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Your eyes don't deceive. You bought that Pittsburgh taxi

September 14, 2013 - Paul Giannamore
tuck in traffic on the way to the Pirates games Friday night (by the way, if you’re going to do back-to-back-to-back homers, it’s also nice to win, but I will take any great game and a reduction in the magic number now!), when I saw a goofy looking cab.

It was a typical yellow ‘Burgh taxi, but as it headed up the off-ramp at Greentree, I was ready to retire my Gearhead Guy chops for good. Darned thing was simply unidentifiable. Kind of big and kind of like a couple bars of soap stacked on top of one another and left in the shower just enough to round off the edges.

For a couple minutes, I thought maybe Checker had gone back into business and was making a soon-to-be iconic taxi.

After filing it away until relax time on Saturday afternoon, I found out the ‘Burgh is one of only a couple of cities with MV-1 taxis in service, the others being Chicago and New York and maybe Dallas soon.

The MV-1 is the first purpose-built American cab since Checker went out of business in the1980s. Checker was that big, square car that looked stuck in the 1950s and simply WAS a taxi when I was a kid.

But far from being a success, the MV-1 is kind of stuck between a rock, the Hummer H-2 plant, defense contractor AMGeneral and the federal government. MV-1 is a product of the Vehicle Production Group, a Florida-based company that got a $50 million Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Program loan, the same program that the feds lost money in the collapse of Fisker Automotive earlier this year.

VPG paid back about $5 million before declaring itself out of buisness in the spring. It has not, according to some reports, produced a vehicle since about last December, with a couple thousand vehicles built. Most of those were powered by a good, old Ford V-8, the Crown Victoria powerplant, which was in the Crown Vic taxis that populate the streets of most major cities.

MV-1 was not originally picked by the New York taxi commission to become the Cab of Tomorrow. That honor went to a special Nissan van that originally wasn’t handicapped accessible and didn’t meet the built in America requirements. The MV-1 was purpose-built to be handicapped accessible, complete with lock-downs for wheelchairs inside and ramps that come out of the vehicle. The Nissan van, when handicapped equipped, kind of puts the wheelchair passengers in the wayback, behind the last row of seats. In the trunk, in other words.

But MV-1 got the federal loan to be a leader in being powered by compressed natural gas, though most of the couple thousand built so far were simply gasoline-powered, like the old Crown Vic was. West Haven, Conn., at least, is touting its CNG-powered MV-1 cab fleet.

A report this month that I found online said AMGeneral has bought VPG and plans to get the MV-1 back in production in the Hummer H-2 factory, which is in Mishawaka, which is in the South Bend area, out near Elkhart Lake, the motorhome construction capital of the Midwest. Needless to say, with the demise of the Hummer line by GM, and AMGeneral failing to win the contract to build the real Hummer replacement for the military, and the loss of jobs in the motorhome industry since the recession, that area needed the jobs promised at the MV-1 factory.

AMGeneral, which also built a lot of mail trucks in its day, reportedly bought the VPG federal loan for about $3 million.

I have no idea if the goofy looking cab I saw in the ‘Burgh Friday was one of the CNG powered ones or not. And, apparently, the vehicles are being used by a firm that does veterans transport in Pittsburgh, too. But,l after seeing this odd vehicle in the real world, I’m left wondering. Why shouldn’t the U.S. have another iconic taxi vehicle that says, “American cab” on sight?

And if there’s a market for it, OK, but a federal investment to develop it as a CNG vehicle seems a stretch.

Here’s a wish for good luck for the autoworkers in Mishawaka. We should all wish it as people who know what lost factory jobs in an industrial area mean.

And as taxpayers, we should be wary of the lessons learned in the high-tech vehicle loan program.

Only Tesla survives and it finally turned a profit on its line of high-dollar high-tech electric vehicles this year. But most of us who pay the taxes to build the Teslas won’t ever see one, let alone drive one.

Maybe we can, at least, get a ride in a federally funded taxi that is built by the guys who built the Hummer, an American icon itself.


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Blog Photos

MV-1, with its ramp extended.