To the relief of Anglophiles, the British-as-tea-and-scones London black cab has been saved from extinction. After six years of running in the red, and five months of wobbling along in the British equivalent of bankruptcy, the London Taxi Company, a division of Coventry-based Manganese Bronze Holdings, was bought along with its parent company by the Zhejiang Geely Holding Group. The Chinese carmaker already had a 20 percent stake in the company. Last month it forked out more than $17 million to acquire the rest.
The last appearance of the vehicle on the international stage, Olympic watchers will recall, was when the Spice Girls wheeled into the East London stadium in tarted-up versions of the black cab for the closing ceremonies.
So what will the Chinese be getting for their money?
An icon, for one thing, whose design hasn't evolved much in six decades. The ubiquitous black cab (there are about 21,000 licensed ones in London) has a rounded Alfred Hitchcock-like profile and is spacious, with headroom to spare. And it's easy to step into. No knees in your stomach side-slide maneuvering, as one does to get into a New York cab.
"Theoretically," explains Malcolm Linskey, managing director of London-based Knowledge Point, which trains cabbies in "the knowledge" (the in-depth study of street routes cabbies need to know before qualifying for a license), "you should be able to sit in the cab with a top hat on." Other city-street-friendly traits include the cabs' ability to spin on a sixpence, thanks to its turning radius of 25 feet.
You don't have to be a cabbie to own one. All you need is the money, roughly $48,000 (£32,000) for a basic-model version of the TX4, the state-of-the-art black cab. The Duke of Edinburgh has one, as does actor-playwright Stephen Fry, supermodel Kate Moss, and the late King of Tonga.
"It's an anonymous vehicle," explains Nyasha Pitt, the London Cab Company's marketing manager. "If you are a lead singer of a well-known pop group driving one, no one would suspect." Call it celebrity camouflage. It's also easily customized. "In the Middle East and in China, owners have installed plasma screens and fridges in the back."
The cars are manufactured in Coventry, and all vehicles made for the UK will continue to be made there, Pitt said. Cars for other markets will be made in Shanghai.
The bailout was cause for celebration for the 107 employees of the company left standing after 156 were axed when the company was in administration, as bankruptcy is known in England.
"Most companies that go into administration never come out the other end," Pitt says. But how did the cabbies react to the acquisition? Isn't it bad enough that quintessentially Brit brands like Jaguar and Land Rover are now owned by India's Tata Motors? Geely itself had dipped into the global market previously by buying the Swedish car manufacturer Volvo.
"Initially there was great dismay," admits Linskey, director of the school for London cabbies. "The thinking was the end of the world had come. Now, they're grateful someone has taken over."
Denise Ferrer, who has driven a black cab for about a year, was among the appreciative. "If they'd gone under, I'd have been devastated," she said by cell phone on her way into town for work. "It would be like yellow taxis in New York going to purple."