Will German rival to London’s black cabs catch on?
LONDON, Aug 7 (Reuters) – They are as ubiquitous in London as red double-decker buses and as much of a symbol of the British capital as Big Ben, but change is afoot for the black taxi cab.The classic cab — viewed by many as a piece of London history — is facing competition from a larger, more environmentally friendly model made under the Mercedes-Benz marque by German automaker Daimler AG.The German car giant wants London cabbies to swap their five-seater distinctively upright car made by British firm LTI Vehicles for the minivan-style Mercedes Vito Taxi which seats six, has electric sliding doors and pollutes less.Some drivers are already bemoaning the end of an era but Peter DaCosta, chief executive of Britain’s largest independent taxi dealership, thinks London is ready to move with the times.“It’s not the end of the icon. It’s choice,” DaCosta told Reuters on a trip around the capital in a new Mercedes taxi, complete with leather upholstering and air conditioning.“Choice for the passenger, choice for the cab driver,” added DaCosta, founder of KPM-UK Taxis Plc, which plans to have 20 Mercedes taxis in London by the weekend and 350 within a year.LTI has been making the purpose-built London taxi, known as a Hackney carriage, since it descended from a horse-drawn variety, for 60 years and its world-famous shape can also be seen on the streets of New York and San Francisco.The company, which recently began producing taxis in Shanghai through a joint venture with Chinese car-maker Geely, has had a virtual monopoly until now, partly because rivals had to meet strict “Conditions of Fitness” set by the Public Carriage Office, which issues licenses.The most notable requirement is the 25-ft (7.6 meter) turning circle which enables cabs to make sharp U-turns, often to the delight of fare-paying passengers but to the dismay of cyclists. The Mercedes cab now complies.“VAN WITH WINDOWS”Cabbies will need to spend about 35,000 pounds ($68,300) for a Mercedes taxi, comparable to the latest LTI TX4 model, and DaCosta says drivers have said they are more fuel efficient.But despite sky-high fuel prices, some London drivers are adamant they will never give up their cherished black cab.“It’s like the Tower of London or the Houses of Parliament. You wouldn’t suddenly just pull them down and put a glass and metal building up, because they belong here,” said Gary Dinsley, in his fifth year as a taxi driver.LTI is fighting back, working to make its taxis more environmentally friendly. “LTI will continue to invest in the iconic TX4, the world’s only purpose-built taxi,” it said.Peter Cheesewright, 46, who has been a cabbie for 25 years, said the Mercedes lacks character: “It’s a van with windows”.Driving a Mercedes, however, will not spare cabbies from learning “The Knowledge” — a detailed awareness of London’s roads and places of interest that can take years to digest.But while it is early days for the new Mercedes cab, some drivers like John Williams are already converted.“It’s smoother, more responsive. It’s just a nicer vehicle. The people you pick up seem to like it,” said Williams, 56, who has been driving London cabs for two decades, but has only had his Mercedes for two weeks.For Williams, the extra seat is a real bonus: “I’m married with five children so having six seats is really handy for me.”