London's iconic Hackney Carriages could become a thing of the past as their manufacturer falls on hard times with Mercedes and Nissan gaining market share.
In some cities, the taxi cabs are made from just about any car on the market. As long as it's big enough to carry a few passengers and their luggage in reasonable comfort, it's good enough to get a dome-light on the roof and a meter on the dashboard. But there are a handful of cities where the taxis are unique to the location. New York was one such city when its taxi fleets consisted of custom Checker Cabs, and will be again with the introduction of the NV200-based taxi. But arguably even more iconic are the black cabs of London.
Known as the Hackney Carriage, the classically-styled taxis have been roaming the English capital for decades. These days they're built exclusively by The London Taxi Company (LTI), which manufactures the cabs in Coventry and in Shanghai. But a competitive market has forced it and its parent company Manganese Bronze Holdings into bankruptcy. Once a conglomerate of British motorcycle brands like BSA, Norton and Triumph, Manganese Bronze currently makes only the Hackney carriages, and has had a monopoly on them for decades. However emerging competition has forced the company off its perch.
Mercedes-Benz recently began marketing its Vito van (modified with a four-wheel-steering system in order to meet London's tight turning-circle requirements) for the same purpose, and Nissan will soon begin selling a version of its NV200 cab (painted black instead of Manhattan's yellow or the apple green of the outlying NYC boroughs) to compete as well. Couple that with a recall of the steering system manufactured for the LTI cabs by partial shareholder and Chinese automaker Geely and Manganese Bronze has reportedly posted millions in losses every year since 2008, compared to the £5m in profits it posted in 2007.
Geely is apparently not prepared to bail Manganese out of its debt, forcing it into bankruptcy administration - just like fellow British niche car companies Cosworth and Lola Cars. The only successful British automakers, it seems, are those under foreign ownership like Jaguar Land Rover, Rolls-Royce and Bentley. Even McLaren and Aston Martin benefit from significant foreign investment. Whether someone comes to Manganese's rescue remains to be seen, but if it's allowed to falter, the LTI black cabs could become a way of the past, making way for black Mercedes and Nissan vans to take their place.