Friday, April 01, 2016 Road Junkies 0 Comments

GREENSBORO, North Carolina—Before leaving Greensboro on Friday, we had one more stop there on the first course of our Meals on Wheels tour, but there was no food involved.  When we first visited London back in the 1980s, I fell in love with the sturdy little London taxi and wanted to bring one home.  Doing so wasn't feasible for a litany of reasons, not the least of which was the right-side driver seat.  Yet my interest in this iconic vehicle has never diminished.  Indeed, it has only grown each time we've been back to the United Kingdom.  Finally when we were in Edinburgh earlier this year, Ken began to develop an affection for the hackney carriage also.

What a surprise when we saw a London taxi sitting in the parking lot of the Lucky 32 restaurant when we met Marion for lunch on Thursday!  Even though it was painted dark green with fruits and vegetables scattered across the sides, that telltale shape was unmistakable.  Inquiry and a bit of research led us to Baker's Automotive, a Greensboro auto repair shop which has rather accidentally become unofficial headquarters for London Taxis in the USA.

Larry Baker, American guru on the London Taxi
It all started when the Lucky 32 owners decided to purchase a couple of London taxis to ferry guests of their O. Henry Hotel for special events.  After scouring the city for a trained mechanic to maintain the vehicles, they found Larry Baker, not an expert but a very willing learner.  In the process, Larry developed a passion for the bubble top, bug-eyed vehicles.  In 2009, when the official parts supplier for London Taxis in the U.S. decided to close, Larry purchased the inventory.  Now in addition to selling parts, he restores the vehicles and brokers sales.

A North American-adapted London Taxi
An affable ambassador for the vehicle, Larry welcomed us to his shop and spent half an hour educating us about the car and his involvement with it.  By law, taxis in London must have a turning radius no larger than 28 feet so the cabbie can drop off a passenger on one side of the street and pick up another on the opposite side.  In 2003 and 2004, about 275 London taxis were manufactured for the North American market equipped with a left-side driver's seat and compliant with American and Canadian emissions and safety standards.  Efforts to market the vehicle on this side of the Atlantic were unsuccessful because domestic cabs could be had much more cheaply.  So this small inventory continues to be passed around in the niche market of London taxi aficionados.

Passenger compartment
Other than its funky squat appearance and the sheer novelty of the vehicle, the car has numerous appealing features.  These taxis are famously spacious.  In the roomy passenger compartment, the back seat can fit three large adults with space for two additional riders on fold down seats that face the rear.  Clearance from floor to roof is 55 inches—to allow a gentleman to enter without removing his top hat, according to legend.  With a steel body bolted to an ultra strong steel chassis, the 4,500-lb. vehicle is notoriously safe.  Fuel efficiency averages about 30 miles to the gallon, and the car will last a minimum of half a million miles with regular oil and filter changes and not much more in the way of maintenance.

What's not to like?  On top of all these admirable qualities, Larry informed us that a reasonable price for a car he restores to the equivalent of factory certified condition is about $22,000.  We were poised to give him our contact information and ask him to look for a car for us when we realized we had never really seen the front seat/driver compartment of a London taxi.  When we took a peek in the window of one in his shop, our excitement came to a screeching halt.  The space where most vehicles have a front passenger seat is a luggage compartment!  Would one of us really want to ride in the back with the other in the front?  Larry said he could put a fold-down seat there with a seat belt but space is very tight since the integrated frame is steel and can't really be modified.  Well, dang!

Lurching off the London Taxi roller coaster we had been on, we thanked Larry for his time and teaching, and we headed for Raleigh.  On the way, we did a bit of research, hoping we could rent a London Taxi and try it to see if we could make it work.  Oddly enough, the company we found that rents the cars was also in North Carolina!  Now we need to make plans to visit Wilmington.

Lucky 32's chef ferries fresh food from the market to the restaurant.