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Retro London Cabs On The Road Toward Extinction

John Crowood's traditional London cab was one of a horde when he began driving more than 30 years ago, trundling through the city's streets among so many benevolent black beetles.

Today, he's one of a dwindling band. Crowood says that the only company that makes the classic, retro London cab had to recall 400 of its newest vehicles after a mechanical defect was found, leaving hundreds of his fellow cabbies unable to ply their trade.

"They've been ordered off the road because they're not fit for use. And now the cab drivers are stuck because they can't get the replacement taxis because there aren't enough spare taxis available for them to use," he says.

Part-time drivers had already nabbed all the available rental vehicles just ahead of the lucrative holiday season. Gary Nickles had only been driving his new taxi two weeks when it was recalled — too late to grab one of the last remaining rental vehicles, as he's discovered on a tour of all the rental firms.

"I've got my name down on three or four different companies," he says. "I can't get a cab for love nor money. So, I mean, really ... I'm going to be stuffed, you know?"

The London cabbies are on the receiving end of a perfect economic storm. The manufacturer, a firm called Manganese Bronze, was already in trouble before the recall. Among other things, it's lost a lot of business to the makers of People Movers, increasingly the taxi of choice on British roadways. Manganese Bronze has now filed for bankruptcy protection.

So not only can the drivers no longer buy a new vehicle, they also can't get replacements for the defective parts, which came from China.

Richard Anderson is on the faculty of engineering at Coventry University, right down the road from company headquarters. He suspects that executives may have been asleep at the wheel.

"Setting up business with companies in China requires a lot of time, expertise. And perhaps they did not apply sufficient of either when they were setting up this operation," Anderson says.

Anderson says the traditional London cab is such an iconic brand it's still just possible a deep-pocketed buyer for the firm can be found. Cabbie Crowood hopes so.

"We're obviously hoping that another company's going to take over and manufacture the London taxis. Otherwise, that's the end of them," he says.

The company's only other hope: an eleventh-hour cash injection from its Chinese partner, the same firm that introduced it to the supplier of those problematic parts.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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