Is there anything that blends into an urban background better than a taxi? Generally spending their lives being driven hard and toting around countless people, most are inevitably used up and scrapped. In many places seeing an old one is an infrequent event.
But this 1964 Biscayne is the real deal and it’s still around, even if temporarily off-duty.
The word “taxicab” is a hybrid, which seems apropos given the number of hybrid taxis currently in use around the world. “Taxi” is a truncation of the French word taximétre, a combination of the Latin word taxa, meaning tax, and meter, a derivative of the Greek work metron which translates to measure.
The first documented carriage for hire was in London in 1605, with the first taxi stand appearing near the Strand (a section of London) in 1636. Paris had its first carriage for hire in 1637.
York architect Joseph Hansom designed a taxi focused carriage in 1834 that was smaller and more agile, allowing more maneuverability in 19th Century London traffic jams. These carriages were referred to as “hansoms”.
In 1907, 30 year-old New Yorker Harry Nathaniel Allen founded the New York Taxicab Company, ultimately importing 600 gasoline powered cars from France. Allen coined the hybridized word “taxicab”, combining the French word taximétre and the Latin derived cabriolet, referencing the body style of car he was using.
Allen was sufficiently inspired to begin this business enterprise after an unscrupulous hack driver charged him $5 for a 3/4 mile ride back in 1907.
The early taxi business, at least in the United States, was a turbulent affair as labor riots engulfed the New York Taxicab Company within eighteen months of its founding. Rioters burned a goodly number of these French sourced taxis and pushed a fair number of others into a nearby river.
In 1922 Russian immigrant Morris Markin founded the Checker Cab Manufacturing Company (later renamed Checker Motors Corporation) and went into the taxi building business.
In 1929, Markin purchased Yellow Cab Company in Chicago from Austria-Hungary immigrant John Hertz, a company formed in 1920 as the Yellow Cab Manufacturing Corporation. While General Motors purchased the manufacturing portion of the company in 1925, Hertz retained ownership of the Chicago based taxi firm. It was at this time GM entered the taxi business in New York with Terminal Taxi Company.
If the Hertz name sounds familiar, it should. When Hertz sold the cab company to Markin, he refocused his efforts on his car rental business. Hertz has retained the yellow color in its various logos as a nod to their Yellow Cab Company heritage.
After the early growing pains of the taxi industry finally culminated in some degree of normalcy, the major auto manufacturers realized there was a modest yet steady market there to be served. A number of them exploited this market for both expanding business and out of necessity. Chrysler was one of the first to hail this market – for both reasons.
When Chrysler introduced the Airflow in 1934, the DeSoto division over enthusiastically jumped in with both feet. Unlike Chrysler, DeSoto did not keep a “traditional” styled car in their line-up. Sales plummeted.
For 1935, DeSoto received an Airstream model based upon a body found elsewhere within Chrysler Corporation, and immediately doubled their sales due in no small part to taxi sales. DeSoto sales doubled to 26,800 for 1935, with a shade over 5,000 long-wheelbase versions built for taxi use.
It was also during the early to mid-1930s General Motors delved into the taxicab production business with the General. Utilizing various components from the Yellow Cab purchased from John Hertz the General was built specifically to be a taxi. Looking like an enlarged Chevrolet, the General used Buick and GMC engines at different times along with a Chevrolet truck rear axle.
Here is another in service, found in Kew Gardens, New York.
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s Checker and DeSoto remained the dominant makes found in the taxi business. That started to change in the late 1950s and 1960s as other manufacturers started to gain traction in this steady market.
Chevrolet officially entered the police car business in 1956; while not an obvious parallel, both types of vehicle utilize many of the same heavy-duty parts needed for constant use in extreme conditions. When both Ford and Chrysler began offering a factory built “police package”, they both dipped into the taxi parts bin for their heavier-duty pieces of hardware. It’s only reasonable to figure GM did likewise.
This supposition also acknowledges the amount of taxi regulation that occurred in many U.S. cities during the 1930s. New York City implemented fairly strict rules on taxicabs, stating they must be purpose built cars from the manufacturer. This came about as retail cars pressed into taxi use had proven themselves to have painfully inadequate durability, so the inclusion of heavy-duty parts undoubtedly followed this 1930s era regulation.
So what exactly did buying a purpose built taxi from Chevrolet give an operator?
Specifics for 1964 aren’t exactly plentiful, but information from 1958, 1960, and 1961 is readily available. Let’s look at these to see what develops over these years; plus, with so few changes between 1961 and 1964 on the retail side, it’s safe to assume any differences would simply be refinements of an existing idea.
Some items from 1958 are pretty much a given, such as the larger brakes and stouter seat material. Fifteen inch wheels were optional, with grease zerks for the clutch pedal and wider opening rear doors being standard equipment.
Most interestingly are the special hinges for the rear doors, allowing a 14″ wider arc when opening.
You can tell Chevrolet was trying to sell a taxi when the six-banger was given more prominence than the small V8. That would never have happened in a retail brochure during that time period.
Refinements continued on into 1960. Many of the specialty items found in these brochures should have been standard on all cars, not just the purpose built ones.
Taxi operators could opt for a specially jetted carburetor that was biased toward economy and a heavier duty 11″ clutch was available with six-cylinder engines. By this time, Chevrolet was also advertising the taxi package as having an RPO (regular production order) code of 330.
If Chevrolet didn’t mean business with the taxi market, it’s doubtful there would have been coding specifically for taxi purchases.
Continuing its apparent concentration on gaining share of the taxi market, there was a lot more specificity to be found for the 1961 taxicabs.
Many of the features unique to taxicabs remained unchanged from 1960 however each of these features is much more prominent for the prospective fleet buyer, with each being spelled out and not tossed as haphazardly into a brochure as it was in 1958.
Dedicating two pages in their brochure indicates a certain degree of seriousness, a palpable change over the course of three years.
And, as an aside, one could get a Corvair and Greenbrier taxicab. The take rate on these would be fascinating to know as it’s undoubtedly scant.
From what could be discerned, a goodly number of these taxicab specific features made their way onto our featured 1964 Biscayne. This car is a sight to behold; or maybe it’s the story the car can tell.
A recent meeting of the Mid-Missouri Old Car Club took place at a business establishment here in Jefferson City. During the meeting, the owner of the business stated he had just purchased this Biscayne from somebody here in town. He said the car been cloaked under a car cover for years at a house near the Catholic high school; I have been driving by this car for two decades of living and visiting here, only able to tell it was a very basic Bel-Air or Biscayne.
The new owner was told this car has been off the road for a while; this is reinforced by the license plates which expired in 1983.
Even better, the Montgomery Ward brand battery is date coded as having been purchased in 1975.
Upon getting the car back to his business and going through the interior, the bill of sale for this Biscayne was found as was the taxi license for the gentleman who purchased it. This Biscayne was indeed a taxicab used here in the state capital, purchased new for that very purpose. If only the interior could talk.
The only options found on this Biscayne are a Powerglide and air conditioning. With the humidity here in the summer, the a/c was a wise choice but with that and the PG bogging down the 230 cubic inch straight six, it certainly made for some leisurely travel around town and up the endless number of steep hills we have here.
The new owner is going to make use of this Biscayne for his business and he figures the car has a lot of life left. How so? It’s in phenomenal condition for what it is and especially for the use it saw. The only rust is surface rust on the roof due to the car cover.
I went to this meeting with no intentions of taking any pictures, however this old Biscayne was simply too juicy to pass up. Seriously, when was the last time you saw a 52 year old taxi?
The CC Taxi by PN
My Checkered Career With Checker Cabs by Kevin Martin