Now the administration of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is trying to refurbish the industry that at rush-hour transforms the canyons of Manhattan into a coughing blur of lemon. Reforms range from mandatory English language and street-map tests to new rules on the vintage of the vehicles.
Mr Giuliani's idea was to improve the lot of the drivers, four fifths of whom are immigrants (often from the former Soviet Union), and thus the quality of the service they render. But he is having little luck. So angry are some of their number, in fact, they have even taken him to court.
The first move of the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), the city body that oversees the yellow cabs, was to sanction the first fare increases since 1990. From 1 March the average journey in the Big Apple cost 20 per cent more. But far from celebrating, the drivers are pointing to the other measures being taken, which, they say, easily offset the fare rise.
Among these is a plan to increase the numbers of yellow cabs to be found on the streets by auctioning off 400 new licences. These take the form of diamond-shaped medallions that must be riveted to every yellow cab operating in the city. It has been 60 years since the last batch was sold, and medallions change hands for as much as $200,000 (pounds 130,000, or roughly the price at last week's auction of a handful of Jackie O's fake pearls).
Unsurprisingly, those who have medallions now - there are 11,787 in circulation - worry that the new supply will dent their value, dilute the customer pool and lead to even worse clogging of the city's arteries. Morris Brenner, a Polish Jew, took out a substantial mortgage to buy his medallion 16 years ago for $94,000. He is depressed by the TLC's manoeuvres. "Where are they going to put all these new taxis, I'd like to know?" he asks, coming within inches of sideswiping a kamikaze cyclist. "There is no room. A five-minute journey already takes half an hour."
He, like others, is equally dismayed by the new vintage rules. A brief glance around the interior of his cab suggests that he will be in trouble, when, later this year, owner-drivers will be obliged to buy a new car (new means new, not used) every five years. Fleet owners, who lease taxis out to short-term drivers, will have to retire their vehicles every three years.
It is this edict that moved one group of owners last week to initiate moves to sue the city government for unfair treatment. "They give you a raise and they take it right back," complains Rafael Mysonet of the Association of Independent Taxi Drivers. "We're really hurting."
Mr Brenner is more or less fatalistic about the changes, but is nonetheless angry. "You make a living, a little less, a little more. But the TLC are out to harass us about this and that at every turn. If they could just learn to be a little more human..."
He might also ask why Mr Giuliani is so exercised about the taxi service in his city. True, during evening hours, finding one can mean a bit of a wait. But even with the recent fare increase, the yellow cabs are one of the best bargains in town. The average fare is set to rise to $6.60, compared to pounds 5 or $7.70 for a black cab in London. Never forget, however, the 15 per cent that the drivers expect. Do so and you will be likely to get a faceful of curses, or burning rubber and churned-up tarmac.