How do you replace a New York institution like the legendary Checker Cab? You get the help of another New York institution (and a Swedish carmaker), of course. Volvo decided it was time to re-invent the taxicab back in the day, and the effort was so good, it was put in one of the greatest art museums in the world.
In 1976, The Museum of Modern Art in New York City commissioned two taxis of the future to explore how application of modern design principles might bring New York’s ubiquitous yellow cabs into the late 20th century. The project sought to understand what drivers and riders alike needed from a taxi and bring those needs to the forefront of the design process.
In a design brief, MOMA and Volvo were clear that this car was a design study only, but the City Taxi was still designed to make the most of what Volvo had on the parts shelf at the time. The car wasn’t a concept, you see, but a “conception”:
The Volvo Experimental Taxi Vehicle is not to be viewed necessarily as a prototype ready for production, but as a conception, a basis for future development in taxi services. Versatility and diversification in use combined with high levels of comfort and safety were the guiding factors behind the design.
With a six-cylinder front-wheel-drive diesel drivetrain, the City Taxi appears now to be a much more realistic approach to how taxis could have been improved in 1976 when the most common taxi in Manhattan was still the Checker, a design largely unchanged from its introduction in 1956. Volvo’s primary focus was designing a cab that would be safer than those already in service, with a sliding door that could fit a wheelchair, and “tubular steel members” built into the frame and doors to protect occupants in addition to a roller coaster-style padded lap-bar instead of a normal seatbelt designed to make even the busiest, most important-est Midtown hot shot buckle up between the Pan Am Building and JFK.
And it really was designed around just plain being a taxi:
Very short front and rear overhangs mean good vision and a tight turning circle. The body is built according to the Volvo “safety cage principle”: heavy closed profile members surround the entire occupant area, while the front and rear sections are energy absorbing crumple zones. The doors and flanks of the vehicle incorporate built in protection in the form of tubular steel members, and the floor is reinforced by five strong cross members. Both the front and rear bumper are impact-absorbing and comply with the five mph crash impact requirement by a wide margin. A heavy-duty rubber moulding runs along the flanks of the vehicle at a strategic height in order to reduce the often slight yet expensive damage which is not unusual in city traffic.
It didn’t have the Giugiaro-penned cab-forward stance of the Alfa Romeo, but it would have fit in on New York’s streets alongside the rest of the boxy utilitarian vehicles that make up the bulk of the city’s traffic.
While we’ve already given a good look to Alfa Romeo’s submission, the one that really deserves a spot along side Dieter Rams’s stereos and the legendary Solari airport destination sign in the museum’s permanent design collection is Volvo’s City Taxi. MOMA is currently closed for a long-awaited refresh and expansion, the perfect opportunity to Let’s hope that the new space gets put to proper use and MOMA returns the Volvo it commissioned to the museum floor for us to ogle along with the Van Goghs, Rousseaus, and Picassos. MOMA might have to wrestle it back from Volvo’s museum in Gothenburg where the City Taxi is currently on display, but it would be worth the effort. If we’re going to have to spend an afternoon at the museum, there better be some cars in it for us.
Instead of a Volvo commissioned by a museum, New York eventually did get a purpose-built taxi. Though it didn’t become the definitive taxi of the era in New York, Nissan’s NV200 taxi did change what New Yorkers expect from a taxi ride. Though cabbies eventually got their way and the Nissan didn’t become the mandatory choice for all, the NV200's glass roof, USB ports and sliding doors have made good on what Volvo and Alfa came up with back in the ‘70s. With all these, even in the face of stiff competition from ride-share services, the yellow cab remains a New York institution. Still, you have to wonder if more of the art world were involved in the design process, perhaps the NV200 could have been exactly what New Yorkers needed.
MOMA should honor its role in the legacy of New York’s yellow cab and stick the Volvo somewhere along the rest of their design collection. It’s not every day an institution of high culture attempts to solve the problem of urban transportation, but maybe more of them should.
We got two striking MOMA taxis, but what about a subway train commissioned by LACMA? Or a bus designed at the Tate Modern?