London's black taxis, the bubble-topped, bug-eyed icons of British life, will soon be rolling off the assembly line here and heading to the United States.
"We think we have something special to offer: a little bit of London in cities like Washington," said Roger Atkins, an executive at LTI Vehicles, which manufactures the uniquely English taxis here in Coventry, an industrial city 100 miles north of London known as the "Detroit of Britain."
With the British market virtually saturated with black taxis -- there are more than 20,000 on the streets of London alone -- company officials said they are now concentrating on expanding to international markets, from China to Mexico to Kuwait, but first and foremost to the United States.
There are currently 265 black taxis in the United States, many of them imported privately over the years by wealthy Americans, company officials said, adding that California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had expressed interest.
Following the 2003 U.S. government approval of commercial imports of the taxis, Atkins said the firm is now in the midst of a major campaign to push into the U.S. market. Company officials are scheduled to meet this month with city officials and taxi company executives in the District and several other cities, including Philadelphia and Dallas.
Price could be an obstacle. The cars cost about $52,000 -- twice what a new Crown Victoria, popular among U.S. cab companies, goes for. "We know it's a niche market," Atkins said of the taxis, featured as a symbol of London on everything from key chains to sweatshirts. "I can't envision thousands of our taxis there, but I could see 20 or 30 or 40 in each of those cities."
Vaughn Williams, president of Yellow Cab Co. of the District, said in a telephone interview that he likes the London cabs and was impressed on a trip to London at how roomy and modern they are. He has planned to meet with LTI officials this month, but he's skeptical about the economics. He said his drivers, who own their own cabs, can buy a used Crown Victoria for about $5,000, then run it for an additional 100,000 miles. "We'll discuss it, but I think the price is very expensive," he said.
But Thomas Elsheimer, a taxi company owner in Hudson, Mass., who has two London taxis in his fleet, said the United States is a natural market for the cabs because so many Americans have a "connection to England." Elsheimer uses his two London taxis for weddings and other special events, or just for picking up fares at Boston's Logan Airport 35 miles away. "People love them" and instantly recognize them on the road, he said.
Black taxis are famously roomy. The passenger area can fit three large adults on the back seat and two more on fold-down seats that face the back. Clearance from floor to roof is 55 inches, a vestige of an old law that taxis had to be spacious enough to accommodate seated gentlemen in top hats. Atkins said that despite the car's size, its Ford Motor Co. diesel engine gets 28 to 30 miles to the gallon, it has an extremely tight 25-foot turning radius and it will last for a minimum of a half-million miles.
Most of the taxis come without a passenger seat in the front, leaving more space for suitcases, which Ed Hodgkiss, 62, who has been test-driving taxis at the manufacturing plant in Coventry since he was 15, said is far more important than sports car chic.
"Who wants a Ferrari?" he said. "You can't put your suitcases in a Ferrari."
Taxis have been produced in Coventry since 1919, and the first version of the modern black taxi rolled off the line in 1948. Surrounded by the soft rolling hills of the English midlands, the city has long been the center of British car manufacturing and home to companies such as Jaguar, Triumph, Rover and British Leyland. Most of the 138 car manufacturers who have made vehicles here over the years have either closed or moved -- often to countries with cheaper labor. LTI, which produces from 2,500 to 2,700 taxis a year, is now the last British-owned company making cars in Coventry.
Cabs sold in the United States are made with left-hand-drive steering, air bags and exhaust systems modified to meet U.S. emissions standards, but otherwise it's exactly the same model sold in London.
Even at full price, the London cabs could be a moneymaker because of their distinctiveness.
Peter Nesbitt, who runs Matchless Limousines of Nashville, Tenn., went to LTI's U.S. distributorship in Sudbury, Mass., last week to pick up his new London taxi, then drove it 1,200 miles home in time for a wedding trade show last Sunday.
Nesbitt, who was born and raised in London, said he could have bought another stretch limo for about the same price, but he thought that the "novelty and charm" of the London cab would recoup his $50,000 investment in no time.
"We've had inquiries already," he said. "I've got great expectations for it."