Nothing comforts me with the knowledge that I’m heading home than the fruity burble of a British black taxi’s diesel engine. It can be cold, dark, wet and my night could have gone badly, but heaving open that big wide door (wide enough for a whilechair) and sinking into a springy seat, with acres of legroom, is the perfect come-down before heading home. The steep hills of Sheffield and the aggressive gear changes of that city’s cabbies produce a tuneful melody I recognise inside and out. I.e. I can recognise it both from inside the warm cab and from outside, normally as one steams past me on those nights I decided to climb the hill home myself.
In the United States, the black cab’s distant brother is the bright yellow “Crown Vic”. And if you have a late night out in any North American metropolis, nine times you hail a cab out of ten, it’ll be a Ford Crown Victoria. And like the black cab, the Crown Vic has a distinct engine note that resonates with many fond memories of good nights out in Canada and America.
These two public carriages have very little in common. In fact the only thing I could suggest, other than ubiquity as taxis, is the vague origin of their engines. Even then, their similarity is only defined by distant parenthood.
Ford don’t make the British black taxi – a company called Manganese Bronze Holdings in Coventry do – but until recently they did supply the engines to many of them. The majority of new shape black cabs are propelled by a 135hp 2.4 litre Ford diesel engine. It’s a hard working and pretty efficient engine (also found in many Ford and LDV vans) and being a diesel it has plenty of low-rev torque for propelling cabs full of drunken students up steep Sheffield hills.
The Crown Vic, meanwhile, makes do with a much more American solution. A 200hp 4.6 litre petrol V8. An engine that is almost twice the size of the black cab’s motor, and which devours petrol at a prodigious rate of about 15 US mpg around town (for angry Brits who think that’s shocking, bear in mind that US gallons are smaller than the imperial gallons we use, so that works out at about 18 mpg in our units… although that’s still pretty appalling). As Americans struggle with petrol at more than $4.00 per US gallon, Chicagoan cabbies have now been permitted to start adding a $1 fuel surcharge to their fares.
The Crown Vic isn’t available for private purchase any more – only bulk sales, primarily of custom built taxi-cabs and police cruisers are available. A small number of hire companies still offer them, but civilian models like the one above are rare. That’s because the Crown Vic is painfully old – it’s one of the last cars available in America today that is still built with a separate body to its chassis (most passenger cars, if not 4x4s, are of monocoque construction). And the Crown Vic’s platform was first introduced in 1978, with a body that has seen only evolutionary design changes since 1992.
This is an old car; an old beast of a Yank Tank that’s almost three metres long and two metres wide. In profile it is a souvenir of a terrible era in American car design, when three boxes made a sedan shape and some chrome was slapped around the edges to create a car. What’s infuriating about the Crown Vic is that for a vehicle of such vast proptions, it’s claustrophobically small inside. Four people can sit across the back bench, but they’ll have their knees up around their eyes because of the miniscule floor well.
And yet, despite all this, its a car that still sells by the trailer load. Being essentially medieval in design and production terms, it costs less than $25,000 (£12,500) to buy one – much less with fleet discounts. Their longevity and the ease with which they can be serviced makes them appealing to cab drivers, and trigger happy American cops (who use their cars for more aggressive shunt stops) like the way that a body-on-frame car can be easily bent back in shape after pushing miscreants onto the hard shoulder. The special edition produced for Police Departments feature numerous additional safety and performance features to make them go faster and stop quicker. They also get a nice little badge on the trunk lid that replaces the words “Crown Victoria” with the more obvious “Police Interceptor”.
Amusingly, plain clothes cops also love them. Seen above is your basic police cruiser (with the upgraded engine, shock absorbers, wheels etc) but devoid of markings, presumably so that cops think that they can blend in to the crowd Nice idea. But since no-one other than police officers and cabbies drive brand new Crown Vics any more, they do stand out quite a lot. Especially when you see them with two men sitting in the front seat, and with low profile red and blue lights in the back window. Especially also when the double digit IQ managers of police fleets in Chicago forget to remove the “Police Interceptor” badge from the trunk lid.