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Aug292011

The Arts & Crafts Taxi

New York City officials recently chose two finalists from the mayor’s Taxi of Tomorrow competition to replace the ubiquitous Ford Crown Victoria that will no longer be produced: a Nissan minivan and Ford package delivery truck, each modified to suit it to taxi duty. I’m guessing that New Yorkers expected something designed from the pavement up to be a taxi, however, capable of rising to the iconic status of those inelegant but sturdy and roomy Checkers of long ago. It might have been more like the diesel-powered prototype designed 39 years ago by automotive design students at the Art School of the Society of Arts and Crafts. Founded in 1926 to foster the Arts and Crafts movement, the school is now known as the College for Creative Studies (CCS) and globally renowned for its outstanding automotive design alumni.

The project began during the fall 1971 semester when two students asked me, as Chair of the Industrial Design Department and its automotive design program, if they could create an entry for the Urban Vehicle Design Competition. I quickly answered, "Yes. But mindful of what “urban vehicle” meant to most people—a diminutive one- or two-passenger “commuter” car—I attached conditions: It had to be a taxi, the only truly urban car, especially in places like New York City; and it had to be an ergonomic tour de force that made the driver and passengers—including one in a wheelchair—as safe and comfortable as possible. I offered to research objectives and specifications and to seek funding and contributions of components from the industry.

I began my contribution with a trip to New York for meetings with representatives of the Taxi and Limousine Commission of New York City, the New York City Taxi Drivers’ Union, and supervisors of taxi maintenance. I also went to Kalamazoo, Michigan and met with the chief engineer in charge of product development at Checker Motors Corporation, the nation’s only specialized taxi manufacturer. 

 The boxy design of the bright yellow taxi that resulted was iconoclastic at the time and aesthetically controversial. It became more fashionable over time, however, and rather hip. The boxy form became inevitable when Checker’s situation and requirements were taken into account. No new Checker would resemble anything from Detroit as previous models had (the last was inspired by the 1955 Chevrolet) because they couldn’t be made using conventional Detroit methods. The company could continue using engines, transmissions, suspension components, and other critical underpinnings from mainline manufacturers. But the costly tooling for stamping uniquely designed bodies from sheets of steel was far too much for Checker’s strapped coffers and facilities. Instead, the company would have to emulate methods used by the motorhome and recreational vehicle industries: A new Checker most likely would be manually fabricated from straight lengths of metal framing material and flat panels devoid of curves or sculpted surfaces. Finessing the design aesthetically would be limited to matters of proportion and orientation of lines and surfaces.

A body without curves would also promote easy, low-cost repair and maintenance. With flat windows, instead of fashionable curved ones, maintenance garages would need to store half the usual number of replacement side windows; whereas there had to be special windows for or the left and right sides if they were curved, the same piece of flat glass could used on either side. Better yet, if windows had only straight edges and were made of the same laminated glass as the windshield, technicians could cut their own windows and windshields from standard blanks of laminated glass.

The air conditioner was housed in a separate roof-mounted unit like those installed on trucks and motorhomes. Instead of tying up a taxi while a failed air conditioner was fixed, a mechanic would simply replace the faulty unit with a good one in minutes.

Advisors emphasized that, while a taxi should be as light as possible to save fuel, it had to be extraordinarily tough to survive New York’s fractured pavement and vicious potholes. So the brawny transmission and driveline components that delivered the Continental diesel engine’s power to the front wheels were taken from an Oldsmobile Toronado. They were so robust that General Motors also used them in its 23-foot motorhome weighing 11,500 pounds. The taxi’s light but rigid structure began with its flat floor structure comprised of a two-inch thick core of aluminum honeycomb sandwiched between faces of fiberglass-reinforced plastic. It could absorb bumps and potholes without bending or twisting, even before the body’s superstructure was added.

Inside, a bench seat across the back of the cabin provided spacious, comfortable seating for three passengers. The seatback extended high enough to act as a headrest for all three. A fourth passenger could sit in a rear-facing jump seat beside the driver. The driver sat eight inches higher than the passengers so that he could see over their heads (especially important for pedestrian safety in crowded city environments). The resulting eight inches of additional headroom in back was reminiscent of London cabs. That and its long door made It much easier to enter and exit than New Yorkers were used to. When no one occupied the jump seat it could be folded up to expose a generous space for luggage on the flat floor, again as in a London cab. Despite the cabin’s roominess, the taxi turned on the proverbial dime because it was two feet shorter than today’s Prius, which increasingly sees service as a taxi.

As Washington contemplated side-impact safety standards (before air bags) the taxi’s designers padded the cabin’s sidewalls with four inches of the same energy-absorbing foam as wrestling mats were to provide side-impact protection. The padding extended to head height for rear seat occupants; for reasons of visibility, the pad on the driver’s door went only to shoulder height.

Taxi drivers noted that passengers in wheelchairs presented the most daunting problems. Although they were required by law to stop for someone hailing a cab from a wheelchair, many drivers looked away and went on by. They abhorred the close body contact of lifting and transferring someone from a wheelchair, through the tight opening of a standard sedan's rear door, into the back seat, and then folding the chair and hefting it up and into the trunk. They faced the awkward situation again, in reverse, at the destination. Nettlesome rain, snow, and slush exaggerated the unpleasantness.

The flat, wheelchair-friendly floor was just nine inches above the ground. Parked close to most curbs, a wheelchair rolled easily in or out of the cabin. The designers considered ramp concepts that would bridge the gap but didn’t have time to execute any. Today, the cab would have adjustable-height suspension, as modern buses do, so the driver could raise or lower the taxi to align it with any curb. The jump seat and two-thirds of the bench seat folded up to clear enough room for a wheelchair, with its occupant, to swivel 360 degrees and park facing forward or backward. A third of the bench seat remained fixed and provided a place for an accompanying passenger.

Facing off against entries from 65 schools and colleges of engineering, the Arts and Crafts taxi won a trophy for "Drivability," awarded by automotive editors and journalists from prominent automotive magazines who drove it briskly through a convoluted obstacle course at General Motors' proving grounds. They liked driving it so much that several got back in line for seconds and thirds. Its rugged, no-nonsense bumpers, made of standard aluminum extrusions mounted with rubber blocks normally use as trailer springs, passed the Federal 5-mph barrier crash.

John Dinkel wrote in the November 1972 issue of Road & Track that it "afforded the driver an excellent driving position and visibility and incorporated a passenger compartment more spacious than any taxi currently in use in this country." Chris Packard wrote in the November 1972 issue of Motor Trend that "the real prize may have been won by the Arts and Crafts taxi. A trial run in a real-life urban situation … may go further toward convincing automakers to build urban cars than any award. And that is what the competition was really about."

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Reader Comments (2)

I wanted to thank you for this great read!! I definitely enjoying every little bit of it I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post.

November 22, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersignature limousine

Hey I want to share one of my stories when I was traveling in the London in taxi and suddenly my taxi's roof starting to leak because of rain. I refused to pay rent but then I felt sympathy and paid him the rent and also suggested him to use Liquid Roof RV to fix the leak on the roof

February 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

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