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London's Classic Cabs May Be Driven To Extinction

The company that makes London's iconic taxis has had financial difficulties, leaving cabbies in a lurch. (Getty Images)

Cabbie John Crowood's traditional London taxi was one among hordes as he began trundling through the city's streets with so many other benevolent black beetles more than 30 years ago.

Today, he's one of a dwindling band. Crowood says that the only company that makes the classic retro London cab had to recall 400 of its newest vehicles after a mechanical defect was found, leaving hundreds of his fellow cabbies unable to ply their trade.

The cabs have "been ordered off the road because they're not fit for use. And now the cab drivers are stuck because they can't get the replacement taxis because there aren't enough spare taxis available for them to use," he says.

Part-time drivers had already nabbed all the available rental vehicles just ahead of the lucrative holiday season. Gary Nickles had been driving his new taxi only two weeks when it was recalled — too late to grab one of the last remaining rental vehicles, as he discovered after contacting all the rental firms.

"I've got my name down on three or four different companies," he says. "I can't get a cab for love nor money. So, I mean, really ... I'm going to be stuffed, you know?"

The London cabbies are on the receiving end of a perfect economic storm. The manufacturer of the classic taxicabs, a firm called Manganese Bronze, was already in trouble before the recall. Among other things, it's lost a lot of business to the makers of People Movers, increasingly the taxi of choice on British roadways. Manganese Bronze has now filed for bankruptcy protection.

So not only can the drivers no longer buy a new vehicle from Manganese Bronze, but they also can't get replacements for the defective parts, which came from China.

Richard Anderson is on the faculty of engineering at Coventry University, right down the road from Manganese Bronze headquarters. He suspects that executives may have been asleep at the wheel.

"Setting up business with companies in China requires a lot of time, expertise," Anderson says. "Perhaps they did not apply sufficient of either when they were setting up this operation."

Anderson says the traditional London cab is such an iconic brand it's still just possible a deep-pocketed buyer for the firm can be found. Cabbie Crowood hopes so.

"We're obviously hoping that another company's going to take over and manufacture the London taxis. Otherwise, that's the end of them," he says.

The company's only other hope: an 11th-hour cash injection from its Chinese partner, the same firm that introduced it to the supplier of those problematic parts.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The traditional London taxicab is in danger of going the way of the traditional London double-decker bus, which is to say down the road toward extinction. Blimey. Vicki Barker reports from London.

VICKI BARKER, BYLINE: When John Crowood began driving more than 30 years ago, his traditional London cab was one of a horde, trundling through the streets of London like so many benevolent black beetles. Today, he's one of a dwindling band. Speaking through his intercom, Crowood explains that the only company that makes the classic, retro London cab had to recall 400 of its newest vehicles after a mechanical defect was found, leaving hundreds of his fellow cabbies unable to ply their trade.

JOHN CROWOOD: They've been ordered off the road because they're not fit for use. And now the cab drivers are stuck because they can't get the replacement taxis because there aren't enough spare taxis available for them to use.

BARKER: That's because part-time drivers had already nabbed all the available rental vehicles just ahead of the lucrative holiday season.

GARY NICKLES: That's as fast as I can get one, you know what I mean? I mean...

BARKER: Gary Nickles had only been driving his new taxi two weeks when it was recalled - too late to grab one of the last remaining rental vehicles, as he's discovered on a tour of all the rental firms.

NICKLES: Now I've got my name down on three or four different companies. I can't get a cab for love or nor money. So, I mean, really, I'm going to be stuffed, you know?

BARKER: The London cabbies are on the receiving end of a perfect economic storm. The manufacturer, a firm called Manganese Bronze, was already in trouble before the recall. Among other things, it's lost a lot of business to the makers of People Movers, increasingly the taxi of choice on British roadways. Manganese Bronze has now filed for bankruptcy protection. So, not only can the drivers no longer buy a new vehicle, they also can't get replacements for the defective parts, which came from China. Richard Anderson is on the faculty of engineering at Coventry University, right down the road from company headquarters. He suspects that executives may have been asleep at the wheel.

RICHARD ANDERSON: Setting up business with companies in China requires a lot of time, expertise. And perhaps they did not apply sufficient of either when they were setting up this operation.

BARKER: Anderson says the traditional London cab is such an iconic brand it's still just possible a deep-pocketed buyer for the firm can be found. Cabbie John Crowood hopes so.

CROWOOD: Well, we're obviously hoping that another company's going to take over and manufacture the London taxis. Otherwise, that's the end of them.

BARKER: The company's only other hope: an eleventh-hour cash injection from its Chinese partner, the same firm that introduced it to the supplier of those problem parts. For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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