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By David Rooney on

Taxi Driver

I was working at our large-object store at Wroughton the other day, looking at some of the vehicles in our transport collection. One of them is a really lovely Renault taxi from 1910:

Renault taxi, 1910 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Ain’t it just a peach? Anyway, on the train back from Wroughton I was reading a 1930s book by Herbert Hodge, called It’s Draughty In Front: the Autobiography of a London Taxidriver. I was amazed to find that in 1915, aged fifteen, Hodge got a job in a taxi garage that ran Renaults just like the one I’d just seen.

In the book, he provides a terrific first-hand description of the cars and what they were like to run.

“When the drivers arrived I was expected to start their engines for them – a heart-bursting job in those days, especially with war-time petrol… I soon acquired the knack, learning to ‘dope’ the cylinders with petrol, and heat the plugs on the gas-ring, and all the other dodges necessary for those ancient engines.”

He went on:

“The most difficult knack to learn was the sharp pull to start the Renaults. The first time I got it, I gave such an almighty jerk, I brought the open bonnet down on my head. But I started the engine.”

I love finding these first-hand accounts of what new technology was really like, especially relating to stuff we’ve got in our collections. I feel genuinely closer to our Renault taxi having read Hodge’s words, and next time I visit Wroughton, I’ll be all over that car, imagining Hodge struggling to start the engine back in 1915.

Hodge was a very interesting character in other ways. More on that another time…

2 comments on “Taxi Driver

  1. Dear David
    I’ve discovered this post more than three years on from the time you wrote it, but I’ve just finished reading Herbert Hodge’s ‘It’s Draughty in Front’ and, looking him up on the ‘net found your page. You are certainly right in saying he presents an excellent account of what working with the new technology was like, and also of his working conditions and indirectly giving an idea of what driving an Edwardian cab was like.
    The General (Later the London General) were the first and only company to import Renault cabs, bit did so in 1905, not 1910 as your caption says. They imported 500 for their new garage in Brixton and were the first company in London to invest a significant amount of money in the motor cab trade. They sold most, if not all of them, particularly to the type of small garage where Hodge first worked because they were soon outdated and struggled to haul the 4-seat body fitted in place of the original, light 2-seat body. The General replaced them with Unics and other makes. An ex-General Unic is now in the Museum of London.
    Being introduced in 1905, the Renault would not have met the Metropolitan Police Public Carriage Office’s Conditions of Fitness, which were introduced in 1906. Its inappropriate chassis dimensions was on reason cited by journalist and cab maker Henry Sturmey. They were allowed to continue in service because the head of the Public Carriage Office, Arthur Bassom said that it would not be in the public interest to refuse to licence them; no doubt acknowledging the fact that the company were the first big players in the motor cab business. The only other example of a Renault cab I have had the opportunity to examine had a turning circle way above the 25ft required by the Conditions of Fitness, and I’d be very interested to know if the turning circle on your Renault is the greater than the mandatory 25ft!

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