16th September 2015

Only fools use horses! – The secret history of the Hackney cab

Ever wondered where the term “Hackney cab” comes from? Well, it’s obvious isn’t it? They’re named after the London borough of Hackney, right?

Well what if we told you they weren’t? In fact, the origin of the Hackney cab goes back quite a long way and takes us out of the capital and all the way over the channel. Want to find out more? Check out the secret history of the Hackney cab you didn’t even know about.

Horse Power!

Despite what most punters think, the term “Hackney” actually originates from the French word “hacquenée”, meaning a type of horse suitable for hire… and it’s first usage dates back centuries.

Our own taxi insurance records don’t date back to horse-and-cart, but after a bit of digging through history, we’ve found that the first Hackney horse-and-coach taxi rank appeared in 1634, when Captain John Baily put four coaches to work in the Strand in London. The Captain dressed his coachmen and told them what to charge – sound familiar?

Fast forward to 1823 and a two-seat, two-wheeled carriage called a “cabriole” was introduced from France. It was very popular with taxi drivers (or rather, horse guiders!) and their passengers for its speed and ride comfort. It’s from this vehicle that we get the word “cab”.

Electric Motor Cabs


The Daimler Victoria model, 1897

In 1897, the first 25 motor cabs hit the streets of London. Powered by electric motors, they were nicknamed the “Hummingbirds”. The cabs were actually called Berseys, named for the maker Walter C. Bersey. By the following year Walter launched another fifty of these vehicles.

Unfortunately, the success didn’t last long as they were costly to make and very unreliable. Passenger confidence went up in smoke after a number of accidents and one death finally closed the lid on the idea by the year 1900. We’re guessing the insurance premiums were a bit high!

Petrol Cabs

Moving on to 1903, the first petrol-powered cab was introduced to the city. From then on the petrol-powered taxi boomed, with another French imported car model, Prunel, leading the market. The British-made brands like Rational, Simplex and Herald began to appear, although their small numbers could match up to the might of Prunel. Despite the taxi phenomenon taking off, there were still only less than 100 motor cabs in London by the end of 1906.

Soon after, the General Cab Company revolutionised the trade with 500 taxis taking over the city, and in 1907, the fitting of taximeters was made compulsory. Bringing the vehicles more in line with the Hackney carriages we recognise today, cabs became known as taxicabs, meaning we finally start to see the first usages of people hailing ‘taxi!’

Diesel Taxi Cabs

Skipping past two world wars, we finally reach the 1950s, in which Austin launched the FX3 with its own 2.2 litre diesel engine in 1954.

Four years later, Austin unveiled the FX4, which became an iconic part of the London scenery over the next few decades. Alongside red double decker buses and Big Ben, this model of hackney cab is recognisable across the globe as a stereotype of the British capital.


The Austin FX3 (left) and the Austin FX4 (right)
Image source: London Vintage Taxi Association

Such was the success of the FX4 model, it managed to see off most of its rivals and lasted in production for over 39 years. After building over 75,000 models in 1997, the final version of the FX4 – named the “Fairway” – rolled off the production line.

London Taxis International ultimately replaced the famous FX4 Fairway after 1997 with the new shape TXI. This model was upgraded to the TXII, before being renamed the TX4 in 2006, harking back to its origins.

Nowadays, it’s the TX4 that you’re likely to be flagging down on the streets of London – a far cry from the “hacquenée” horse-and-cart on the 1600s. But watch out, not all of them might be available for public hire, with celebs like Stephen Fry having their own privately-owned black cabs!

Freeway Insurance is privileged to insure this country’s top cab drivers. We’ll insure any taxi from the FX4, through the TX4, up to a modern-day Mercedes-Benz MPV. If you need a taxi insurance quote quickly – make sure it’s from Freeway.


Sources: With thanks to the London Vintage Taxi Association and The London Taxi Company.

Main image courtesy of StockStudio / Shutterstock.com

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