How taxis gave Prague the feel of a big city

How taxis gave Prague the feel of a big city

ŠKODA WORLD

115 years ago, Prague became the first city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire to launch a taxi service, thanks to the LAURIN & KLEMENT motor works. It wasn’t long before Vienna and even Paris saw the company’s reliable cars enrolled in taxi duties.

25. 8. 2022

The plan to start a taxi service in Prague was announced by the carmaker based at the International Automobile Fair in Prague during Easter 1907. Epocha magazine wrote: “Of the Czech companies, it was the world-famous LAURIN & KLEMENT that had the largest number of automobiles on display. Many say that their stand was the biggest at the trade fair and the most interesting in terms of the diversity of the exhibits.” The journalist also drew attention to “an automobile carriage with a taxi meter and a 10/12 hp motor, which this company wants to roll out in Prague.”

It’s 1907 and Prague has its first taxi (Photo: ČTK)

The founders of the L&K brand, mechanic Václav Laurin and bookseller Václav Klement, understood the importance of individual mobility for the general public from the very first days of their business. After all, the first L&K VOITURETTE A was one of the most affordable cars of its time. Within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the company based in Mladá Boleslav soon succeeded in dominating the market, and in 1908 more than 90% of sales of vehicles up to 10 hp were LAURIN & KLEMENT models, despite competition from domestic and foreign manufacturers. 

However, the poor quality of the roads at that time and the much greater comfort offered by the heated and spacious railway carriages meant that even members of the better-off classes preferred to travel to and from big cities by train. They only used cars to get to the local railway station or from there to their hotel or other destination. Never constrained by a provincial outlook, though, Václav Klement was inspired by modern Western metropolises with their already heavy car traffic, and he and his business partner decided to give Prague the hallmark of a world metropolis by introducing taxis.

LAURIN & KLEMENT taxis in front of the Světozor passage in Prague in 1907

L&K taxis: the hallmark of a big city 

The glorious day in the history of Prague’s taxi service – and a landmark event for Centre Europe – came on 7 September 1907. On the first day, a LAURIN & KLEMENT B2 car started its trial operation, followed by C2 model cars. From the following day onwards, Prague residents could enjoy a ride in the first four taxis. 

In the words of the popular contemporary magazine Světozor, “the automobile cabs of Prague set off into the squares and streets, giving them the feel of a major city. These cabs certainly represent the safe traffic of the future, for against them, when their transport becomes somewhat cheaper, all competition from ordinary horse-drawn cabs and fiacres will be in vain. What seems a sensational novelty today will soon acquire the full right of daily use by and indispensability to the public.” 

A period LAURIN & KLEMENT advertisement announcing the launch of the taxi service in Prague

The first taxi drivers sought to attract their target group of customers, i.e. wealthier citizens arriving in the city by train, by situating a taxi rank in front of what is today Masaryk Station, with others in the streets Havlíčkova ulice and Ferdinandova třída (which is today’s Národní, or National Avenue) and at the Powder Gate. LAURIN & KLEMENT’s newspaper advertisement stressed comfort and low prices, but contemporary sources fail to mention the actual fare rates. We also read that “the proceeds from the first day's fares will go to the city’s poor”, meaning the takings were given to charity. The taxis – though not all – were already equipped with meters and the fare could be followed on a mechanical counter. The term “taxi meter” soon started to be used as a nickname for the automobile cabs themselves in Prague, as evidenced by contemporary newspapers, magazines, films, and the recollections of witnesses.

The GDV conquers Vienna

The first L&K motor cabs had been presented at the Prague Exhibition Centre at Easter 1907 and by September they were already criss-crossing Prague. Three years later, in April 1910, the Czech car factory introduced a new four-cylinder model, the LAURIN & KLEMENT GDV, notable for its high reliability and economical operation. This middle-range automobile weighed 900 kilograms, despite the 3050 mm wheelbase. With a 2,660 cc SV petrol four-cylinder engine producing 18 hp (13.2 kW), it could reach speeds of up to 70 km/h (43,5 mph). According to other sources, the engine delivered 24 hp. Whatever the case, during its eight-year career the GDV saw a number of variations, including sports versions. A total of 333 units were built. The most popular were the GDV motor cab and the related GDVT landaulet, a body with a fixed roof section at the front and a folding roof over the rear seats. This improved the passengers’ view from the car and facilitated ventilation on sultry summer days. LAURIN & KLEMENT was not only a leader even within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, rolling out these taxis in Vienna, the capital: L&K GDV cabs were also successful in Budapest, St Petersburg and even Paris. Allegedly the original Viennese GDV taxi, a true vintage rarity, has been preserved in the collection of the Zlín representative of ŠKODA.

Luxury under the empire and after independence

Despite the optimism expressed at the time, the demand for taxi services did not skyrocket. Thirteen years (and one world war) later, in 1920, there were 40 taxi service cars registered in Prague. Venkov, the press organ of the influential Agrarian Party, wrote in June 1920: “On the days of the All-Sokol meeting, the Prague Car Transport Company’s motorcars drove through the city, attracting attention by their special design. The car comfortably seats four people – the cabs are dark green, with a wide stripe across the middle of the doors, and at the back is a winged automobile wheel with the monogram A.S." We should add that there were already 470 taxis cruising Prague in 1925. Eight years later, 1,156 taxis and just 7 fiacres and 33 horse-drawn cabs were plying the city streets. Before the Second World War, the number of Prague taxis was close to two thousand.

This is what the taxi rank in Prague’s Wenceslas Square looked like in 1913.

Needless to say, cars made in Mladá Boleslav were still among the most popular brands among taxi drivers. And gradually the popularity of the taxi service as such grew. Again, let’s go see what the magazine Světozor had to say. In an article with the title The Chauffeur a taxi driver confided in the magazine that romantic couples were the most popular passengers for cabbies. They wanted to be driven to Jíloviště, a popular excursion spot outside Prague. They gave the driver money for his supper and he would wait for an hour in a restaurant before driving them back to Prague. By the way, these romantic trips by taxi came to an end in the spring of 1942 when, to save fuel and for safety reasons, taxi companies were only allowed to transport passengers within the boundaries of the Prague police district and to a few adjacent settlements.