The London Cab: Where Tradition Intersects with Contemporaneity

Even if you’ve never been to London, you undoubtedly know what a black cab looks like. Geely Design Barcelona recently took on the challenge of creating a new one.

David Ancona, General Manager and Design Director, Geely Design Barcelona, puts a compelling picture forth in order to explain why the TX taxi that he and his team developed looks like what most people think about when they imagine a “London cab” rather than something that is purely functionally indifferent, sort of the way that whatever it 
is that your Lyft or Uber drives up in probably doesn’t matter a whole lot.

Ancona: “It is very much part of the brand that is the city. Swapping them for black Mercedes Vitos is equivalent to taking the guardsman outside of Buckingham Palace and putting them in boilersuits.” Boilersuits, for the non-Anglophiles among us, are essentially mechanics coveralls.

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Somehow the changing of the guards wouldn’t be quite what it is if the sentries resembled machinery repairmen.

The Mercedes van can (and does) the transport job (yes, even in London). But does it look like a London cab, even if it is painted black?

The TX was designed for the London Electric Vehicle Company (LEVC), which is part of Geely, which explains Ancona’s participation in the project.

While the term “electric vehicle” is used in relation to the TX, it is actually a plug-in hybrid that uses a 110-kW motor that’s powered by a 31-kWh lithium-ion battery and provides 80.6 miles of electric range. 

Then there is an 81-hp 1.5-liter, three-cylinder turbocharged DOHC engine that acts as a generator that kicks in once the charge has been depleted. The total vehicle range is 377 miles. (The setup is like that used in “extended-range electric vehicles.”)

The TX is being produced in a new £250 million, 37,000-square meter factory (and headquarters) in Ansty, which is on the outskirts of Coventry (with Coventry being the place where black cabs were produced for the better part of the 20th century). At full volume, there is the capacity for 36,000 units per year.

While the cabs have historically been made of steel, the TX is produced with adhesively bonded aluminum, which Ancona says presented some design challenges in that the aluminum sections for the vehicle’s frame are larger than those made with steel, yet they had to increase the package size for occupants (including making the vehicle handicapped accessible) while not making it wider than the existing car and not being able to make it much longer because they had to take tight turning circles into account. He describes the “conditions of use” as being bound in a “thick book.” Given all of the requirements, Ancona admits, “We had something that wanted to be a van, but we couldn’t let it.”

What’s more, there was that issue of coming up with something that “looks” like a London cab. Ancona says that Peter Horbury, senior vice president, Styling Design, of Geely Auto Group, told him that they had to design a vehicle that wouldn’t cause all of those existing postcards of London to be binned.
 

Horbury chimes in, “It was made quite clear to us”—by the then mayor of London, Boris Johnson—“that it had to immediately look familiar.”

It seems that Johnson was particularly keen on the design of the black cab being somewhat traditional because during his 2008 campaign for mayor he said that he’d bring back an up-to-date double-deck bus, going back to the look of the AEC Routemaster, which had been taken out of service in 2005. The “New Routemaster,” designed by Heatherwick Studio and manufactured by Wrightbus International, first went into service in 2012, and it proved to be controversial and was given monikers including the “Boris bus” and the “Roastmaster.”

(Initially, the windows didn’t open and the HVAC wasn’t always up to the task, so the riders sometimes found themselves to be in a rolling broaster. As Douglas Murphy writes in Nincompoopolis: The Follies of Boris Johnson (Repeater Books): “If you were unlucky to get on when it was full then the heat, dampness, and general miasma from the proximity of so many other hot and damp people was enough to drive you to despair.” Not exactly the tourist attraction Johnson had in mind.). Johnson was mayor until May 2016, when he was succeeded by Sadiq Khan. Khan announced at the end of 2016 that they wouldn’t be buying any more of the buses for London.

The black cab had to give those controversies a swerve.

The black cab that’s been in production since 2007 is the TX4. It resembles what is thought of as a “London cab,” but Ancona says that’s not the cab that they looked to for reference. “We went one step back to the Austin FX4.” That was in production from 1958 to 1997. “The current TX, we thought, was an evolutionary dead end.” One of the reasons for that, he says, is because the TX4 has round forms and it was difficult to manage that while trying to achieve both a contemporary appearance and a vehicle that would handle six passengers and an electric powertrain.

The designers were dealing with an icon (“We were dealing with the family jewels, really,” Ancona quips). “We had to find the right pitch to be contemporary and modern but still fit seamlessly within the streets of London without everyone tripping over their umbrellas.” The objective wasn’t to burnish an existing design—simply make something that is retro yet up-to-date—but to be both new and timeless, to create something that would be evolutionary and offer longevity. “And we had to tickle all of the correct emotional boxes,” Ancona says.

Because of the height (it is 74.3 inches tall, including the roof light) and the width (73.8 inches excluding mirrors, 80.1 inches with them), Ancona says they used as many horizontal lines as they could on the car to visually lower and stretch it. (The TX is 191.2 inches long and has a 117.5-inch wheelbase.) He points out that they use black for the A-, B- and C-pillars to stretch the glass. There is a chrome finisher at the intersection of the glass and the sheet metal, then a mainly horizontal line that kicks up slightly at the rear quarter. There is a long light-catching form near the lower portion of the doors, then a chrome element running along the sill. “We have the rear-hinged door which gives us another opportunity: the door handles form a long, bright work feature.”

The front of the vehicle, Ancona says, was a challenge: “It would be very easy to be too cute or too retro or too aggressive.”  The goal was to create a look that was friendly on the one hand but providing a sense of solidity and reliability on the other. “All the things you associate with the proper London taxi,” he says. They wanted to maintain round lights, but they have done so by providing “halo” daytime running lamps. The square grille shape is taken from the FX4, as is the offset badge in the grille.
 

Horbury says, “We designed it to be a London taxi”—yes, everything we’ve learned indicates that that is most certainly the case—“but not so that it is so iconic that it would be attractive in only one place.” That is, whether it is Amsterdam or Barcelona or Frankfurt, the TX is meant to be a six-seat, purpose-built, electric mobility solution that has a flat floor and disabled access. Ancona describes it as “a sensible, practical choice” for those who are looking for fleet vehicles.