Robin Grow

President, Australian Art Deco & Modernism Society A major change arrived on Melbourne’s streets in the 1920s with the arrival of the taxicab.

As well as providing a new method of transport, the taxi companies added colour to the city, with red cabs, chequer cabs and yellow cabs (known as mustard pots).

By 1925, Yellow Cabs (originating in Chicago) boasted more 100 cabs in its fleet. Taxi ranks were established around the city, as well as roadside phones for calling taxis.

But the service was relatively expensive and presented opportunities for competitive pricing. Operating a taxi required a licence purchased from the state government, who also mandated the type and standard of taxis.

In 1936, a group of Melbourne taxi operators realised that they would be better off pooling their resources and formed a co-operative, called Silver Top Taxis.

The fleet expanded further, and quickly became a Melbourne icon, eventually becoming the biggest taxi fleet in Melbourne.

Driving a taxi could be a dangerous occupation (and still can) and reports were common of bashings of drivers, regular disputes between drivers of rival companies, passengers absconding without paying, and taxis being used to commit crimes (such as shooting at the occupants of another vehicle with a machine gun in Brunton Avenue outside the MCG in 1950, part of an underworld feud).

The companies faced challenges, such as during the years of WWII, when vehicles were converted to run on alternative power sources, only to find that charcoal quickly became in short supply.

The taxi companies needed depots for overnight storage of their vehicles and Silver Top set up a depot in what is now Southbank, at 199 Moray St, on the corner of Dorcas St.

The site gained popularity when the company established a café. This was a place that people flocked to. After climbing a rickety set of stairs – drivers who were weary after their shift (including those from rival companies), young blokes on their way home from a night out or looking for a quick feed on their way out, locals looking for a cheap meal, and apprentices sent out to collect lunches for their workmates could all be seen there.

The menu was relatively basic (grills, burgers, omelettes, and so on). But the hamburgers were legendary! It was open seven days a week from 7am to 2am (midnight at weekends).

The site was sold, and the café closed in the late 1990s but is still fondly remembered by locals and former drivers. Luckily the sign was rescued! •

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