Sorry, guv, but I don't go south of the Mississippi

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The Independent Online

Don't ask Andy Stoppelmann where he is hiding them. "I can't tell you," was his conspiratorial reply yesterday. "I have so many people trying to take pictures of them, so we are keeping very quiet."

But on Monday the wait will be over. That is the day when Mr Stoppelmann, co-owner of the Bronxville Taxi Company in the comfy suburb just north of New York City, will proudly take the wraps off the newest additions to his 24-car fleet. Two gleaming London cabs, painted not black, but a deep navy blue.

The cabs have been supplied by a Massachusetts entrepreneur, Larry Smith, owner of London Taxis North America. Mr Smith fell in love with the black cabs on a visit to London in 2000. He then set up the company to start importing them from London Taxis International, a business based in Coventry.

So far, Mr Smith has sold about 125 of the trusty cabs to taxi fleets all across the US. A few have started service in Chicago, where they have been painted a garish yellow. His hope is that within four years there will be about 3,000 of the vehicles plying the avenues of America.

They have developed a celebrity fan club in the US, where luminaries such as Arnold Schwarzenegger have ordered one. Stephen Fry and Andrew Lloyd Webber are among British devotees.

Admittedly, they do not come cheap. Mr Stoppelmann paid $48,000 (£29,000) each for the cabs, twice what he pays for his standard taxis, which are Ford Crown Victorias. The London cabs are fitted with Ford diesel engines to meet American emission standards and have been converted to left-hand drive. But Mr Stoppelmann is sure he will get his money back.

"My passengers will go ballistic when they get inside and see how they can stretch their legs out," he enthused. "They haven't been able to do that since the old Checker Cabs."

Other US cities where the London cabs will shortly be making their debut include Detroit, Washington DC, Los Angeles, Boston and Miami. But there is no word yet on whether they will be adopted in New York City.

In almost every respect, the experience of riding in one of the British cabs will be the same in America as in London; flip down seats for extra passengers and space for bags beside the driver included. But one crucial benefit will be missing: the famous encyclopaedic "knowledge" of the London cabbies.

While London drivers are obliged to know every street, lane and cul-de-sac within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross, the requirements imposed on a New York cabby are altogether less stringent. All they need is proof that they are over 19 years old and that they can more or less understand English.

They also must attend an 80-hour course on driving rules and regulations, but nothing about streets and addresses.