Charleston Black Cab Company

We don’t want to dispel any cherished ideas for Anglophiles, but London isn’t always the slick, swinging city its tourist board makes it out to be. It’s also a big, damp burg full of grumpy white-collar workers and gridlocked traffic. For Londoners, the greatest scourge is the black taxi cab.

In the wrong hands, these cabs have no regard for pedestrians and little for their passengers. The dregs of the drivers like to feed their fares nonstop bullshit about their authentic Cockney heritage and the celebs they’ve “had in the back.”

In London, these motorized monochrome monsters are a necessary evil. Here, it’s a different story.

“Last time I went back to London I was disappointed with the drivers I had,” says Charleston Black Cab Company director Carl Rowe in his thick English accent. “The ones I’m used to back there are happy, they get out and open the door for you, give you lots of knowledge.”

Rowe found that his own company, which prides itself on its top-notch service, offered a better experience for passengers. And although Charleston’s black cabs aren’t as ubiquitous as London’s, they’re becoming an increasingly common sight.

“At first, no one really knew what they were,” says Rowe, a British entrepreneur who spent four months checking the feasibility of his business before he brought three cabs over via London Taxis International. “The service team at Jones Ford didn’t know what to make of them. They hadn’t seen an engine like it — the closest they could think of was a lawnmower.” At a per-vehicle cost of $52,000, that would have to be one hell of a mower. “Even the Mayor asked, ‘Exactly why did you choose Charleston?’ It was a gamble. I didn’t know it was going to explode.”

Thanks to some capital from his previous hotel business, a strong novelty factor, and a pair of brass balls the size of Bow Bells, Rowe and his wife, Verity, have expanded their fleet to include 16 cabs, three Dodge Sprinter vans, and a Krystal minicoach. Business has boomed since last August, when an exclusive deal was struck with Charleston Place to become its transportation vendor. To the Place and any of the company’s regular passengers, the match between the cabs and the city’s historic downtown area is blindingly obvious.

“Visitors here are searching for a little taste of how it used to be,” Rowe feels, “and luxury. We try to offer both of them.”

As such, this may not be the cab to use for a weekly trip to Publix; along with the luxurious ride come limo-sized rates. As the company grew, it switched from a City-metered “introductory price” to a self-metered rate.

“We are expensive compared to a yellow or express cab,” Rowe says, “but we strive to be on time, with safe drivers. No disrespect, but most cars in America leave a lot to be desired and it ain’t that hard to be best in Charleston. It’s about making a living. If you’re going to have a dirty car or one that’s off the road, you’re not going to make no money.”

So Rowe makes sure the cabs are kept clean and fully serviced and tries to keep his passengers happy. One of the company’s biggest problems occurs on peak nights, when the phone rings off hook and demand outstrips supply. Smart customers go to Charleston Place or one of downtown’s upscale restaurants, where they can catch a black cab within a ten-minute waiting period. The really smart ones prebook.

It’ll be a while before Rowe expands his fleet again. It’s already the largest in the country, but he’s waiting for 10-15 new, environmentally cleaner versions of his cabs to arrive in late 2009. Made in Mexico and China, they’ll retain the familiar black taxi silhouette. Beyond that, Rowe plans to base cabs in Daniel Island, Kiawah, and northern Mt. Pleasant. Eventually he’d like to see black cabs in every major urban center. “Ultimately, it’s a good idea for a city, whether it’s an Anglified town or not.”