- The Washington Times - Friday, September 5, 2008

FENGJING, China

London Taxis are as British as bowler hats and Big Ben, but the latest models coming off this new assembly line are unlikely to ever touch an English road.

At a sprawling factory in the lush suburbs of Shanghai, young Chinese workers are busily gearing up for full-scale production of one of Britain’s most iconic vehicles. It’s part of an odd alliance that aims to give the distinctive black cab a greater presence outside its namesake city.

London Taxi International, which will continue to build nine out 10 cabs used in Britain at a factory in Coventry, England, couldn’t increase production at its small-scale, high-cost plant. So it turned to a partner - and to China - as a way to drive overseas expansion.

“To say the writing was on the wall would be pushing it a bit too far. But you do need to make progress within the automotive industry,” said Paul Stowe, a British auto executive who is overseeing the joint venture of Britain’s Manganese Bronze Holdings PLC, owner of London Taxi International, and Geely Group Holdings, one of China’s biggest independent automakers.

The venture is bearing fruit already, Mr. Stowe said, with agreements signed to sell 6,000 London Taxis from the Chinese factory, more than double the Coventry plant’s annual output.

Most will go to cities outside China - places like Singapore, Dubai, Moscow - that covet the image associated with the London Taxi’s tradition of good service and durability.

The cars are unlikely to displace other vehicles used as taxis in China, given their higher price and the strong political sway of bigger automakers with the local officials in charge of city fleets.

Instead, LTI expects to sell them mostly to hotels, limousine services, airports and collectors, Mr. Stowe said.

Manganese Bronze Holdings hunted for nearly a decade for a suitable Chinese partner. Geely likewise was looking for a chance to bring onboard the new technology and quality upgrades it needs to get ahead in China’s brutally competitive market, without risking being swallowed by a huge international rival.

“We were the right size and available at the right time. It works well for both companies,” said Mr. Stowe, who in his 15-year automaking career already has completed almost a global tour of the industry, working first for Land Rover, then BMW, Jaguar, Ford, Lotus, MG-Rover and then MG Nanjing - a venture set up after Chinese automaker Nanjing Automobile Group bought MG-Rover.

Trial production of London Taxi’s TX4, equipped with 2.4-liter Mitsubishi engines, began last week in Geely’s sprawling Shanghai Maple factory in the scenic canal town of Fengjing. Mass production is expected to begin by mid-December.

The price for the vehicles hasn’t been disclosed, but will be significantly cheaper than the British-made models, which sell for about $54,000.

Black cabs are seen strictly as a commercial vehicle back home. But in China, the vehicle’s novelty, and notoriety from appearances in dozens of films, lends it a certain cachet.

“It’s pretty cool to see a British car traveling on the street of Shanghai, just like in a movie scene,” said Xu Bin, senior auto trend editor for the local magazine Metropolis.

Mr. Stowe comes across as something of a cultural ambassador in the automaking world.

To help explain the London Taxi’s distinctive, tall-topped shape, he keeps a bowler hat on hand.

Although round, black bowler hats are an uncommon sight in London nowadays, decades-old British rules required that a gentleman be able to sit comfortably in the back of a London Taxi with his hat on.

“I actually purchased the bowler hat in London,” he said, “but I was surprised to see when I looked at the label that it was made in China.”

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