What’s it like driving a Hong Kong taxi? Joe Wu found out when he imported a 1996 Toyota Crown Comfort to his home in Pasadena, just outside Los Angeles. That’s the same car used, until recently, by 99 percent of taxis in Hong Kong – the distinctively boxy sedan whose appearance never seemed to change much through the years.
“In general, the car is very comfy. It feels very solid, well-built,” says Wu. “It’s not super luxurious but the suspension is very soft. The only issue is that for American roads it doesn’t like to speed because it’s meant for city driving. On highways, I have to max out at 70 or 75 miles per hour, otherwise my engine will rev really high.”
Like Al Wu in Toronto—no relation, although they’ve been in touch regarding their shared interest—Joe Wu is trying to transform his imported Crown Comfort into something as close to a red Hong Kong taxi as possible. When he had it shipped over from Japan in April, it was a plain white driving school model with a passenger side brake – the one used by instructors when their students can’t be trusted to brake themselves. Over the past several months, he has spent his spare time making it look as much like a taxi as possible: red and silver livery, yellow information labels, bilingual taxi lamp on the roof.
It’s a relatively affordable project, even though Wu, 24, is only working part-time as he studies for a marketing degree. It cost US$5,000 to buy and import the car from Japan – a remarkable price in a used-car market overheated by pandemic demand. “It’s a great deal,” says Wu. As far as he knows, it’s the only Crown Comfort that exists in the United States.
Of course, Wu could have bought and rehabilitated any number of old cars. But Hong Kong taxis hold a special place in his heart because they remind him of home. He immigrated to California with his family in 2001, when he was three years old. He used to visit Hong Kong every year to see relatives, but hasn’t been able to go back since the start of the pandemic. “I really miss home,” he says. “So I thought why not bring one of the most iconic Hong Kong things back to LA. So that’s what I did.”
Unlike most Crown Comforts, which run on liquified petroleum gas (LPG), Wu’s car runs on diesel, which means there’s more storage room in the boot – something anyone who has tried to load up a taxi with luggage might have appreciated. (Hong Kong taxi drivers compensate for the limited space created by the LPG tank by leaving the boot open and securing it with bungee cords.) When he first received the car from Japan, Wu explored all of its features in great detail in a YouTube video.
It’s worth noting that the Crown Comfort wasn’t always the standard model for Hong Kong taxis. Taxi service in the city dates back to 1947, when 329 cabs were recorded by the government. Over the next few decades, a variety of cars were used by taxis, including two different types of Mercedes-Benzes, plus DeSoto Deluxes, Morris Oxfords, Ford Anglias and Vauxhall Veloxes. As we noted in our article on the visual culture of Hong Kong taxis, each company had its own livery until the government ordered them to be standardised in 1974, which resulted in the distinctive look we see today.
It was around the same time that Japanese cars came to dominate the market thanks to their affordability and ever-improving reliability. Some of these were particularly appealing to taxi operators, including the Nissan Cedric, a sedan first produced in 1960 that eventually became the second most common type of Hong Kong taxi. But few could compete with the Crown Comfort, which quickly became the taxi driver’s model of choice after it was introduced in 1995.
Based on the Toyota Crown, a sedan that had been produced since 1955, the Crown Comfort was intended specifically for use as a service vehicle. Taxi operators in Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore prized them for their spacious cabins—which could fit five passengers in addition to the driver—their no-fuss construction and a price tag that was slightly cheaper than its competitors.
Other manufacturers have tried to break into the market over the years. In 2015, Ford launched its Transit Connect Taxi to great fanfare in Hong Kong, but taxi operators said the price tag—HK$250,000 compared to $220,000 for the Crown Comfort—wasn’t worth it, even if it offered far more luggage space. Some operators looking for better fuel efficiency opted for Priuses or Shenzhen-made electric BYDs, but they barely made a dent in Crown Comfort domination.
But its reign was destined to end. Singapore stopped using the Crown Comfort in 2014 when it began upholding Euro IV emissions standards. Rather than updating the car, Toyota stopped manufacturing it in 2018, replacing it with the JPN Taxi, which is sold in Hong Kong under the name Comfort Hybrid. It’s a universally accessible hybrid electric car that seems loosely inspired by London’s famous black cabs. “I think they’re a great replacement for the Comfort,” says Wu. “Great luggage and passenger space—no more tying down the trunk for airport trips—but it’s sad to know that it will be replacing the Crown.”
For now, he’s keeping the original Comfort’s legacy alive in Los Angeles. He likes to drive around suburbs like San Gabriel and Monterey Park, which have a large population of people with roots in Hong Kong. “I’ve been driving around primarily Cantonese neighbourhoods and trying to bring joy to people,” he says. “People are really happy when they see the taxi.”