Catch a London taxi on Main Street, USA

Hold onto your bowler, Matey! The world-famous London taxi is coming to town. The importer, LondonCoach Inc. of Mt. Clemens, Mich., hopes to sell up to 500 cars a year at the start. If plans work out as the importer expects, you may find the familiar cabs lined up at US airports, railroad stations, and bus depots from coast to coast.

With demand on the wane in Britain, London cabs are already being sold in Switzerland, the Middle East, Australia, and Japan.

Will they replace the Checkerboard somewhere down the road?

``We've had a lot of inquiries from the Northeast,'' reports Donald F. Landers, president of LondonCoach, a subsidiary of PSI Corporation. Boston, he says -- a city well known for its cowpath streets and flavor of ``merrie old England'' -- is high on the company's prospect list. Boston already has the double-decker London bus.

The basic cabs, in what Mr. Landers calls ``glider form'' -- body shell, front and rear axles, steering, and seats -- are assembled by Carbodies Ltd. in Coventry, England. Then they're shipped to West Germany, rolled onto Volkswagen car carriers for Wilmington, Del., and brought to the factory near Detroit for completion.

The roomy vehicle is essentially the same as those now on the roads of London, except that about half the components are ``made in the USA.'' Also, it complies with all the regulations of the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and has the steering wheel on the left.

Unlike the diesel cabs of London, the Americanized version uses a 2.3-liter gasoline engine from Ford Motor Company. ``The diesel is not popular in the United States,'' explains Mr. Landers -- an understatement worthy of the cab's British origin.

The standard LondonCoach cab is list-priced at $18,600. Want to go upscale? A limousine version, sans chauffeur and the big stretch, goes for about $26,000.

Defending the price, Mr. Landers says the London cab is a working vehicle designed for long life. ``If it's operated anywhere near the way it's run in England, it will more than offset the extra cost that taxi operators are used to paying,'' he maintains.

The aging design has been around since 1958, although Carbodies Ltd. has been working on a new model for the past six years. It may, or may not, be on the road by the end of the decade. No need to rush things, you know. Yearly output of cabs since the mid-'70s has ranged from 2,200 to 2,500.

``The company could supply us with at least 1,000 cabs a year without expanding the facilities,'' says Mr. Landers, bubbling at the prospect. Of course, don't expect to see them all over at places like McDonald's, Burger King, or ``the Colonel.''

Will they all be black? Hardly. LondonCoach offers six standard colors -- and special colors on request.

Charles E. Dole is the Monitor's automotive editor.

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