From Point A to Point B: A Los Angeles Taxi, 1915

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

My great-great grandfather Robert Levy was a hack driver, carrying passengers through the streets of Honolulu, Hawaii in a horse-drawn carriage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Though I can’t say for sure, his change in occupation, by 1910, to a turnkey in the city and county jail may have been the result of transformations in technology.  In other words, he may well have left the “hack” business because of that newfangled “horseless carriage” in the form of the “taxi.”

For more than a century, the taxi has been a major mode of transport in American cities, with the ubiquitous “yellow cab” a recognizable feature of the urban landscape.  With the advent of the so-called “sharing economy,” in recent years, however, the taxi looks to be going the way of the hack.  Services like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar are taking more of the business that used to be the province of the taxi and who knows how much life the latter has left?

Today’s highlighted artifact is a photograph from the Homestead’s collection of a Los Angeles taxi.  Dated 31 October 1915, the snapshot shows a well-dressed gent, probably the “cabbie”, standing next to an Overland, parked at the curb of a wide street.  Something is affixed to the right lapel of his jacket–maybe some kind of license or badge for his occupation?

Los Angeles Taxi 2008.256.1.1
Dated 31 October 1915, this snapshot from the museum collection shows an Overland taxi parked on a Los Angeles street.  The gent may be the cabbie and the route looks to have been between 1st and Pico and Broadway and Western, according to the placard behind the windshield, with fares running at a nickel.

A placard inside behind the windshield of the vehicle stated that the route was along Pico Boulevard via Broadway.  To the right are two other street names: Western Avenue and 1st, indicating perhaps the route by the cardinal points of the compass.  That is, the eastern boundary was Broadway, the western being Western, the south was Pico and the north being 1st.  At the left is the price of five cents and the number “73,” likely the taxi’s identification number.

As for the car, the Overland was first produced by Claude Cox and Charles Minshall’s Standard Wheel Company of Terre Haute, Indiana in 1902.  Renamed the Overland Motor Car Company, the firm, based in Indianapolis, created a line of popular vehicles in subsequent years.  But, economic problems came along by the end of the decade.  An Elmira, New York automobile dealer named John Willys had a large unfilled order of Overland cars and, by 1908, positioned himself as the president of the company.

Under Willys’ leadership, the firm, renamed Willys-Overland and working out of a plant in Toledo, Ohio, grew to be a major player in the American automotive industry with vehicles called “Willys” (sporting a powerful six-cylinder engine) as well as the “four banger” “Overland.”  Over time, Willys acquired firms that made sheet metal, gears, carburetors, transmissions and other parts and components.

After World War I, though, an economic slump led to the takeover of the company by Walter Chrysler, though Willys was able to engineer a comeback and retake control of the firm, which he ran until his death in 1929.  In the Great Depression, Willys-Overland went into bankruptcy, but reorganized as Willys-Overland Motors and found its forte in making the “jeeps” that were a major vehicle used during the Second World War.

In the postwar years, the firm manufactured jeeps for popular consumption and eventually American Motors Corporation took over.  AMC was purchased in the late 1980s, ironically, by Chrysler, which, in turn, was absorbed by German auto giant Daimler-Benz and rechristened DaimlerChrysler.  Meanwhile, Willys-Overland was resurrected as a wholesale and retail auto parts company.  Ten years ago, Cerberus Capital Management, a venture capital company, took an 80% stake in Chrysler, but the “Great Recession” led to another change as a “New Chrysler” corporation was formed.  Italian automaker Fiat then took a latge stake of ownership leading to a Fiat Chrysler Automobiles holding company.

In recent months, allegations of emission cheating (a la Volkswagen) have been level at what is now called FCA US LLC , with the company vigorously denying the charges made by the Environmental Protection Agency and an investigation just launched this week by the French government.  This Washington Post article and this Reuters article discuss the emissions scandal.

Meanwhile, for those of you who still ride taxis, take a look at this photo and then ponder how much longer our cabbies will still be on the job or working as an Uber, Lyft or Sidecar driver instead!

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