Currently reading: From the archive: on this day in 1897
London's first self-propelled, all-electric taxi draws in waves of criticism

The LEVC TX, road tested three issues ago, broke with more than a century of convention in being electrically driven, but it wasn’t the first cab to be so. In fact, London’s very first self-propelled taxi was.

For all of human history, every wheeled vehicle had harnessed animal power. But horses moved in unstable equilibrium; got tired; got spooked by noise and busy streets; got ill or injured; needed food, sleep and carers; and left unpleasant mess everywhere.

So of course people tried to create self-propelled vehicles from the very earliest days of electrical engineering. But it wasn’t until the 1890s that batteries and motors had matured enough – along with suspension, steering systems, tyres etc – to make EVs practical.

At the age of just 23, engineer Walter Bersey produced his first EV, a bus. Next came a van and then, just in time for the famous Emancipation Run of 1896, a cab – although it apparently required some assistance from a train…

In late August 1897, reporters crowded into a Lambeth factory for the inauguration of Bersey’s London Electrical Cab Company.

His cab featured a 40-cell, 170Ah battery and a 3hp motor at the rear axle. Its driver used a lever with a few forward and reverse positions, the foremost unleashing 10mph; a small steering ‘capstan’; and a braking foot pedal, which would automatically stop the motor.

Charging gallery

The really clever thing, though, was how the battery was charged, which would be required every 50 miles – about a day’s work for a ‘jehu’. Energy was sent into the factory by a private supplier (there was no national grid yet) to charge batteries on trolleys. When filled, they were loaded onto a hydraulic lift and swapped for a flat battery that had been removed from the suspended tray under a cab’s body.

The Metropolitan Police had previously refused to license any self-propelled cab, but it was fine with this EV, so long as each driver proved he could steer and stop it.And so 12 of these cabs were put into service as London’s first without a horse, drivers paying 20 shillings per day (£100 in today’s money) to earn up to £6 (£630).

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There had been a good deal of scepticism about and snorting at the slow uptake of cars from the mainstream media, so we were delighted to reproduce a positive review from The Daily News.

“I have always regarded the steering as the most troublesome detail of motor vehicles. Nothing could possibly have been more satisfactory from beginning to end in this respect,” it read. “Our Pegasus took all the steeps without turning a hair, though at not much more than walking pace.”

Taxi works

However, it wasn’t perfect: “The cab weighs [about 1500kg, half due to the battery], and for such a weight [on gravel], the wheels look to be hardly broad enough. They sunk halfway to their axles, and the full power of the machine could hardly get them through. We had not gone far when Pegasus began to betray a perverse determination to take to the grass. The brake had somehow come to grief in that struggle.”

The reporter also relayed the great fascination that the EV aroused – a crowd surrounded it everywhere it went and kids often tried to climb onto it – as well as derision, jibes and even anger from many, worried as they were about the future job prospects of cabbies and men who worked with the horses.

In fact, the London Cab Trade Council “urged all cab drivers, in the interests of the cab industry, to discourage any further development of public vehicles driven by motive power”, also claiming the “public would not look in favour upon these electric cabs” – prompting Bersey to pen a letter refuting all their criticisms.

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Before long, his firm had a fleet of around 75 ‘hummingbirds’ on the streets, so nicknamed for their noise and yellow-and-black livery.

So why has this part of transport history been all but forgotten? Well, hostility towards these EVs persisted, they were often slower than horse-drawn cabs, and the enormous weight of their batteries resulted in unreliability and high maintenance costs, so the LECC folded after two just two years, having racked up huge losses.

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Will86 13 September 2023
Think where we might be today if development of electric cars had continued. There were clearly engineering problems to resolve which partly explains the failure of the electric taxi, but the fear of change and negatives public opinion is also clear in that article. The parallels with today are striking and yet again the media don't help. Discussion around EVs seems so polarised, they're either brilliant or terrible when the reality is somewhere between and varies depending on circumstances.