Iconic British Things: The Black Cab

Ah there she is! The latest incarnation of a vehicle whose roots go back (in name if not in technology) nearly 400 years.

The first transport service with the name hackney coach operated in London in 1621, as a precursor to the modern taxi (except the vehicles only had one horse power, possibly two). There were large people-carriers, there were little sprightly things (that’s where the carriage bit comes in) but in essence that’s where the name got welded to the idea of hailing a vehicle to take you where you need to go.

Still, it’s curious how iconic the London black cab has become as a vehicle. Just like New York (where the cabs are yellow), London is a city defined by it’s public transport, the cabs, buses and underground. In Sherlock, Holmes and Watson get cabs everywhere, a decision which firmly places them in London. They could just as easily take the tube, or ride on a bus, but as the characters in Conan Doyle’s books are forever leaping aboard a Hansom cab and flying away down the road, their modern day descendents must do likewise.

And the black cab is such a deeply entrenched part of that iconography that if you drive around the city in a decommissioned hackney carriage – as Stephen Fry does – people will try and flag you down, even if your orange light isn’t on.

Why, only this week three British men returned from a record-breaking jaunt around the world in a black cab, putting over 43,000 miles on the clock and running the meter up to £80,000 (about $128,600). And I guarantee they’ll have been hailed by impatient businessmen while they were about it.

Their ride, christened Hannah, had to be dug out of snowdrifts in the Arctic, and even drove up to the base camp on Mount Everest, proving that, so long as you’re not asking to go south of the river after midnight, London taxis will take you anywhere.

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2. He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage. Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic
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