If you grew up in or frequented any big city during second half of the 20th Century, you have seen a Checker. Probably you’ve ridden in one, most likely amid the mixed aroma of spiced meats, cleaning fluid and vomit. Drive one? Without a stint as a cabbie, it would be hard to imagine. But by happenstance in the summer of 1983, this writer did have the pleasure of driving a Checker, without need for a hack license. In between graduating from college and starting my first “real” job, I worked as a chauffeur for a drive-your-car service in southern Connecticut. This was decades before Uber or Lyft. Then, when a driver was needed, we would be called to the client’s house and then chauffer them in their own vehicle to where ever they needed to go. Most every trip was to or from a New York area airport. Most every car was the ordinary fare of early 1980s suburbia; Oldsmobiles, Buicks, the occasional Honda. But one fine day the drive would not be to the airport, and the livery would be anything but ordinary.
The call came in from the dispatcher. Was I doing anything tomorrow? An old lady in Ridgefield wanted to go up to Bennington, Vermont to have lunch with her granddaughter. Vermont. A real drive. What a treat. On the way over there the next morning I wondered what kind of car I would be piloting for the day. Not for a single moment did I imagine the freshly washed, dark green Checker Marathon I saw when pulling up to the house. A Checker! Who drives a Checker? My disappointment was fleeting, for my client, who was indeed ancient, was also charming. The day was lovely and so off we went.
Up through Connecticut and Massachusetts and into southern Vermont to Bennington was normally about a 2½ hour drive. This one took a bit longer. Once used to the glacial pace of 115hp trying to motivate 4000lbs of mass…and that I was driving a freak’n Checker…the car’s charms began to reveal themselves to me. The ride was terrific, and I was surprised at how much road feel transmitted through that enormous steering wheel. The brakes felt strong and linear. Compared to the Delta 88s and LTDs I normally got to drive, the Checker’s chassis flex was non-existent and there were few rattles. There would be no testing the Checker’s cornering capabilities, however, not with a 75-year old lady perched on that flat rear bench seat telling stories about her life.
In those days before SUVs, if you wanted a commanding view of the road, the front seat of a Checker was where you wanted to be. And that front seat was a very nice place to spend a morning. When I hoped out after over 3 hours behind the wheel, there was not a bit of fatigue. My elegant passenger, too, seemed no worse for the journey. As I took her hand and watched her alight through the tall wide door, I caught a glimpse of a by-gone day when passengers stepped out of a cabin, rather than unfold themselves from a compartment.
After handing off my charge to a quite lovely granddaughter, I turned to go back to the car and wait. There it was, standing tall and erect like a palace guard awaiting orders. Growing up an hour’s train ride from Manhattan, I’d seen hundreds, if not thousands of Checkers. They were as a part of the New York City landscape as skyscrapers and potholes. But this car wasn’t background. it had presence, she was beautiful. That freak’n Checker had won my heart.
Checker founder, Morris Markin was born in Smolensk, Russia in 1893. He immigrated to America in 1913 where he settled in Chicago. A tailor by trade he would go on to make a fortune supplying uniforms to the U.S. army during WWI. Flush with cash after the war, he began to invest in Russian-owned businesses in the area. One of these was Commonwealth Motors, maker of the well-regarded Mogul automobile. Another was the Checker taxi fleet of Chicago. Markin merged the two in May of 1922 to form the Checker Cab Manufacturing Company.
The taxi industry in the 1920s was a violent business, especially in Chicago. It was ripe with corruption and bloody turf wars involving gangsters, teamsters and crooked politicians. To Morris Markin, survivor of Tsarist pogroms, it may have seemed tame. Still, when a firebomb was tossed at his home as part of a labor dispute, he decided it prudent to move Checker’s manufacturing operations 150 miles east to Kalamazoo, MI. The first cab made by Checker in Kalamazoo was the 1923 Model C. This was a beefed up version of the Commonwealth Mogul. The Model C proved very popular with taxi fleets, especially in New York.
Markin proceeded to set up a complex web of operations that was vertical integration at its most opaque. The Checker Cab Manufacturing Company built the cabs, while a series of sales and distribution companies, all controlled wholly or partially by Markin, sold them to taxi fleets in cities from Minneapolis to Boston, especially Chicago and New York. Another of his companies, General Transportation Casualty, insured them. Business was good.
The First Real Checkers
While the Checker Model C was essentially a carry-over passenger car, the all-new for 1928 Model K was a purpose built cab. In the 20s and 30’s taxis were conveyors of the upper classes. Working class folks were relegated by economics to the streetcar or bus. As such, taxis were large, richly appointed coach-built cars, limousines for hire that trolled the financial districts and toney neighborhoods for well-heeled fares. Many cities required that cabs be able to carry eight passengers and be extra-large for safety. The Model K served this market well. Its style and comfort, sturdiness and reliability, pleased passenger and operator alike. Checker quickly became America’s cab of choice, a distinction it would hold for another half a century.
The dawn of the 1930s brought the new Model M with radical new styling on a slightly modified K chassis. The rectangular Woodlite headlamps made Checkers cabs easily identifiable at night. The scooped front fenders were designed to reduce the cost of fender benders. Less fender to bend.
The Thirties also brought Checker’s first financial setback. The company lost over $800,000 in 1932. Morris Markin had made some enemies in his 10+ years in the taxi business, and the Checker board of directors took this opportunity to remove him as company president. But Markin had survived Tsarist Russia and the mean streets of Chicago. He would survive a little boardroom brawl.
Some years earlier, Markin had met future industrialist, E.L. Cord, when the latter was selling cars in Chicago. The two maintained a friendship as both saw their business empires expand. Cord was now a titan in the automobile and aviation industries, owning Cord, Auburn and Duesenberg automobiles, as well as Lycoming Engines and the Saf-T-Cab Company of Cleveland, OH. After his ouster, Markin turned to Cord and convinced his friend to take a controlling interest in Checker, and of course to reinstate Markin as president. The partnership also resulted in Checker using Cord’s new Lycoming 115hp strait-8 engine in the upcoming Model Y.
By 1936 E.L. Cord had run afoul of the new Securities and Exchange Commission. Markin took the opportunity to buy back his stake in Checker Cab Manufacturing. It is hard to say whether Markin saw the writing on the wall, or somehow helped to write it, but by the close of 1937, Cord’s automotive holdings were bankrupt, while Checker was going strong.
The Checker Model A debuted in 1939. The Lycoming engine was gone, along with its manufacturer. Replacing it was a Continental-supplied 226 cu. in. Red Seal 6-cylinder engine. This engine would power Checkers for the next quarter century.
But it wasn’t Checker’s new engine that caught people’s attention. The Model A was not only the most outrageous looking Checker, but it may have been one of the strangest looking American cars ever. Large oval headlamps surrounded by gaudy chrome shields, and separated by a body color waterfall grill and a plunging beak, form a face that defies a search for adequate adjectives. Trying to track its designer brings to mind the adage; success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan. No designer working for Checker at the time claims responsibility for this ugly bastard. But if you were trying to hail a cab in 1939, you knew more than a block away that a Checker was coming.
The Model A remained in production until 1942 when the nation’s industrial might was converted to serve the war effort. Checker won contracts to build self-contained trailers, truck cabs and a massive tank recovery vehicle. The company also bid on the army’s ¼-ton reconnaissance vehicle (which would soon be known as the Jeep). Four prototypes were built but the contracts went to Willys and Ford.
As the outcome of the war gained clarity, Checker engineers in Kalamazoo got to work on a new cab. Former Auburn-Cord chief engineer, Herbert Snow teamed with former Chrysler chief stylist Ray Dietrich to design an all-new Checker. They came up with a couple of unconventional designs meant to maximize interior volume while minimizing exterior dimensions. One prototype had a rear-engine, rear-drive setup, while the other used front engine and front-drive. When testing began the former was quickly dismissed because of the handling problems inherent with rear weight bias. The front-driver got a bit further. Snow was anxious to correct some of the driveline problems experienced with his otherwise stunning Cord 810/812. In the end though, the setup proved to be too costly to produce and too brittle for taxi duty. The Dietrich deigned body, however, proved quite modern and pleasing. With a bit of tinkering it was placed atop the old Model A chassis. The resulting Model A-2 has a strangely elongated front to accommodate the non-existent FWD transaxle. It was produced for eight more years.
Birth of an American Icon
Since 1929, New York City required that any taxi or limousine carry at least 5 passengers in the rear. Prior to the war, most manufacturers produced such a car. By the early fifties, only DeSoto and Checker where left. By this time nearly three quarters of all Taxis in New York and Chicago were Checkers. The NYC laws were changed in 1954 and standard four-door sedans were permitted for taxi use. Moreover, to reduce congestion, taxis were limited to a 120-inch wheelbase. The big cabs that formerly roamed the city’s streets would be banned.
To meet these challenges, work began on the first truly all-new Checker in three decades, the Model A-8. This was a thoroughly modern car. Independent coil springs took the place of the ancient I-beam front axles. These were mounted to a new heavy-duty X-frame chassis. The A-8 still used the old Red Seal Six, but it now used a higher compression OHV head and made 141hp. The old L-head 85hp design could still be ordered for regions with low quality fuel. Automatic transmission, power steering and power brakes were available for the first time on a Checker.
Vehicles for taxi use had to be durable and serviceable. The A-8s X-frame chassis was purpose built to take the punishment inflected from taxi use without shakes rattles or rolls. Its fenders were attached with 12 bolts and could be replaced in 20 minutes. Identical front and rear bumpers reduced cab operator’s repair and inventory costs. Extra hard brake lining greatly increased time between adjustments or replacements. All of the under-hood components in the A-8 are located up high in the engine compartment for quick, easy servicing and away from splashing water.
While durability was important for taxi operators, comfort and convenience was first and foremost for passengers. In order for fares to easily get in and out, the A-8s doors were wide and square and at least 5 inches taller than an ordinary sedan. You stepped into a Checker, while you folded into a Ford or a Chevy. A two-piece drive shaft eliminated the need for a transmission tunnel and allowed for a flat floor. The rear seat was pushed back between the rear wheel wells. This, combined with a 120” wheelbase, gave the Checker at least twelve additional inches of leg room over an ordinary sedan. The extra space allowed for optional jump seats, stretching seating capacity to eight.
For the first time a Checker could now be special ordered for private use. Not that it was easy for Joe Public to place an order. One had to contact a zone sales office to arrange a test drive and fill out an order sheet. Servicing was a little easier as it could be performed at any taxi garage that operated Checker cabs.
Nineteen fifty-nine brought changes to the Checker line. Quad headlights brought with them a new model designation, the A-9. Far more important was a second model called the Superba. Morris Markin realized in he had a good car in the new Checker. He decided to offer it to the public more vigorously, and set about building a small dealer network. The Supurba was an A-9 taxi with a bit of chrome trim and a nicer interior. Checker sold almost 5800 A9s and Suburbas, up 76% over 1958. This was a pittance by GM or Ford standards. Checker’s breakeven production point, however, was around 2000 cars, making the Superba a raging success. The following year brought a station wagon with a two-piece tailgate and over 9 feet of cargo space with the rear seat folded down.
The new A-10 debuted in 1961. It wasn’t very different from the A-9. But a top-of-the line passenger version was called the Marathon. The Marathon was distinguished from the Superba by a chrome spear that ran from the front fender to the rear door and interior trim that was a step up from, taxicab fare.
More new models arrived in 1962. The X-frame chassis was well suited to be extended without significant loss in structural rigidity. The Checker Aerobus wagon came in 6-door, 9-passnger, and 8-door 12-passenger configurations, adding either 34 ½ or 69 inches to the wheelbase. Both used a Chevrolet sourced 327 cu in V8 engine. The massive 12-passenger Aerobus was 270 inches long giving it the distinction of the being the longest regular production passenger vehicle ever. The Aerobus was built until 1977.
A new limousine appeared, with an extra nine inches of space in the rear over an ordinary Marathon. The jump seats could be converted to a bench allowing for 6 passengers in back. The limousine had much richer appointments a glass partition. Several were sold to the state department after U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Llewellyn E. Thompson, advised Washington that existing limousines were ”…not suitable for the cobblestones and rough roads encountered in the Soviet Union.” They were no problem for the Checker.
Decline and Fall of the Checker
Throughout the 1960s Checker was handsomely profitable with a fairly steady 5000+ vehicle production level. As the 1970s arrived, the taxi business was changing. Rising gas prices were making the rugged but thirsty Checkers less appealing to cab operators. Founder Morris Markin died on July 7th, 1970. Morris’ son David took the helm and began searching for new sources of income. A special projects division was formed and began to producing body stampings and components for General Motors and others, including sub-frame assemblies for the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird. Finally, government safety regulations brought in 1974 the first noticeable change in the Checker’s appearance in a dozen years. The simple chrome bumpers were replaced with a pair of massive steel girders that may well have been repurposed freeway guardrails.
From 1933 to 1980 Checker produced just a few thousand cars a year and made a profit on every one of them. In 1981 that streak was broken. The Checker Motor Company lost nearly half a million dollars. David Markin asked workers at the Kalamazoo plant to accept concessions on pay, otherwise he would be forced to shut down production of the Marathon. They didn’t, he did, and the Checker automobile was no more. When Checker ceased cab production on July the 12th, 1982, the New York Times ran an obituary with the headline, “Checker Cab, 60, Dies of Bulk in Kalamazoo.”
It took another 17 years of hard New York City driving to lay the final working Checker cab to rest. Cabbie Earl Johnson decided that on July 26th, 1999 he and his 1978 Marathon would retire. With nearly 1 million miles on the odometer, the cab that Mr. Johnson had named “Janie” after an old sweetheart, required $6,000 in upgrades to meet ever-stricter government regulations. Said one of the passengers interviewed on that last day, “The Checker is the ultimate luxury. It’s such a grand car. It’s a vehicle that belongs to New York.”
Life After the Marathon
It didn’t have to end that way. In the mid-1970s, former General Motors president, Ed Cole, and Victor Potamkin, owner of the world’s largest Cadillac dealership, teamed up to buy half of Checker Motors. They first planned to bring out a new Checker cab based on a stretched Volkswagen Golf platform. Volkswagen of America went so far as to produce a prototype, but it proved unsuitable for taxi duty. Before the company could turn elsewhere, Cole was killed in a crash while flying his personal plane to a meeting in Kalamazoo.
Before he died, Cole had made inquiries at ins old employer. General Motors, he knew, was developing an all-new front wheel drive compact code-named X-body. Perhaps this platform could bring Checker into the late 20th century. The X-Car Checker got as far as a design mock-up before the project was abandoned. Low volume Checker needed at least 10 years of production to justify tooling costs, while GM intended to produce the X-body no more than 6 years.
Too bad they didn’t wait a couple of years for the X-based midsized A-body, which was far more robust and stayed in production for 14 years.
While Checker stopped building the cabs it was known for, the company soldiered on, profitably building body stampings for General Motors and others for another 17 years. But in 2009, Checker found itself caught in the vice of the financial meltdown and was forced into bankruptcy.
Back in New England on that summer day in 1983, the return home was just as lovely as the drive up. It was quieter though. My elderly passenger was tired from an eventful day. That gave me more time to appreciate the majesty of the Checker. This car was a rolling monument to the idea that, while change is inevitable, it isn't always better.
I shall never forget and always be grateful for my day with a Checker.
Copyright@2017 by Mal Pearson