How to survive Panama traffic in a classic motorcar? Barry Nicholson reports on his adventures with a classic London cab on the streets of Panama City.
Moving house is always stressful, moving continents even more. Since the day we moved from the UK to Panama, me and my spouse are faced with plenty of challenges. Like car ownership for instance. Knowledge, parts and spares of modern cars just aren’t up to scratch in this part of the world. Learning things the hard way, in the end we decided to find something more robust and mechanically simple. Before leaving the UK, I had run several old LandRovers, so I decided that, on the basis of traffic and road conditions here, a return to LandRover was the way to go. A left hand drive, ex-military long wheelbase example with the simple, naturally aspirated diesel to be more precise. One had been sourced, but, on the day that I was ready to make the purchase, we discovered that we had a daughter on the way. This, my wife felt, ruled out a rattly old soft top Defender and so it was back to the drawing board.
A chance discussion with a friend on Facebook raised the option of a retired ex-London black cab, something which had never occurred to me previously. We learned that the later models all came with an old fashioned Nissan diesel engine and most had automatic transmissions. This made them ideal for Panama’s traffic, particularly as it would mean that many of the mechanical parts were available locally and, with no electronics, computers or sensors, any workshop here could work on the vehicle. To that end, we purchased a 1996 model LTI Fairway from London Taxi Exports in the UK and had it fully refurbished prior to shipping. The priority job being the fitting of air-conditioning. We did experience one or two difficulties in actually getting the vehicle onto the road once it arrived on the boat from Southampton, but once these were overcome, we have had very few problems at all. The issues of right hand drive in a left hand drive country, well they don’t really exist.
When our daughter arrived on the scene, the cab proved to be the perfect family car. No messing around trying to transfer a baby from pram to car seat in the tropical downpours prevalent here. Simply open the back door to its full extent and push the entire pram inside to work in the dry. Plenty of space and, for the driver, the added advantage of being able to close the partition window to obtain a little peace and quiet from the self-loading cargo. Now, with a lively three-year-old, the self locking rear doors and easy clean interior make life very easy. The partition window proving to be more useful by the day.
We found that having the only black cab in Central America does attract a fair amount of attention. Everywhere we go photos are taken and numerous questions are asked. Everyone recognises the cab no matter where we go and, as such, we took the decision to start a company specialising in promotions and wedding transportation, something the cab is, again, ideally suited to. The brides love the space in the back and the easy access, the photographers and wedding planners love having something a little different around and, for the driver, the tight 25ft turning circle makes getting in and out of the narrow streets in the historic centre of the city no problem at all.
We now have three cabs running; two of the classic Fairways from the last years of production (1996 and 1997) and one of the newer model TXIs, which my wife has subsequently claimed as her personal car. All are high mileage, with the 1996 on 240,000 miles and the 2000 on 440,000 miles, but have proven to be utterly reliable and virtually indestructible. Perhaps not the most exciting or exotic classic cars, but I cannot think of a classic better suited to family life. Besides that, they are great fun to drive.