COMMENT: What now for London's traditional 'black cab' maker?
Manganese Bronze has sold TX-series cabs worldwide; these two are in Kosovo
"Britain 'is creating jobs faster than US' and may soon exit longest double-dip recession since the Second World War," reads a headline in today's Daily Mail - good news for Britain plc but less so for the 300-odd workers likely to lose their jobs if Manganese Bronze, maker of the iconic London 'black cab' taxi, goes bust after announcing it was putting itself into 'administration', aka voluntary bankruptcy, today.
It's a sad tale; another 'British' automaker apparently biting the dust. A ride in a current TX series taxi, seating up to five fare-payers with room beside the driver for luggage is always a treat, if a pricey one, on a visit to London where the cabbies, who average four years of part-time slog to do 'The Knowledge' to get a hackney carriage licence, always amaze me with their intimate knowledge of the city's streets and, of course opinions on matters sporting and political...
The TX's heritage can be traced back from its present maker through London Taxis International (1984), Carbodies (1982), Mann Overton and British Leyland to Austin's FX4 and the original 1948 to 1958 FX3 so it'd be sad to see it go, if nothing can be done to revive and revitalise its struggling maker which has made a loss for four years.
In recent years it's faced some strong competition. From 1987 to 2000, train maker Metro-Cammell (now Alstom) produced a worthy rival called the Metrocab that used what was then surely the world's noisiest passenger car diesel engine (from the then-current Ford Transit van) but the long established 'original' prevailed. For a while.
But, as regulations tightened, especially the requirement for disabled-friendly features such as the bright red or yellow interior grab handles (for the sight-impaired) and the 1989 mandate for wheelchair access (which added a pull-out ramp), other automakers began to develop good, van-based competition. I recently rode from Paddington to Marylebone stations in a near-new London taxi-specification Mercedes-Benz Vito van, complete with integrated rear compartment air conditioning (a feature I believe you can get with the 'traditional' Manganese taxi but have never seen in one), and its driver, previously owner of a traditional black cab, was full of enthusiasm for his new charge, citing better performance, comfort, fuel economy plus lower purchase and running costs.
In recent years, apart from the Vito, other makers' models, specially developed for the strict London Carriage Office taxi rules, have been cleared to ply for trade on the capital's roads, and elsewhere here in the UK, and newcomers such as Nissan - whose NV200-based van model has been cleared for a 10-year run as New York's official yellow taxi - have announced new alternatives.
Clearly, Manganese Bronze must not only restructure its finances and actually start making money again; it must also come up with products taxi drivers want to buy instead of the upstart newcomers. Not an easy ask, especially as its models are regarded in the trade as good but pricey.
Geely owns 20% of Manganese Bronze and a slice of a joint venture dating back to 2006 that sees the Chinese partner build TX4s for some export markets. Yet sales there have not met expectations.
So, where next? Will we see a restructured Manganese revitalised and carry on in the UK? Or will Geely bid to take the bones off the administrators' hands and take the whole show to China, in some way like the Nanjing/SAIC absorption of MG Rover after that traditional automaker went bust in 2005?
Only time will tell. Somehow, though, London streets without that familiar 'black cab' on the ranks won't seem the same. Best of British, TX4...