Auto Biography: Hail, a new era has arrived

The city centre favourite may have a new look, but it still makes the same clatter, says John Fordham
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I Saw the Shape of Things to Come recently, in the back of a cab. Well, to be fair, it was in the front of the cab as well. And all over the outside, and underneath, and on the yellow grab handles inside for the partially sighted - that will be a bastard to clean, if you ask me. And the orange lights they've put on the doors, as well as that one that goes on the roof which says you'll take the punters anywhere inside the M25.

What I had, in short, was a view of the black cab for the next century. It's the first substantial rethink done by London Taxi International (LTI) in the design of the much-loved and occasionally loathed vehicle in more than 30 years. And it comes 11 years after the launch of the Range-Rover- like taxi by rivals Metrocab.

Interfering with traditions is a dodgier business in the taxi world than most places, and that goes for the vehicle, the punters and the drivers alike - so starting from scratch was a decision that involved a long time at the drawing board and many quizzes over mugs of tea. How will it look on the postcards, that kind of thing?

The drivers, after all, are a rare breed. They run a business selling those most precious of 20th-century commodities, time and motion. They catch the human race in a strange mental and physical limbo - between work and home, home and play, duty and dreams, sanctioned relationships and illicit ones, the known world and the new one at the end of a plane ride. Constant proximity to humanity in transit, in more ways than the obvious, yet being put-upon small businessmen at heart, gives cabbies their special air of phlegmatic grouchiness. If Shakespeare was brooding over a keyboard today, there'd be a lot of cabbies in his plays.

They are a species that's notoriously hard to please, and at pounds 27,000 or so a throw, they won't be relaxing their usual close scrutiny at the emergence of the TX1, LTI's first all-new machine since the all-but-40- year-old Fairway. "Well, taxi drivers are never happy unless they're moaning about something," good-humouredly announces Vic Pocock, my personal cabbie for a morning. "So I've heard a few of those already, driving this around. Some of them say the upholstery's too jazzy, or the body is a bit too Noddy-looking. But I say to them, wait till you try it. It's quieter, roomier, more comfortable, and a better place to spend every day of your working life - and weekend out with the family for that matter. Once you see a line of them queueing up outside a station, everyone'll forget there was ever any difference."

Making the new cab different but still the same was LTI's brief. The redesign reflects contemporary car styling in its more rounded shape. It's taller and more snub-nosed, a bit like the big sibling of a Mazda 121. The neater shape contributes to the subjective sensation of this being a smaller cab than the one it replaces, when in reality it's taller and longer. Maybe the days have passed when a black cab had to be tall enough to accommodate a gentleman wearing a top hat, but a mixture of closer attention to passenger comfort and great awareness of the needs of disabled user and wheelchair-bound passengers has accentuated the need for more space without losing any of the taxi's legendary nippiness and tight turning circle.

Vic Pocock liked the deeper windscreen and lower bonnet line, which he felt dramatically improved visibility, both subjectively and objectively. He also liked the vastly improved power steering. "I drove this cab for a week and then got back in my Fairway and I thought that I had flat tyres," Vic announces. "If you never drove a Fairway you wouldn't realise, but believe me it really is a huge improvement." He was also surprised by the quality of the standard suspension, which all but matched the top-of-the-range air suspension set-up on his own cab. The conventional 2.7 litre Nissan diesel engine has had its plumbing and electronics redesigned to improve its emissions standards now that the particulate exhaust of diesels has become a major health concern. The claim is for a 30 per cent improvement in cleanliness, which independent testing has yet to confirm. What they didn't appear to have done on this prototype version though, was quieten the noise of the diesel to anything resembling the standards that apply on today's diesel cars. It still clatters as much as black taxis have done for decades.

From the passengers' angle, the back of the TX1 is a much more comfortable place to be. The rear bench has a fold-down armrest, and more sculpted squabs, the small seats behind the driver, are better supported, particularly for twisting it out over the pavement that enables elderly or disabled customers to be swivelled into and out of the cab without having to bend over. Headroom is better, controls for the intercom, lighting and heating are within easier reach, there's a charging point for phones and computers, and a fold-out ramp system is on the way for wheelchairs, so the customer doesn't have to sit out in the rain while the cursing driver empties the boot in search of the ramps. On our test-taxi, the middle-spec Silver version, the driver's compartment had a classy polished-walnut facia, and the rear seats were a snazzy multi-coloured velour.

"Could be a bit tricky when somebody throws up," I suggested, somewhat unfairly. In his neat dark jacket and slacks, Vic doesn't look like a man who gets this kind of Friday night customer too often these days, but he can still remember what the bad old days were like. "That could be a problem," he admitted. "With vinyl, you just used to open all the doors and shove the hose in." Still, maybe the back of this infinitely more comfortable cab will become a more respected place. All that store of human wisdom cabbies collect over the years for instance, the real Knowledge. If therapy is in crisis itself because it takes too long and costs too much, maybe the answer has been under our noses all the time, and with scenery to suit your mood as well. All it would need is a bit of adjustment to the Extras column on the meter.