American Heritage
December 1992

Our
Checkered
Past

A fond ride through the bright high noon and on into the sad twilight of the American taxicab.

by Edward Sorel

Hail a cab in the 1930s and you might find yourself with a plush Packard, a roomy Checker, a De Soto with a sunroof, or a Hudson Terraplane with the classiest chassis this side of the Atlantic. All had leather upholstery and jump seats.

You can see some of these metered chariots in my drawing of Times Square, circa 1938. Note the logos painted on the rear doors. Each company had its own emblem and its own color combination. Color schemes took on significance after the First World War, when one New York taxi fleet lowered its rates to thirty cents a mile and painted its cabs brown and white so the public could seek them out. But then other taxi owners with higher rates painted their taxis brown and white. The lawsuit that followed went all the way to the Supreme Court, which decreed that colors could not be trademarked.

After World War II multicolored taxis departed the scene and the multicultural drivers entered it. Then cabs got smaller, rates got bigger, cities became unmanageable, and suddenly everyone over forty was a nostalgia buff. These pictures explain why.

IN THE BEGINNING

Motorized taxis began appearing in 1896. They were electric and closely resembled their horse-drawn predecessors. Those with the driver in front of the cab were modeled after the carriage designed by Henry Brougham. This one, with the driver in the rear, resembles the carriage designed by Joseph Hansom in 1834. The taxi meter shown here was imported from France around 1907. Electric taxis averaged nine miles per hour and had a range of up to thirty miles.

UNDER A BLANKET OF BLUE

Convertible vehicles offered unlimited vistas, and the internal-combustion engine unlimited mileage. But for the driver there was still the problem of starting the damned thing. Cranking up a stubborn engine could break wrists, arms, or even kill. The invention of the self-starter by Charles F. Kettering in 1910 changed all that and also made it possible for women to sit in the driver's seat. In 1912, when this convertible cab was popular, few women drove taxis, but by 1917, with our boys "over there," drivers with skirts didn't even turn a head.

POSTWAR PROSPERITY

In 1922 the Fifth Avenue Association, Inc., as an act of "civic statesmanship," presented seven of these bronze signal towers to the city of New York. They cost $125,000 and helped make that thoroughfare synonymous with elegance and wealth. The avenue was considered so special that taxis were not permitted to cruise on it for more than a block. Although cab drivers had put aside military-style livery, they were required to wear a cap, jacket, and tie.

THE ROARING TWENTIES

A Some chose to call Prohibition a "noble experiment," but most Americans wished it had been tried out first in some other country. In New York City three of the best hotels the Buckingham, the Manhattan, the Knickerbocker - all went belly up when their bars were closed. Taxi drivers soon learned to cruise the speakeasies instead of hotels. A tipsy passenger might be a headache but he'd usually tip big.

HALCYON DAYS

In 1937 there were close to twelve thousand licensed cabs in New York City, and every one of them was a honey. It was the golden age of the taxi. The coachwork would never again be so elegant, nor would passenger comfort get any better. The driver was so far away from the passenger that even if the glass partition that separated him from the rider was open, it would have been nearly impossible for him to engage his customer in idle conversation. To make things even more delightful, both De Soto and Chevrolet produced taxis with sunroofs.

THE DECLINE OF THE BEST

Each large city had a commission to regulate taxis, and most forbade drivers from having a radio in the cab, let alone playing it. The ban was largely disregarded, especially by drivers who played the horses and had to listen to the racing results. Radio transmission in the 1930s left a lot to be desired. When static was added to a song like "A Flat Foot Floogie," it made the Chinese water torture seem benign.

WAR IS HELL

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, auto production came to a halt. Jeeps and tanks were needed now. Whatever cabs the fleet owners had would have to last for the duration. Most of the drivers were drafted, and their replacements saw no need to say "please" or "thank you," since they were doing you the favor of picking you up. Battles over who had hailed first became common.

PEACE IS HELL

A few hours after peace was declared, the Cold War started. Taxis became sort of tank-like, with nasty-looking grilles that seemed designed to repel a Russian attack. The drivers all seemed to be superpatriots who regarded any passenger without an American flag in his lapel as a possible spy. They assumed that passengers wanted to hear their views on everything, and they did not take kindly to suggestions that Americans were entitled to hold differing opinions.

ONWARD & DOWNWARD

In the 1970s oil prices doubled. Taxi owners may have loved their roomy, five-passenger Checkers, but the cab got only eleven miles to the gallon. They began buying smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles, and in July of 1982 the Checker Motor Corporation, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, made its last cab. There are perhaps a dozen Checkers left on the streets of Manhattan. The rich, of course, still have their chauffeur-driven limos, but for the middle class, sic transit gloria transit.


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