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Iconic London cab firm now in Chinese control

The famous taxis date back to the end of the Second World War, when the first Austin FX3 cabs rolled off the production line.

LUKE MACGREGOR/Reuters

They have been an iconic symbol of London for more than 60 years and played a feature role in the opening and closing ceremonies at the Olympic Games last summer.

But now the maker of London's black cabs has been sold out of British hands. And in a reflection of the change in global commerce, the buyer is Chinese.

Coventry-based Manganese Bronze announced on Friday that it is being bought by Geely Automobile Holdings Ltd., a division of Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co., in a deal worth just $17.5-million. Manganese had been operating under bankruptcy protection since October after years of losses and a string of mechanical troubles. Geely already owned 20 per cent of the company and will now take full control.

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"We are determined to restore the fortunes of this totemic marque," said Geely chief executive officer Li Shufu. "We are a long-term and committed investor and we believe the illustrious past of the London black cab can be matched by a successful and healthy future."

Geely said it would maintain production of the cabs at the Manganese plant in Coventry, which has been idle since the company filed for protection. However, it isn't clear how many of the roughly 107 remaining staff will be kept on.

The sale marks a turning point in the history of the black cabs. The famous taxis date back to the end of the Second World War, when the first Austin FX3 cabs rolled off the production line. The design hasn't changed much since then and each vehicle still has to conform to strict dimensions first set out in 1906. The so- called "Conditions of Fitness" requires that cabs must be tall enough to accommodate a man in a top hat and long enough to seat two people opposite each other without their knees touching.

Over the years the cabs have become an ingrained part of the city's fabric. The King of Tonga reportedly had one specially made and celebrity owners over the years have included comedian Stephen Fry and actor Sir Laurence Olivier.

Manganese Bronze, which originally made ship propellers, acquired the business in 1973 from its original owner, Carbodies. For years the company's TX4 cabs had an unassailable position on the streets of London, where more than 20,000 taxis ply their trade. In 2007, Manganese's share price traded above £9 ($14) on the London Stock Exchange. But soon trouble emerged.

A series of engine fires in 2008 forced the company to recall 5,000 cabs. Around the same time, Mercedes Benz entered the London cab market with a sleek, more fuel efficient, version of the cab and it quickly snatched away market share. Nissan also announced plans to enter the market.

By 2012, just as the Manganese cabs were getting international fame during the London Olympics, including being danced on by the Spice Girls in the closing ceremonies, the company was hit with more bad news. A computer error forced it to restate financial that which revealed a £4-million loss. Another damaging recall came in October when the steering on some cabs turned faulty. Within days of announcing that recall, the company filed for protection and its shares were suspended on the LSE. About 200 staff were let go and many wondered if the company would survive.

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Geely bought its 20-per-cent stake in 2006, hoping to use Manganese as a spring board into the British market. The Chinese company said Friday that it will be looking to add new models and entering the private hire car market. Geely is best known as a major car maker for the Chinese market, although in 2010 it bought Sweden's Volvo for $1.5-billion.

News of Geely's purchase was welcomed in Coventry, once a major car manufacturing hub but now only home to the Manganese plant. And in London, Mayor Boris Johnson celebrated the deal as well saying the Chinese company had ensured "the continuing manufacture of a world famous, fully accessible and instantly recognizable vehicle synonymous with London."

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About the Author
European Correspondent

Paul Waldie has been an award-winning journalist with The Globe and Mail for more than 10 years. He has won three National Newspaper Awards for business coverage and been nominated for a Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism. He has also won a Sports Media Canada award for sports writing and authored a best-selling biography of the McCain family. More

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