Wednesday April 24, 2019
The Renault Dauphine was not the first minicab to operate in the UK, for that honour goes to the Ford Anglia 105Es used by Carline Cabs, but they almost certainly enjoyed the highest profile.
The black and white Fiat 600 Multiplas used by Tom Sylvester were almost as eye-catching - - but not only were the cabs belonging to Welbeck Motors finished in an eye-catching shade of red, their coachwork also carried advertising space, which was unheard of at that time. Such was their fame there was even a Dinky model, No. 268.
Back in 1961, Welbeck Motors was a well-established London motor trader and its MD Michael Gotla identified a loophole in the law concerning taxi-cabs. The legislation of the day stated that “Private Hire Car Services” could operate if they were “pre-booked”. A minicab would not be allowed to ply for hire, but what if a would-be customer telephoned Welbeck or hailed one and his or her order was then radioed to the office…
And so Gotla acquired the financial backing for an initial fleet of 200 Dauphines. His choice of Minicab was partially dictated by his need for a cheap four-door saloon and, as Motor Sport pointed out in August 1961:
B.M.C. (who make real taxi-cabs) were not in the least interested in Mr. Gotla's project and that Ford couldn't decide whether or not they wanted to help. But it is no secret that Renault were willing to supply Dauphines at a substantially reduced price – Welbeck collect them on their own two-tier transporter.
The Renaults were fitted with the optional four-speed gearbox for reasons of stability and converted to a 12-volt electrical system to accommodate the Pye radio system and the meter. The cabs were to be in service 24-hours per day, and Welbeck carried out servicing in-house.
Fares were one shilling per mile, and Gotla claimed that if three people shared a Renault, it was almost as cheap to go to work by minicab as it was by public transport. However, given the size of a Dauphine, they would have to be very close friends, especially as the meter occupied part of the front of the cabin. They would also need to carry a limited amount of luggage that would fit into the seven cubic feet boot; the Welbeck cars were not fitted with a roof rack.
The taxi trade was cynical about the ability of a standard production car being able to carry out the duties of a purpose-built vehicle, and there were further mutterings about Welbeck daring to use a “French car”. In fact, the Dauphine was a well-established car with British motorists of that time. By 1960 Renault had sold one million examples worldwide and until 1961 UK market versions were assembled from CKD kits in the company’s Acton plant. There were also some hilarious sales campaigns promising ‘a penny farthing a mile, and you travel in style’ in a car where ‘the built-in heater couldn’t be neater!’: https://www.hatads.org.uk/catalogue/record/0c4b6c31-1996-46a6-a883-deab138fb4c2.
One major selling point for the Minicabs was that they operated in the suburbs and Michael Gotla argued to The Guardian that:
“You have got to have a taxi system for Greater London. The present system really only caters for Central London. London is the most under-taxied capital in the world. The reason the trade doesn’t think it is under-taxied is that its stamping ground is only central London.”
As for recruitment, any would-be driver with two years’ experience of accident-free motoring in the capital was urged to call WELbeck 4440. A successful applicant was allowed to keep their tips, and a further perk was a stylish beige corduroy suit. However, the general of “Gotla’s Private Army” issued a stern warning:
“There is only one way to judge a Minicab driver and that is by his “take”. And if his “take” is not up to a certain mark, he is no good to us. And whether his “take” is not up to a certain mark because he is inefficient, a villain or just bone lazy, it really doesn’t matter…the sooner he leaves, the better.”
The reaction of the traditional cabbies, who had spent years acquiring “The Knowledge” was, almost inevitably, negative. After Gotla announced his minicab plans The Daily Herald on 8th March 1961 reported that ‘nearly 2,500 parked taxis caused a monster traffic jam in Central London last night while their drivers went to a two-hour protest meeting’.
When the service commenced on the 19th June, the same newspaper noted ‘At 3 pm today London’s 200 red Dauphine minicabs go into service against 9,000 taximen facing the biggest threat ever to their monopoly’. They also noted that of the drivers ’15 of them are women’ - gosh and crikey. Gotla hoped that 500 Renaults would be in service by the end of the month, which would cost in the region of £560,000, and each Dauphine would need to earn £3 per shift for the operation to make a profit. One Welbeck minicab has a cameo appearance in the 1962 travelogue London for a Day, following a Leyland Titan double-decker.
Before the year was out the subsequent “Minicab Wars” on the streets attracted further publicity, not least after 37 cabbies were prosecuted in late 1961. The jolly voice over from this Movietone newsreel does not quite mask the wrath of certain cabbies although the line ‘we did get the views of several taxi drivers but decided it was wiser not to let you hear them’ infers the general attitude.
By November Michael Gotla had resigned from Welbeck Motors, and the final blow to the pioneer minicabs fell in 1962 when a court case ruled that they were indeed plying for hire. The “Army” was demobbed, and one story has it that many Dauphines was driven into quiet side streets and had their advertising regalia swiftly removed.
A legacy of the Welbeck fleet was their inspiring the storyline for Carry On Cabby, and today a burning question remains - have any readers experienced or even driven one of the original British minicabs?