The cars : Austin FL2 development story

Ever seen an Austin FX4 not wearing its illuminated taxi light on its roof? Chances are it’s an Austin FL2, the black cab designed for hire and reward drivers.

Declan Berridge tells the story of this fascinating, and lesser-spotted Austin…

Austin FL2: hire and reward!

Austin FL2

When is a taxi not a taxi? Why, when it’s a hire car, of course. The Austin FX4 was also built as a car designed for the ‘private hire’ market (what we might call the minicab trade today). The FL2 differed from the FX4 in two key respects: most obvious was the lack of the roof-mounted ‘Taxi’ sign, while inside there was a passenger seat alongside the driver’s, rather than the usual void waiting to be filled with suitcases.

Like its predecessor, the FX3-based FL1, the FL2 owed its existence chiefly to the fact that Carbodies needed to maximise the potential return on what was, after all, a very low-volume car building operation, and a car that could be sold outside the licensed taxi trade could generate vital extra sales.

That said, the FL2 was never going to be a big seller. Unlike the FX4, it was classed as a private car rather than a commercial vehicle, thus attracting purchase tax – this, in addition to an already higher list price, made the FL2 a rather expensive proposition. Nevertheless, in its heyday, it accounted for up to 25% of total FX4/FL2 sales, with most going to the provincial markets.

FL2’s gift to the rich and famous

Incidentally, the FL2’s classification as a private car helped ensure Carbodies’ presence at the British Motor Show, as up until the 1980s the organisers’ regulations meant that the FX4 could only be displayed at the separate Commercial Motor Show. The FL2 also found favour with a variety of celebrities, with owners ranging from actors (including Sid James and Sir Laurence Olivier) to the Duke of Edinburgh – the car’s ability to negotiate London’s street without attracting so much as a second glance must surely have been a great part of its appeal to such high-profile customers.

In the mid-1970s, a new piece of Government legislation looked like it would spell the end of the road for the FL2. The minicab trade had grown rapidly from humble beginnings in the early 1960s, and in some respects it had becoming an unruly business, with some of the larger firms being run by nefarious characters. It’s important to understand that, unlike today, minicab firms did not need to be licensed and not all were scrupulous about the calibre of driver they employed. The key operational difference between the licensed ‘black’ cabs and mini cabs was that by law only the former were allowed to pick up fares on the street, whereas minicabs had to be booked through the operating company’s control room, which would then allocate jobs to the best-placed driver.

There were, of course, those minicab drivers who blatantly flouted the law, plying for trade at airports, stations, bus stops – in fact, anywhere they could be sure of finding customers. Concerns were raised that some of these drivers were using FL2s (or even old FX4s) to give the impression that they were bona fide licensed cab drivers, so as part of the Local Authorities Act 1976, the Government made it illegal for any vehicle of purpose-built taxicab design to be used by minicab operators, in order prevent the possibility of the fare-paying public being duped. Although it didn’t say so in as many words, this legislation was aimed squarely at the FL2, but Carbodies’ protestations fell on deaf ears.

How to encourage new FL2 customers

Where to, sir? The humble hire car is reborn as a vehicle of altogether higher rank...
Where to, sir? The humble hire car is reborn as a vehicle of altogether higher rank…

Carbodies was faced with a stark choice: either discontinue the FL2 altogether, or try to find a new way of marketing it. As you might expect, it chose the latter course. Taking the bull by the horns, Carbodies took over the marketing of the FX4/FL2 outside of London from British Leyland, setting up the subsidiary company Carbodies Sales and Service Limited to handle these markets. While there was still some opportunity to sell the FL2 to hotels and other businesses for use as a courtesy car, Carbodies (and, in the London area, the established taxi distributors and key stakeholders, Mann & Overton) also hoped to attract new buyers in the chauffeur-driven market by selling the car as a limousine.

After all, it had the right credentials, with a roomy rear compartment that could be fitted out to suit the tastes of individual clients. The lengthy options list for this version included such sybarritic delights as air conditioning (at a mere £2700 inc. VAT), a re-trim in leather (at around £1000) and electric windows (at over £200 per window, as this would also have required the installation of a winding mechanism). A purchaser ticking all the boxes would have seen the 1980 list price of £8023 (for the automatic model) rocket to over £17,500 – about the same as a Ferrari 308 at the time – and that’s before he’d specified his preferred sound system.

Yet, even fully kitted out, the FL2 limousine still came in at some £3000 less than its most obvious rival, the admittedly rather more imposing Daimler DS420, which cost £20,500 in standard form. That must have made the FL2 an attractive proposition for many potential customers, particularly those who wished to keep a low profile while being driven around in luxury. Furthermore, in keeping with the aim of catering to the bespoke market, the price list proudly claimed that, ‘we have to date met all customers’ requirements. Should any further modifications be desired, we are prepared to investigate and quote.’

Expanding the FL2 theme

 Yank tank: the bottom fell out of the Sterling's market when the hoped-for US sales failed to materialise.
Yank tank: the bottom fell out of the Sterling’s market when the hoped-for US sales failed to materialise

The 1980s also brought some new developments for the FL2. A couple of attempts at producing stretched versions came to nothing (see the specialist conversions feature for further details), but marginally greater success was found in the US, where the FL2 limousine was marketed by the specially-formed London Coach Co. Inc. as the London Sterling (above), alongside the FX4-based ‘London Taxi’. A number of changes were made to the vehicles for the US market – some of these (such as the moulded-plastic external door handles and beefier bumpers) would later find their way onto the UK cars, while others (such as the MGB-sourced rear light clusters) would not.

In addition, the London Sterling was distinguished by a partial vinyl roof, while both models gained rather twee transfers on the rear doors announcing their new names. More significantly, the cars also received an engine transplant for their American role, as the standard diesel engine was not compliant with US emissions regulations, and would in any case have offered inadequate performance. Thus, the 2.3-litre petrol engine from the Ford Mustang was used instead. It didn’t take long for this venture to be scuppered by rising costs resulting largely from an unruly exchange rate, and sales halted shortly afterwards, with barely a tenth of the projected 500 London Taxis and London Sterlings having been sold.

In later years, the market for purpose-built limousines dwindled, as less expensive and better supported stretch-limos came to the fore. When the FX4 was finally replaced by the TX1 in 1997, the new model could be bought only as a taxicab.

Written reference to: Carbodies: The Complete Story by Bill Munro (ISBN: 1-86126-127-6)

Declan Berridge

1 Comment

  1. Interesting that Carbodies used the Sterling badge to try and sell in America before Rover used it for the same purposes

    And equally unsuccessfully…

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