72° Good Evening
72° Good Evening

NYC taxis through the years: from horse-drawn cabs to hybrids and beyond

The New York City cab is more than just a car that happens to be painted yellow.

Born of the hardscrabble ambitions of poor and immigrant workers in the 19th century, the cab rose to become a mighty symbol of a metropolis that always seemed to be on the go.

The status of cab driving as a profession grew steadily in the mid-20th century as the vehicles became more splendidly comfortable with the introduction of the Checker and the almost-gorgeous DeSoto Skyliner. But it wasn't too long before the reputation of the cab industry took a nosedive. By the 1970s, cabs were described as dirty and cramped, their drivers rough outsiders that maneuvered the streets with psychopathic urgency.

Much has changed since then; cabs have gotten better, and so has the reputation of the drivers. And if the number of taxi-inspired souvenirs at gift shops is any indication, the cab is as inseparable from the city's narrative as the State of Liberty.

Here's a brief history of the taxi in photos, from the earliest horse-drawn cabs to the Taxi of Tomorrow.

Horse-drawn hacks of the 19th century: A bad rep is born

The first taxicabs to ply the streets of
Photo Credit: New York Public Library / Alice Austen

The first taxicabs to ply the streets of New York City were horse-drawn carriages like this hansom cab that became widely used in the early 19th century. Licensed by the city, many of the early taxi drivers were African Americans or Irish immigrants, eking out a living as small entrepreneurs.

Being a taxi driver was already considered a low-rung job that could, if you worked hard enough, help advance a person's social status. But the hacks of the day, toiling in the nighttime hours in their black cabs, had a bad reputation for cheating fares and abetting nighttime crime -- earning the nickname of "nighthawks."

However, they also became symbols of a glamorous urban landscape. One boy arriving in the city wrote of his "first impression of New York was a single horse, drawing the swank, two-wheeled hansom cab. "

Electric cabs of the late 19th century: A failed experiment

Cab companies began to innovate in the late
Photo Credit: Museum of the City of New York

Cab companies began to innovate in the late 19th century, introducing gas power and even steam-powered automobiles. But they failed to win over consumers until the introduction of the electric hansom cab. The Electric Carriage and Wagon Company was largely responsible for introducing these cabs into the city to compete directly with horse-drawn carriages. By 1899, the company had a fleet of 100 in the streets.

But these newfangled cabs had major drawbacks: daily mileage averaged about 11 miles per cab, and the costs of maintaining them were such that they were considered a money loser. While some electric cabs continued to be used around Central Park well into the early 1900s, the experiment had largely failed.

Yellow Cab Company, 1920s: Cabbies selected for 'cheerful kindliness'

The Yellow Cab Company, founded by John Hertz,
Photo Credit: New York State Museum

The Yellow Cab Company, founded by John Hertz, came to dominate taxi business in the city by the early 1920s by the sheer size of its iconic yellow fleet. The company introduced automatic windshield wipers and telephone-dispatched taxis. He apparently was also passionate about his drivers showing "courtesy," with the Press Club of Chicago, where the company was based, making much of how the drivers were "carefully selected for their cheerful kindliness."

Hertz sold the manufacturing arm of the company to General Motors, which continued to produce yellow cabs like the one shown here, from 1929. The taxi has a 6-cylinder engine and 3-speed transmission.

The Yellow Cab Company was eventually acquired by Checker Cab Manufacturing Co., which would become a behemoth in the taxi industry for decades to come.

Checker Cabs of the 1920s: Shiny new models hit the streets

Checker cabs were already numerous on the
Photo Credit: Checker Motors Corporation Factory Photo

Checker cabs were already numerous on the streets of the city in the 1920s, operated by independents in competition with the Yellow Cab Company.

The Chicago-based Checker Cab Manufacturing Co., led by the ambitious Morris Markin, pushed the company to introduce new models of taxicabs and expand manufacturing.

New models included the H and H2, as well as the Model K introduced in October 1928 and priced at $2,500. This shiny new marvel had hydraulic brakes, a six-cylinder engine and safety glass.

DeSoto taxicabs: Riding in style (with sunroofs!)

In the 1930s, DeSoto Motor Company introduced its
Photo Credit: <a href="" target="_blank">Randy Lloyd via Flickr (CC BY-SA))</a>

In the 1930s, DeSoto Motor Company introduced its famous Skyliner taxicabs in New York City. Operated by the Sunshine Radio System, these cabs were notable for their sunroofs.

The DeSoto taxicabs quickly became famous for their comfort and spaciousness, and this continued into the 1940s with the SkyView, an example of which is shown here.

The cabs featured retractable roofs but included a barrier in the trunk "to prevent transport of dead bodies," according to "Taxi! A Social History of the New York City Cab Driver," by Graham Russell Gao Hodges.

1950s Checker cabs: Roomy and handsome

By the 1950s, hundreds of cab companies operated
Photo Credit: Checker Cab Manufacturing Co.

By the 1950s, hundreds of cab companies operated in the city. By far the largest organization with the largest fleet was Parmelee, controlled by the Checker Cab Manufacturing Co. Cars ran up into the thousands -- $2,600 per Checker or $3,100 for a DeSoto SkyView. But it was the Checker cab that would become the standard for taxis, with its roomy comfort and handsome looks. Either way, prosperity for cabdrivers was fleeting and hard-won.

Diversity of cabs in the 1960s: Car makers battle it out

The 1960s saw a proliferation of cabs. Now
Photo Credit: William Castle Productions / Rosemary's Baby

The 1960s saw a proliferation of cabs. Now you had Dodge, Ford, Chevrolet and Studebaker cabs plying the roads for hails. But by the end of the decade, Dodges and Fords were dominant. One of the most common, featured in period movies like "Rosemary's Baby," was the Dodge Coronet. Of course, the old Checkers cabs continued to roam the streets, offering comforts beyond the usual taxis.

Gypsy cabs emerge in response to racism: 'We go anywhere'

African Americans developed the gypsy cab -- non-medallion taxis
Photo Credit: <a href="" target="_blank">Andy Blair via Flickr (CC BY-SA)</a>

African Americans developed the gypsy cab -- non-medallion taxis -- for the first time in the 1960s, according to "Taxi! A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver." The growth of the service soared on demand in the outer boroughs where medallion cabs often refused to go.

There was more than a tinge of racism to the actions of the city's official fleet of cabs; they often refused to take fares to black neighborhoods or low-income areas. Gypsy cabs filled the gaps.

"Not yellow," some had painted on their sides. "We go anywhere."

The City Council passed a law in 1968 prohibiting non-medallion cabs from using the colors yellow, orange, red or gold.

The 1970s: A 'sleazy' low point in cab comfort, cleanliness

In 1974, Time magazine described the city's cabs
Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures / The Last Detail

In 1974, Time magazine described the city's cabs as "among the world's sleaziest: cigarette butts and paper coffee cups on the floor, dirty windows, leprous upholstery, chewed gum and sticky candy wrappers on ripped seats."

Another article that appeared in Time a couple years later was no less charitable, arguing that "In New York City, nothing is more onerous than debt and taxis." The writer complained of a "claustrophobic bulletproof shield between driver and passenger" and said the entire design of the cab was aimed at forcing the customer into "a paralytic yoga position: fists clenched into the white-knuckles mode, knees to the chin."

Though Checkers were still widely available, there was a new dominant vehicle: that old workhorse, the Dodge, as seen in the 1970s Jack Nicholson film "The Last Detail."

In 1970, the city also passed a law making yellow the official color for all medallion taxis.

Ford's Crown Victoria triumphs over all in the 1990s

By the 1990s, the battle to dominate the
Photo Credit: Getty Images / Spencer Platt

By the 1990s, the battle to dominate the taxi cab industry came down to two dull but pragmatic vehicles: the Chevrolet Caprice and the Ford Crown Victoria.

While these cars didn't have the flair of cabs of earlier decades, they tended to endure the heavy use of cab drivers. Police also used Crown Victorias, and once those were retired they could be recycled as cabs.

But some people criticized the four-door sedans known as "Crown Vics" for their soft suspensions and awkward back seating. The Caprice was retired from production in 1996, leaving the Crown Vic the cab of choice for much of the rest of the 1990s and into the 2000s.

Hybrids, minivans, SUVs and more in the 2000s

In the 2000s, the face of the city's
Photo Credit: Getty Images

In the 2000s, the face of the city's cab fleet diversified significantly, with hybrids, minivans and SUVs being introduced. Toyota, Honda and Isuzu vehicles could be seen roaming for passengers.

Still, the Crown Vic remained the old standby even as plans were being made to replace the entire fleet with all-hybrid vehicles or a so-called "Taxi of Tomorrow" promoted by City Hall. But court battles and politics delayed progress toward either.

Nevertheless, the Crown Vic was finally put out of production in 2011, forcing cabbies to select alternatives. The Taxi and Limousine Commission has approved dozens of vehicles for use, from the Toyota Prius to the Dodge Caravan.

Uber, Lyft: Ride sharing disrupts the taxi industry in the 2010s

In 2011, Uber announced it was launching its
Photo Credit: Getty Images / David Ramos

In 2011, Uber announced it was launching its ride sharing service in New York City, ushering in a new era of disruption in the taxi service industry.

By allowing anyone to basically be a taxi driver with their own private vehicle and making it easy to click for a ride using a mobile phone app, Uber began establishing a new network of cabs outside the medallion system. Drivers were plucked from the existing livery cab business, and vehicles didn't have to be of any particular color.

The company immediately faced scrutiny from regulators, but it was soon clear that the demand for the service was outpacing policy. Meanwhile, fellow competitors like Lyft began to operate in the city.

By 2015, the Taxi and Limousine Commission said its data showed that the number of Uber vehicles was outpacing the number of yellow cabs. Uber and its ilk were also being blamed for a drop in medallion prices.

Green in 2013: Rise of the outer-borough taxi

After decades when medallion taxis were painted yellow,
Photo Credit: TLC

After decades when medallion taxis were painted yellow, a new color was introduced to the palette of cab driving in 2013: green.

The city had created a new class of medallion taxis to serve the outer-boroughs, and made the decision to go with a color that would make sure anyone trying to hail one would know the difference.

The decision to introduce the green taxis meant greater service in the outer-boroughs, where taxis had been limited and black livery cabs had long been dominant. The black cars could only be hailed by phone call; the green cabs could be hailed on the street like a yellow cab.

What's next: The Taxi of Tomorrow

The city's fleet of 13,587 yellow medallion cabs
Photo Credit: Nissan

The city's fleet of 13,587 yellow medallion cabs will likely look a lot more uniform in the years ahead. That's because policy makers have been pushing to require operators replace retiring cabs with the so-called Taxi of Tomorrow, a Nissan NV200. Taxi operators who choose not to buy hybrids must choose the NV200.

The boxy minivan-like vehicle was chosen after an international competition back in the Bloomberg years, but its rollout was held up by litigation until December 2014.

The Nissan NV200 packs a formidable set of features: cargo room for luggage, USB charging ports, sliding doors, lights that alert other drivers that doors are opening and even a transparent roof that "gives riders stunning views of city sights and skyscrapers," the company crowed.

In January 2016, the fleet is required to begin migrating to wheelchair accessible cabs with a goal of making 50% or more accessible by 2020.


We're revamping our Comments section. Learn more and share your input.

News photos & videos