24 June 2016

Top Ten Minicabs

On the 6th March 1961 a London firm named Carline exploited a loophole in the 1869 Carriage Act, claiming that this only applied to cabs that plied for hire on the streets - not to cars that responded to calls made to a central office which were then relayed to the driver. The age of the minicab had commenced and here are ten of the best remembered forms of transport from the airport, railway station or dubious kebab emporium.

Renault Dauphine
Not the first minicab in the UK – that honour went to the Anglia 105Es run by Carline – but certainly the highest profile thanks to one Michael Gotla, the proprietor of a car rental company named Welbeck Motors. His genius of publicity resulted in many a newspaper article about his ‘£560,000 order’ for 800 Dauphines, the corduroy uniforms for his drivers (which gave them a faintly paramilitary air) and how advertisers could rent space on the Renault’s doors. His minicabs would even venture into the outer suburbs for a mere 1/- per mile, after a 4d ‘phone call to WELbeck 0561. London’s black cab drivers were less than impressed; punters were soon treated to the spectacle of FX3s chasing Dauphines along The Strand accompanied by some un-jovial Cockney oaths.

Fiat 600 Multipla
The original Fiat 600 Multipla was such a masterpiece of packaging – a forward control version of the 600, fitted with four doors and seating for up to six occupants –  that it quickly became one of the most familiar Rome taxis of its day. Back in the UK, one Tom Sylvester commissioned a 25 strong fleet of black and white Fiats which entered service in June 1961, further annoying the capital’s FX3 and FX4 drivers. However, the first generation of minicabs came to an end after a court ruling of May 31st 1962 decreed that some of their drivers were plying for hire and thus breaking the law. Fortunately, footage of the Multiplas in action were preserved for posterity by this splendid Pathe Newsreel http://www.britishpathe.com/video/look-out-taxis/query/minicabs.

Ford Consul-Cortina
The Glamcabs of Carry On Cabby may have been a result of the series’ producer Peter Rogers need for a large number of cars at zero cost to himself but the original Cortina did establish a niche for itself as a taxi. Operators could specify a bench front seat and a steering column gear change, there was the option ‘Standard model’ with virtually nothing as standard and the boot was quite vast. Best of all, the Ford looked rather sharp without being overtly trans-Atlantic in appearance – the ideal minicab for the go-ahead firm of 1963.

Austin A60 Cambridge/Morris Oxford Series VI
A minicab that appealed to traditionally minded operators in rural and provincial areas and was a familiar sight for years after ‘Farina’ production ceased in 1971; I can recall Oxford cabs in Southampton circa 1980. As with the Cortina there was the option of a four on the column to maximise interior space, plus a starting handle bracket for those cold mornings and a 1.5 litre diesel engine as an alternative to the standard BMC B series power plant. This last inevitably meant for less than scintillating performance - the maximum speed was 66mph with 0-60 in just under 40 seconds - but then the average Austin Cambridge driver rarely felt the need for speed.

Mercedes-Benz W123
There are few cars so popular that taxi drivers actually staged protest rallies against its successor but this is exactly what happened in Germany when the W123 was replaced by the W124 in 1985. In the UK a 240D might also double as a bridesmaids’ car, the driver regarding his or herself a cut above the average Granada driver – after all, the W123 had a waiting list for its entire production run. Indeed, when it was launched in 1976 certain dealers were known to wait outside of the Stuttgart plant and try to persuade the workers to sell the Mercedes that they had acquired at a discounted price.

Ford Granada Diesel Mk.2
Lurking at the back of Ford all model brochures of the late 1970s and early 1980s was the Granada Diesel, with its ‘electrical suppression for a two-way radio’, ‘extended wiring for a roof mounted sign’ and driver’s seat with ‘police type cold-cure foam interior’. There was also power steering and fog lamps but two special features in particular really give the flavour of a disastrous Friday evening in Portsmouth. First, there was a visual alarm system triggered by switch on the toe board that operated the hazard lights, horn and main beam and then there was the seating upholstered in easily cleaned vinyl. The glamour of it all…

Lada Riva
It is often forgotten just how ubiquitous a sight the Riva minicab was for many years. At an initially price of £3,158 the Lada was an attractive proposition for owner-drivers who cared less about its 1966 Fiat 124 derived coachwork than cost and functionality. The Riva may have been joked about by Hale & Pace but its road manners were frequently deemed superior to the likes of the Morris Ital, the estate car version was particularly suited for carrying large numbers of suitcases and the list of standard fittings was extensive. Besides, after an average night out in Fareham of 1987 you were unlikely to care about the marque or model of your transport home.

Nissan Prairie M10
There comes moment in the life of many a popular car when they seemingly vanish overnight and such is the case with the original Nissan Prairie. When it debuted in 1983 as the ‘Datsun Prairie (the formal use of Nissan badging commenced in the following year) many a taxi operator noted its tall body, sliding rear doors and choice of five or seven seats. The pillarless construction and lack of a ‘step up’ meant for easy access, the fuel economy was good and a spacious interior more than compensated for a slightly ungainly appearance. The Prairie was once as much a part of 1980s British life as Our Price record shops selling Now That’s What I Call Music 6 – but now they are as rare as decent acting on Holby City.

Renault Espace
Has it really been 33 years since the Espace was first seen in British Renault dealerships? Originally intended as a replacement for the Talbot Rancho, the ‘leisure vehicle’ project was eventually built by Matra for Renault, British imports commencing a year after the formal launch in 1984. It was not a cheap vehicle – the entry level GTS cost nearly £10,000 - the boot space was quite limited and the forward vision was somewhat restricted while some operators wondered about the durability of its GRP body panels. But by the end of the decade the Espace had established a niche for itself as an uber-fashionable s mini cab – and one that was more agreeable to drive than the Dauphine.

Nissan Bluebird T12
In the late 1980s, the average punter was often unware that the T12 was the first car to be built at Nissan’s plant in Sunderland. Nor were they often interested in the fact that the recently opened factory was vital to the region’s economy. What they mainly cared about was escaping the October rain at Yeovil Junction, recovering from a two-hour train journey in the company of a talkative double glazing salesman and being transported safely home to Rockliffe's Babies on BBC1. And the Bluebird 2.0-litre diesel was the ideal minicab of the day – possibly not as enjoyable to drive as a Peugeot 405 but utterly dependable and more than capable of 200,000 miles of reliable service.

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