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Fare deal

Jonathan Ray loves owning a black cab

22 February 2007

8:41 AM

22 February 2007

8:41 AM

Our people carrier has just clocked up 300,000 miles and is going as strong as ever. It is sleek, black and beautiful and draws admiring glances wherever it goes: it is an old London taxi and we love it.

We were living in Marylebone when we bought it and, having lived in Piccadilly before that, had got used to walking, tubing, bussing or cabbing everywhere. I hadn’t owned a car for 17 years.

When Marina fell pregnant, though, all that changed. She would, she insisted, need a car in which to transport the nipper, his belongings and the extra shopping and to visit her parents. She was adamant: she couldn’t do without one.

This was bad news indeed. I was proud of not owning a car — even a little smug, believing, in my high-minded way, that it was anti-social to own a car unless one absolutely had to. Well, now it appeared we absolutely had to. But what to buy? Neither Marina nor I know the first thing about cars and would both be hard-pressed to distinguish a Honda from a Hoover or a BMW from a JCB.

We worked out what we could afford and noted our requirements: space was the most important, but reliability, comfort and ease of parking were close behind.

‘Might as well buy a bloody taxi,’ I muttered sulkily.

Marina stared at me and went all quiet — usually a bad sign.

‘Perfect!’ she cried. ‘A cab would be perfect!’

For the next few weeks we took taxis everywhere, in order to canvass views from their drivers, who, let’s face it, are never backward in voicing an opinion. They were unanimous: get one. Bags of space in the back, wouldn’t even need to fold up the buggy, the only car designed specifically for driving in London, can turn on a sixpence — how often did we hear that? — comfortable to drive, heroically reliable, secure, no problem with spare parts, built to last a lifetime, blah, blah, blah.

We met the fabled Bernie, the acknowledged top man when it came to selling second-hand taxis.

‘Right,’ he said, immediately grasping what we were after. ‘You don’t want a fleet cab, which will have been driven into the ground by shift drivers.

‘You need something with one previous owner-driver, preferably a radio cab, which will have done less mileage than a cab touting for business. The modern TXs will cost you upward of 30 grand new and not a lot less second-hand. Forget the Metrocab, they’re ugly and have gone bust anyway.

‘What you need is a Fairway Driver, preferably Silver, or an updated Bronze, automatic with a 2.7 Nissan engine, power-steering, electric winders, sunshine roof, the lot.’ Oh, ok.

A few days later we took one for a spin. It was nine years old and I could scarcely believe the 273,000 miles on the clock (‘That’s nuffin’,’ said Bernie). It was ours for £5,000, the price to include a passenger seat in the front, a new intercom and stereo, full service and MOT, new hub caps, outside trim, full interior valet and new carpets throughout. We bought it on the spot.

That was six years ago and, despite its great age and ridiculous mileage, it’s still trundling along. We have two boys now, aged five and three, and they sit happily in the back in great comfort, yakking away at us until it all gets too much and we turn off the intercom and shut the partition. Sometimes Marina and I both sit up front, or one of us sits with the chaps in the back. We’ve changed countless nappies on the cab’s floor and had many a family picnic, facing each other as if in a restaurant.

The extra seat up front means that we can accommodate seven people, and school runs can be an absolute hoot. The turning circle is amazing and makes parking an absolute breeze. The licence plate at the back has been removed, as has the meter, but Bernie insisted on reconnecting the For Hire sign (‘To impress yer mates’).

We’re based in Brighton now, but when still living in London we often risked whistling down bus lanes and parking on cab ranks (my favourite being that one outside the London Library). We were always getting hailed, and the ladies from the escort agency opposite our flat even proposed a mutually agreeable arrangement whereby I became their regular driver. Marina declined on my behalf.

It has taken us to Glyndebourne many times and to France on holidays and booze cruises (it can take almost a pallet-load of champagne). It has also been a hugely successful wedding limo for family and friends.

I’m always being told that Stephen Fry has a cab, and Andrew Lloyd Webber and the Duke of Edinburgh, but they have proper cars too, whereas this is our sole means of transport and we wouldn’t swap it for the world.

The most disarming thing of all is that our cab was clearly as shocked as we were when it clocked up its 300,000 mile, for the milometer has been jammed on that magic figure ever since. ‘It’ must be a ‘she’, then, lying about her age.

Jonathan Ray is wine editor of the Daily Telegraph.

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