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For many people, a Checker Cab brings back fond memories. Checker produced the iconic taxicabs that patrolled the streets of cities like New York and Chicago for decades. Lending to the cars nostalgic charm was the fact that it was hardly redesigned from the 1950s to 1982, the year when the last Checker was built. Though the cars didn’t change, the taxi industry, and the car industry, as a whole, did. That proved to be Checker’s undoing. As of 2016, though are attempts to revive the brand. Let’s look back at Checker’s past and into its potential future.
Morris Markin and Commonwealth Motors
Prior to Checker’s heyday in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the company had a long and – pardon the pun – checkered past. The story begins with a Russian immigrant to Chicago named Morris Markin. Markin’s first business was as a tailor, and a rather successful one. Using funds from his fashion business, he lent money to a fellow immigrant named Abraham Lomberg for Lomberg’s car manufacturing company.
Lomberg was not as successful in his venture as Markin had been in his, and he was unable to keep the company afloat or pay back Markin’s loans. In lieu of loan repayment, Markin took over the company, in 1921, renaming it the Markin Auto Body Corporation.
The following year, Markin saw the opportunity to take control of another failing auto company, Commonwealth Motors. Commonwealth had promised a number of completed taxicabs to the Checker Taxi company, which, at that time was a taxi service company, not a taxi manufacturer. Commonwealth was short on funds and unable to complete the orders for Checker. Markin bought Commonwealth and merged it with Markin Auto Body to form Checker Cab Manufacturing.
The Chicago Taxi War
Checker Cab and Yellow Cab, owned by John Hertz, later of Hertz Rental fame, became Chicago’s two dominant cab service companies. At the time, taxis were usually taken by the well-to-do, while regular folks tended to take public transportation. This meant that fares were few but paid well. With many cabbies and few fares, competition was fierce. Cab drivers started to fight for “turf.” Local papers started to refer to the conflicts as the Taxi Wars.
In 1922, Markin moved the Checker Cab Manufacturing to Kalamazoo, Michigan to get away from the Taxi Wars. Of course he couldn’t take the Checker Cab service out of Chicago, so the Taxi Wars continued. The cab companies themselves began to engage in their own conflicts, legal in nature. Checker taxis had notable checkerboard trim. So, too, did Yellow Cab taxis. Yellow Cab claimed that they used the mark first and sued Checker in 1923. A number of taxi drivers signed affidavits claiming that they had driven Yellow Cab taxis with the checker design before Checker had started using it. Those drivers later claimed that those affidavits were forgeries, and then, later still, claimed that Morris Markin had bribed them $5,000 to change their testimony. Markin admitted to paying them $1,080, claiming it was restitution for their suffering the in the Taxi Wars. In the end, it mattered little, and Checker was able to continue using the checker trim.
In 1928, the leadership of Checker Cab and Yellow Cab met to try to put an end to the Taxi Wars. They were ultimately unsuccessful. Shortly after the summit, two Yellow Cab garages were bombed. John Hertz’s private stable also burned down, but Hertz said publicly that he did not suspect arson. Eleven of Hertz’s twelve horses died in the fire. An astute stable boy rescued the twelfth, Reigh Count, who went on to win the 1928 Kentucky Derby. Reigh Count later sired Count Fleet, who won the Triple Crown in 1943.
Eventually, Hertz decided he had had enough of the Taxi Wars and moved away from Chicago. He sold Yellow Cab to Morris Markin, of all people.
In the 1930s, Chicago instituted a licensing system to limit the number of cabs on the street. A cab needed a special “medallion,” of which only a limited number were available to operate. New York instituted a similar licensing system. Markin began to buy up more and more taxi medallions until he controlled most of the cab service business in Chicago and New York. In this way, he gained control of Checker Taxi, consolidating the cab manufacturing and taxi service businesses.
The Taxi Wars had come to a close, but a real war was just beginning. During World War II, Checker, like many auto manufacturers, switched from producing cars to producing military vehicles. Checker produced a handful of jeep prototypes, as well as trailers to transport tanks (say that five times fast).
The Post War Years
In 1947, Checker began producing taxis again. Its first model after the war was known as the Model A2. Mechanically, it was similar to Checker’s pre-war Model A taxis. The body had a typical 1940s sedan design with a long hood and sweeping curves. The engine was an inline six sourced from Continental Motors Company. The A2 came with a 3 speed manual transmission. Between 1947 and 1954, Checker produced several iterations of the new car, from the A3 to the A7. They were largely the same from year to year.
In 1954, New York introduced new regulations governing taxi cabs. As the population grew, and roads got more crowded, older taxis were becoming too big and unwieldy. New York demanded that taxis have wheelbases 120 inches long or shorter. Checker’s then current models had a 127 inch wheelbase. The regulation had the potential to effectively put Checker out of business.
Checker responded by developing a new model, the A8. The A8 laid the groundwork for all future Checker models until the last Checker rolled off the assembly line in 1982. The A8 is the iconic New York City Taxicab, with its boxy ‘50s styling and chrome trim.
In 1958, Checker updated the taxi slightly and began to market its cars to civilian consumers. From 1959 to 1963, the taxi was designated as the A9 and the civilian car as A10. The A10 was sold to the public under the name “Superba.” In its ads and brochures, Checker emphasized the Superba’s interior space and its rugged reliability. It was, after all, basically the same car as the taxi. In fact, civilian buyers could option the car in yellow with checker trim; with a roof lamp, back seat divider, and meter, so they could play taxi driver with their friends and relatives.
Checker introduced a new model in 1961. It was a specialty long-wheelbase cab designed for transporting passengers around large airports. The car, known as the Aerobus, was available as a six or eight door sedan, or a 7 or 9 door station wagon. Checker built Aerobuses from 1961-1977, skipping 1975. The Aerobuses used Chrysler V8 engines until 1965, when the company switched to Chevy engines.
In 1963, Checker upgraded the cab to the A11 model, and the civilian car to the A12, sold as the Marathon. The company stuck with those model designations until 1983. The Marathon was available as a wagon or a sedan. Changes over those years were minimal, mostly made in response to changing regulations. For example, 1964 saw the introduction of front seat belts, and 1966 rear ones.
Continental Motors increased their prices in 1964, leading Checker to seek a different supplier. From that point on, the A11 and the Marathon were available with a Chevy engine – either a six-cylinder or a V8. The Aerobuses used Chevy’s 350 cubic inch V8.
Morris Markin, the mind behind Checker, died in 1970. Ownership of the company was transferred to his son David, but David showed little interest in running an automobile company. In 1975, he brought in former General Motors president Ed Cole to run the company. Cole had big plans to catch Checker cars up to modern technology. He intended to buy front-wheel drive Volkswagen Passats and stretch the wheelbase at the Checker factory in Kalamazoo. Cole died in a plane crash in 1977, and his plans were abandoned.
The End of Checker?
Besides engine changes, and changes required by regulation, Checkers remained largely the same for two decades. Most body parts could be easily swapped between cars of different years. Checker tried to use this as a selling point, noting in a 1980 brochure that "Checkers are built so you can cannibalize 'em when necessary!" The unchanging visuals of the car helped earn it an easily-recognizable iconic status. Checker Taxis appeared in the Martin Scorsese film Taxi Driver, and in the TV sitcom Taxi.
Even with an iconic appearance, that kind of stagnation didn’t impress buyers, and civilian sales slowed. Even taxi sales slowed. Checkers were old fashioned, too big, and heavy. Taxi companies began to buy smaller, front-wheel drive cars from companies like Ford and Chevy. To make matters worse for Checker, those companies could build cars for lower costs and sell them for lower prices.
In 1982, Checker produced its last car. The company turned to stamping sheet metal parts for large auto companies like GM.
Slowly, Checker Cabs disappeared from the streets of New York as they became too old to operate. New York’s last Checker cab, called Janie by its driver, went out of commission in 1999. In 2010, the car, which had carried Jackie Onassis and Muhammad Ali as passengers, sold at Auction for $7,700.
In 2009, even the major automakers saw a slump in demand. That, in turn, led to a decline in demand for materials from Checker. In 2009, the Kalamazoo plant closed its doors and Checker went out of business.
A New Beginning?
The Checker brand name fell under the auspices of Adamson industries, a company that produces equipment for fleet vehicles. Since 2010, the new Checker Motors, based in Haverhill, Massachusetts, has focused on restoring old Checkers.
Not content to restore old cars, Checker’s new owners hope to build new ones in the coming years. They plan to build prototypes in 2017 and enter into full production in 2018. They have showed of two designs: an El Camino-style pickup car called the Sport Pick-Up Crossover, and a new version of the Aerobus. Both designs feature a retro-look that hearkens to Checker’s past.
Although you might not be seeing Checkers on the streets of New York any time soon, take a look around airports in your future and you just might see a brand new Checker moving passengers around.
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