The eccentric British comedian Tommy Cooper used to tell a joke that goes like this: “I got into this taxi and I said to the driver, ‘King Arthur’s Close.’ And the driver said, ‘Don’t worry Tommy, I’ll shake him off at the first corner.”
Well, now it’s ‘Nissan’s close’ and unlikely that China’s Geely – 20 per cent owner of London’s main black cab supplier Manganese Bronze – can shake off the Japanese in the London taxi market, let alone at the corner.
Geely is one of China’s ambitious ‘Go Global’ automotive manufacturers and the owner of one-time Swedish brand, Volvo. Under the Manganese Bronze label it has dominated the supply of London’s taxi cabs, selling about 1,000 a year, with its only rival until now being the Mercedes-Benz’s Vito model. The total fleet of licensed black cabs in London is around 22,000.
The handsome logo above the radiator of the Geely-Manganese Bronze TX4 model proudly sports the moniker ‘The London Taxi Company’, a discrete and artful brand claim to ‘own’ the UK capital’s black cab market. The logo’s red, white and blue colours are a deliberate symbolic representation of the China-British joint venture.
The TX4 version sold in China boasts the same logo design but is branded ‘Engelon’ – a thinly-disguised reference to the taxi’s provenance even though it’s actually made in China. (A couple of years ago I visited an auto show in Zhengzhou, Henan, and was pleasantly surprised to see the TX4 display model surrounded by eager Chinese visitors, a sure indication of the iconic status that London’s traditional taxis enjoy in the Middle Kingdom – but I digress).
However, Geely-Manganese Bronze faces a new competitor. Nissan has just announced it is entering what is largely a niche automotive market with its NV200 model. This is bad news for the China-British joint venture which has been combating declining sales volumes in the UK market and is looking overseas to countries such as Azerbaijan to offset the shortfall.
While it’s a nuisance for Geely, Nissan’s market entry is no bad thing for the city’s environment or its taxi drivers. The diesel-powered Nissan NV200 taxi is reputed to be cleaner and more fuel efficient as well as cheaper to buy than other brands such as the TX4. The Nissan taxi is 50 percent more fuel-efficient, emits half the CO2 and substantially reduces nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, a not unimportant sustainability benefit when half of London’s NOx is currently produced by London’s black cabs. Nissan plans to introduce a fully electric version in 2014.
The one downside for traditionalists like myself who value iconic design is that Nissan’s taxi looks less like a London black cab and more like a people carrier. So does the Vito, for that matter. At least the Geely-Manganese Bronze TX4 model preserves some of the shape of its earlier forebears that used to grace London’s once fog-filled streets.
Nissan, in fact, call their NV200 a “global taxi” and the same model will be supplied next year to the New York City yellow cab fleet. “It’s becoming the ubiquitous taxi” admits a Nissan executive. Indeed, with the Nissan model, the only vestige of the black cab’s iconic status (for so long intimately associated with London as a brand) will be if its buyer decides to buy a black version. There isn’t much guarantee of that happening when taxi brand sponsorship offers a lucrative source of alternative income and drapes the vehicle in a coat of many colours.
As Japan’s Nissan is about to press hard on the wheels of China’s joint venture with Manganese Bronze, there isn’t a lot for Geely’s management to smile about. Perhaps another Tommy Cooper joke (for he is a British icon) will cheer them up:
“So I was getting into my taxi, and this bloke says to me ‘Can you give me a lift?’ I said ‘Sure, you look great, the world’s your oyster, go for it…’ “.
On second thoughts, better not. It would probably get lost in translation