, by the end of the year, these models had reverted to being available in diesel form only.
Running changes through the 1970s
Following the introduction of the upgraded engine in 1971, doubts had been raised about the effectiveness of the cab’s original drum brakes, leading to several options being explored. Trials with ventilated front drums had proved unsuccessful, and the fitting of disc brakes from the Austin parts bin was ruled out as it would have required further expensive re-engineering of the front suspension to avoid fouling, so thoughts instead turned to servo-assistance. Carbodies devised a system that would have acted on all four wheels, but found that the funds to implement it on the production line were not forthcoming from either Austin or Mann & Overton.
However, by 1976, something had to be done and, against the advice of those who understood such things, a cheaper solution was introduced, featuring a servo which acted on the front wheels only. The predictable result was that it became almost impossible to bring the cab to a smooth halt, as the brakes would snatch violently when applied at low speeds. A further consequence was excessive wear and tear on the brake drums and linings, leading to increased costs for the operators. However, Mann and Overton (which had eventually come up with the funding for the compromise solution) adopted a stony-faced stance in the face of the resulting complaints, maintaining that cabbies would simply have to adapt their driving style.
1976 also heralded a happier event in the history of Carbodies, with the formation of its own Sales and Distribution arm to handle the marketing of the FX4 outside of London. Under an agreement dating back to the development of the FX3, this function had previously been performed by Austin (latterly from their base in Redditch), but Bill Lucas recognised that British Leyland’s rapidly declining interest in the taxi meant that he could do far better by taking the operation in-house. In doing so, he particularly had his mind on realising the sales potential in the large provincial cities such as Birmingham. Of course, Mann & Overton retained its vice-like grip on the crucial London market, but this was nevertheless an important step in Carbodies’ gradual progression from their starting position as a contractor in the taxi-building process to eventually adopting full responsibility for the vehicle.
And into the 1980s…
As the 1970s rolled to a close, British Leyland chief Michael Edwardes gave Carbodies three years’ notice that production of the FX4’s 2520cc diesel engine was to be discontinued. As a result of his restructuring of the state-owned group, he had decided to close down the Courthouse Green factory in Coventry, where the taxi’s engine was made. A deal had been struck for the factory’s plant to be sold to Standard in India, where the engine would be used in the Leyland 20-based van that was still in production out there, so the hunt was on for a new engine to power the FX4.
At first, thoughts turned to the Land Rover engine: it was a diesel unit of similar displacement to the taxi’s current engine, and the link with Britsh Leyland would be maintained. However, Lucas spoke to his old friend Harry Webster, and received a stark warning: don’t do it. Webster was concerned that the Land Rover unit was simply not suited to sort of low-speed, high-mileage, stop-start life that the taxi would inevitably lead. On the strength of this advice, Lucas decided to steer clear and instead looked to other suppliers. Ford had a 2.3-litre diesel, but would not guarantee it beyond a laughable 45,000 miles, so he instead turned to Peugeot, who offered him the new 2.5-litre unit for trial purposes.
An FX4 was promptly fitted with a Peugeot unit at the French factory, and entered service in Birmingham. After a year’s trial of almost round-the-clock use in the hands of a succession of drivers, the Peugeot engine suffered only one failure, making it far more reliable than anything that had powered the FX4 before. Lucas was sold on it, and felt sure that it was the right way to go, but fate played a card and in February 1979 he was forced to take early retirement on health grounds.
A change at the top
Lucas was succeeded by Grant Lockhart, a Director of British Leyland’s Cowley factory who had become available after falling out with Michael Edwardes over the latter’s second phase of reforms. In many ways Lockhart was a man after Lucas’s heart, feeling that the needs of the driver should be given greater consideration than they had in the past, and he set about making the FX4 more habitable. New trim levels – HL and HLS – were launched, with features such as radio-cassettes and sliding sunroofs becoming available for the first time (with the approval of the PCO, of course).
Also, London was set to become a more colourful city as the range of standard body colours was extended to include Midnight Blue and Dark Brown, in addition to the existing options of Raven Black, White and Carmine Red. Indeed, the term ‘black cab’ had always been something of a misnomer, as there had never been any requirement for London cabs to be black, and it had been possible for buyers to specify other colours from Austin’s range on a special order basis since the 1960s. Lockhart’s improvements proved popular enough, but there was still the matter of the new engine.
As the trial of the Peugeot-engined FX4 continued, further problems emerged. Peugeot were keen to work with Carbodies to iron out these troubles – after all, it would be in Peugeot’s own interests to do so – but Carbodies had a pressing deadline to meet and chose instead to look elsewhere. Perkins had recently released a 3.0-litre diesel engine, but this was seen as being too powerful for the FX4. Lockhart’s search for a readily-available engine in the 2- to 2.5-litre bracket fatefully led him back to Land Rover.
Independence: Carbodies gets the FX4
By 1982, with Carbodies now responsible for building the taxi and marketing it outside London, and with a Land Rover engine soon to appear under the bonnet, the Austin badge on the grille was looking like something of an irrelevance. Ever since the company had stopped building the Triumph 2000 estate in 1977, the FX4 had increasingly become the focus of Carbodies’ activity. With peripheral projects such as the ex-Crayford Cortina Coupe conversion, now abandoned, Lockhart felt it was time for Carbodies to claim the FX4 as its own and, in truth, British Leyland was all too happy to cut it loose.
Carbodies acquired the intellectual property rights and, having gained National Type Approval for the FX4, its SMMT classification was upgraded from ‘bodymaker’ to ‘manufacturer’. Thus, when the FX4R was announced in the autumn of 1982, it proudly carried a ‘Carbodies’ badge on its grille in place of the Austin one, but it was hardly an auspicious debut. The suffix in its designation denoted the newly-fitted (Land) Rover-sourced engine, and it wasn’t long before the warning that Harry Webster had given to Bill Lucas proved to be only too valid.
While the 2286cc unit had earned a good reputation for reliability in the Land Rover, and was certainly far less noisy than the old Austin diesels had been, the sort of use it received in the taxi didn’t agree with it at all, and the FX4R quickly gained a reputation for unreliability. On the plus side, the FX4R was the first model to benefit from a five-speed (manual) gearbox and power steering, and its brakes were much improved over those of previous models, but these points were not enough to reverse the sharp decline in orders which had occurred as word about the model’s problems had spread and cab operators and owner-drivers alike opted to keep their existing cabs running rather than invest in a new one.
Struggling with Land Rover power
Clearly, there was a need to address the FX4R’s problems, but to Lockhart’s dismay (and also to that of Land Rover’s own Engineers), British Leyland took little interest in helping to resolve the issues surrounding the engine. The reality of the situation, of course, was that British Leyland was in turmoil at the time, and could not readily turn its attention to what it saw as third-party problems. Carbodies took the extraordinary step of setting up an operation to remanufacture second-hand cabs: brand new bodywork and recoditioned suspension components were fitted to refurbished chassis, and a new ex-Austin engine – freshly imported from Standard in India! – was installed.
These cabs were re-registered on Q-prefix number plates and sold directly by Carbodies, through a London-based dealership called Rebuilt Cabs Limited, for £1500 less than the cost of a new FX4R. Its unusual registrations saw these models referred to as the FX4Q, and while lacking the newer model’s power steering, they proved to be a popular alternative to the FX4R. Meanwhile, in 1984, independent consultants Ricardo Engineering were asked to find a new engine for the FX4R, and they identified Nissan’s TC diesel unit. However, that was about to be replaced with a newly-developed range, so Carbodies decided to wait. As a stop-gap, Spen King (who was involved with Carbodies’ CR6 project at the time) suggested using Land Rover’s 2.5-litre unit, and this eventually saw the light of day with the launch of the FX4S in 1985.
For Lockhart, there was an even greater priority be addressed. You will already have read that Mann & Overton Ltd had complete control over the sales and distribution of licensed cabs in the London area (which was, of course, far and away the largest market for these vehicles), and their finance arm was also responsible for providing the funding with which most owner-drivers purchased their cabs.
Reorganisation is in the air
Mann & Overton had increasingly held the purse strings on any development work required on the FX4, as British Leyland’s interest in it (financial and otherwise) had dwindled and Carbodies lacked the necessary resources. But Mann & Overton’s influence over Carbodies went much deeper than that: for years, it had restricted the supply of new cabs by only ordering a set amount from Carbodies each month, despite the fact that Carbodies easily had the production capacity to meet the full demand.
The method in Mann & Overton’s madness was chiefly down to maintaining the residual values of used cabs, whose sales they also controlled – by ensuring that there was always a long waiting list for new cabs, the price of second-hand ones could be kept artificially high.
Naturally, this tail-wagging-the-dog practice had greatly irked Bill Lucas in his days as Director and General Manager of Carbodies, and he had unsuccessfully tried to persuade his Chairman Dennis Poore to buy Mann & Overton when the opportunity arose in 1978. To be fair, changes to the management structure within Mann & Overton during the early 1980s had seen the company adopt a more dynamic, customer-focused approach, but the company was still acting as the middle-man between Carbodies and the bulk of its true customers.
The FX4Q venture had given Carbodies its first opportunity to sell one of its own products in the crucial London market, and Lockhart felt it was high time to take the bull by the horns. So, when Mann & Overton’s parent company Lloyds Bowmaker decided to sell off the retail arm in 1984, Lockhart successfully persuaded Dennis Poore to snap it up. As a result, a new umbrella company – London Taxis International (LTI) – was formed, incorporating Carbodies as the manufacturer and Mann & Overton as the retailer.
Say hello to London Taxis International
With LTI finally enjoying full control of development, production and marketing, the FX4 would benefit from a far greater number of significant improvements over the next ten years than it had ever seen in the previous twenty-four, in some part prompted by the launch of the MCW Metrocab in 1987, which provided the FX4 with its first serious competition in over 15 years.
The following table gives a brief summary of the various developments which took place during this period:
2.5-litre Land Rover engine replaces the FX4R’s unreliable 2286cc unit, and changes on the production line ensure that build quality is generally improved. Changes to the layout of the rear compartment mean that the cab can now be licensed to carry five passengers (rather than four as before). Better trim and switchgear bring some minor but welcome improvements for the driver. Outwardly identifiable by its black bumpers and LTI badges.
Offered as a £1700 conversion on new or existing cabs, the W stood for wheelchair accessible. By hinging the nearside rear door on the B-post and allowing half of partition to be slid forwards into the luggage area, Carbodies provided a means of ensuring that passengers in wheelchairs could be carried in rear compartment. Post-1987, this evolved into a cheaper, sub-£1000 conversion, in which the FX4S’s standard rear-hinged doors were adapted to open back a full 180°, and the base of the rear seat could be hinged up to provide more floor-space. This would become a standard feature on the Fairway of 1989.
|Sep 1987||FX4S Plus
New moulded dashboard with face-level ventilation, plus the option of electric windows. Laminated plastic rear springs and telescopic shock absorbers gave passengers a smoother ride, and the range of standard colours was extended to include City Grey, Sherwood Green and Burgundy.
A traditional Carbodies name from the 1930s is revived to mark the introduction of the Nissan 2.7-litre engine, initially available only with manual transmission. Offered in three trim levels – Bronze, Silver and Gold – with top-spec models finally getting rear headrests. Impending legislation saw wheelchair accessibility become a standard feature.
|Feb 1993||Fairway Driver
The FX4’s final relaunch saw it benefit from completely new GKN-developed suspension and much-improved braking, thus justifying the Driver tag. The last of these models could even be had with such options as air suspension, electric sunroof and air conditioning, although ticking all the boxes could add £10,000 to the list price.
Towards the end – and a new beginning
In its swansong incarnation as the Fairway Driver, the FX4 had finally evolved into a vehicle which could hold its own against the Metrocab, and cabbies warmed to it once again. Still, it was time for LTI to face the fact that its replacement could wait no longer: a raft of pending EC-wide legislation, governing everything from emissions to crash safety, would ensure that the FX4 would be forced out of production by the end of the 1990s, if not before. When the final FX4 was built on 1 October 1997, the current registration prefix letter was R, and some bright spark at Carbodies had the presence of mind to purchase the Select Registration R1 PFX (think about it…) from the DVLA, and thus registered, the cab was despatched to the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu.
Two weeks later, the FX4’s replacement was launched at the new British Library in London. The CR6 trials in the early 1980s had taught the company two important lessons: firstly, trying to base a new taxi on an existing production vehicle was a false economy, as the amount of modifications required to the standard panels would simply result in a compromise that offered the worst of both worlds; and second, for all the griping that the FX4 may have engendered over the years, you mess with its distinctive and well-loved shape at your peril.
Thus, after four years in development, the FX4’s thoroughly modern successor – the TX1 – emerged in 1997 as a purpose-built design which clearly retained many of its predecessor’s styling cues. For some observers, the TX1’s bug-eyed appearance was symptomatic of the pre-millennium trend for pastiche which would also produce such cars as the Chrysler PT Cruiser, the Volkswagen Beetle and the MINI. Indeed, one cabbie was heard to remark at the time that he’d be sticking with his Fairway as the TX1 reminded him of the Noddy car. However, the pragmatic view was that the TX1 was a well-developed cab which would soon blend seamlessly into London’s busy cityscape, as did its eventual replacement, the LEVC TX eCity.
Above all, the cabbies at last had the vehicle for which they had been waiting almost 30 years.
The following figures cover both the FX4 (taxi) and FL2 (hire car) while they were built as Austins. Post-1981, they were marketed under the Carbodies brand.
- 1958/59 216
- 1959/60 1480
- 1960/61 1365
- 1961/62 738
- 1962/63 1309
- 1963/64 1282
- 1964/65 1530
- 1964/65 1423
- 1965/66 1258
- 1966/67 1943
- 1967/68 1468
- 1968/69 2272
- 1970/71† 2691
- 1971/72 2833
- 1972/73 2397
- 1973/74 2312
- 1974/75 2082
- 1975/76 3122
- 1977 2687
- 1978 2422
- 1979 2439
- 1980 2007
- 1981 2049
- Total 43,225
† NB: Production of the chassis moved from the former Morris Commercial Cars plant at Adderley Park to Carbodies at Holyhead Road, Coventry during this year. The figures for each location during 1970/71 are: Adderley Park: 1591; Holyhead Road: 1100. (Figures prior to the transfer relate only to production of chassis, but will be closely indicative of numbers of vehicles produced).
Calendar of years:
1958/59 to 1974/75 (October to September)
1975/76 (October 1975 to December 1976 – 15 months)
1977 onwards (January to December)
Written by Declan Berridge, with reference to:
- Carbodies: The Complete Story by Bill Munro, 1998 (ISBN: 1-86126-127-6)
- A History of the London Taxicab by Nick Georgano, 1973 (ISBN: 0-87749-352-9)
- Taxi! The Story of the ‘London’ Taxicab by Malcolm Bobbitt, 1998 (ISBN: 1-874105-99-5)
- The London Taxi by Nick Georgano, 1985 (ISBN: 0 85263 772 1)
- Taxi! by Simon Garner and Giles Stokoe, 2000 (ISBN: 9 780711 21544 8)
- Complete Catalogue of Austin Cars Since 1945 by Anders Ditlev Clausager, 1992 (ISBN: 1-870979-26-5)
- Men and Motors of ‘The Austin’ by Barney Sharratt, 2000 (ISBN: 1 85960 671 7)
- The converters : Crayford Engineering TR7 Tracer - 27 March 2023
- Concepts and prototypes : BL Safety Research Vehicles (1968-1977) - 19 November 2022
- Concepts and prototypes : Rover SD1 Estate (1976-1978) - 5 October 2022