London's cab war: will good looks and comfort win over tradition?

``What?! They're changing the taxis? They can't do that! That's like tearing down Buckingham Palace!'' Such are the reactions among Londoners asked about their city's new taxicab. So far, only 150 of the new fiberglass-bodied ``Metrocabs'' are roaming the streets. But cab drivers and industry observers alike believe that the new vehicle is the most likely successor to the Austin FX4, the traditional black London taxi that hasn't changed for nearly 30 years.

The bulbous old FX4 has retained its distinctive '50s features reminiscent of an era of hair tonic and turbo-prop planes. To some Londoners, the FX4's curves are dignified, and the cab is a part of the city's identity.

``But all traditions have to make way for the new...,'' says Ernie Keats, chairman of sales for Metro-Cammel-Weyman, makers of the Metrocab. ``Since 1959, taxi drivers have had only one choice. The FX4 was the only vehicle that met up to London Taxi Bureau [licensing] standards. So we saw a market for something more modern, ... and we figure we can [make taxis] more economically than they've been made before.''

Metro-Cammel-Weyman began developing a new taxi 2 years ago with a 5 million ($7.5 million) investment. The Metrocab ``has more glass, so it's easier to see the sights, it has seating for not four, but five people, and it also has a social conscience ... It's the first London taxi equipped to carry passengers in wheelchairs.'' Already, Keats says, an increased demand for cab services among the handicapped are reported.

But the reason that the Metrocab is off and running, while past FX4 competitors have been left in the dust, is that ``first and foremost, this is a driver's vehicle,'' Keats says.

London cabbies work an average of 10 hours a day, and have long complained that the FX4 is primitive and uncomfortable. One notes: ``This old thing is a sweatbox! The seat's too stiff, the [gas] pedal's too high ... anything's got to be better!''

Not all cabbies agree. Though sales have been brisk, some of London's 14,500 cab drivers have reservations about its looks. A random sampling brought comments ranging from ``I think it looks like a hearse'' to ``... tourists expect a London cab to look like a London cab ... not a military transport vehicle!''

Meanwhile, Austin FX4 makers are taking the challenge seriously. Director William Drew says an engineering team has been assigned to come up with radical improvements.

But FX4 fans, take heart. ``The shape of the FX4 isn't going to change,'' Mr. Drew says. ``And it'll always be made out of steel. ... I think the Metrocab is too radical ... to ever take the place of the traditional London taxi.''

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