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Checker: The Forgotten Independent

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About a month ago I sat down with Jay Leno to plug a book written about the Checker Cab Manufacturing Company. During our conversation I fully realized that Checker may be the most overlooked American independent automobile manufacturer. Jay's Book Club: Checker Cab Co. - Book Club - Jay Leno's Garage

I have to admit that before writing this book, Checker, like Jeep, was not a vehicle that was given a great deal of thought. In consideration of their amazing ability to transform existent vehicles into niche market products, the association with E.L. Cord, and some of the stylish vehicles built during the 1930s, I am surprised the history of the cars and company are so obscure.

When was the last time you saw a pre 1960 Checker? Would anyone care to give their thoughts about why this company is so obscure?

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Would anyone care to give their thoughts about why this company is so obscure?

Checker never had sexy models, not even SUVs, in it's history. There are no sport coupes, performance models, unique engineering accomplishments, etc. among Checker models.

Also it was strictly a trade vehicle until the mid-1960s, when they belatedly began selling Marathons to the public. Built like brick outhouses, they were great cars. Perhaps if they were publicly sold for a longer time they'd have made more of an impression, because if they had they might have made more driver-oriented or marketing-oriented cars. Those are the cars people remember.

People collect and remember cars they remember out of past experience or past envy. Almost nobody ever envied a Checker driver, and there just aren't that many cab drivers (like my father) who had personal experience with them.

Edited by Dave@Moon
added last phrase (see edit history)

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At one time Checker "Marathon" cabs were all over center city areas in major cities like Philadelphia, New York, etc.

These cars were big & very roomy and built like a tank.

They had a typical early 1950s 4 door sedan type design that was never updated at all.

I understand they held up very well mechanically also.

The bumpers on the later cars after 1972 looked like ugly silver painted roadside guard-rails !

Many Philadelphia cab operators and customers were very sad to see the checker "Marathon" cabs slowly disappear from the inner city cab fleets.

There were several TV reports, and Newspaper articles about the last Checker Cab still in use in Center City Philadelphia.

I know of one older women in her late 80s that still uses a Checker Car that she bought new as her daily driver in the late 1960s. It has some slight interior style changes from the typical Checker Cab.

A friend of mine still does the State safety inspection and service on this car.

I have never seen , nor known any other Checker auto, that was not owned by a cab or limo company.

There is a Hollywood movie that had parts of it filmed in the old Checker Marathon Cab Factory Assembly line ~~~~

The factory assembly line was old and dark; a throwback to early automotive production lines~~~

It reminded me of films of Ford's Model "T" & "A" assembly lines from decades earlier.

It looked like a real old-school sweatshop operation.

The Checker factory shut-down a few years after this Hollywood movie was made.

I had heard that they just could not keep-up with newer government safety standards with this 1950s design; and did not have the money to tool-up for a complete new design.

Does anyone remember the title, and who starred in this Hollywood movie filmed at Checker ?

UPDATE:

MOVIE TITLE~

Blue Collar

1978

Richard Pryor

Edited by Silverghost (see edit history)

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A woman here in town used to have a sedan.. painted green. It was the only one I've ever seen that wasn't a cab. It was sold many year ago, and where it went, I have no idea...B

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There was a dealer in Pittsburgh who did a pretty brisk business in Checkers in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I remember seeing quite a number of them as brand new private vehicles in some of the wealthier sections of the city proper. I especially remember several station wagons around the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh, mostly in shades of blue. They were very rare, and almost never used as taxis.

ck690203.jpg

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Dave:

Years ago my Father had the family picked-up in a blue Checker Limo Wagon similar to the one in your above photo ! Five people compete with luggage easily fit into this large wagon.

I remember as a kid sitting on those back pull-out-and-up round wooden "Jump Seats" several times in the 50s-60s !

Years ago I was poking around junkyard looking for parts when I found a Checker Driver's hat in an open trunk of a 1960s vintage Checker Marathon..

The hat was pretty ratty; but the Checker Hat Badge was in good shape so I pulled it off and put it in my pocket~~~

I still have that Checker Cap Badge around here somewhere~~~

It still turns up from time to time !

Edited by Silverghost (see edit history)

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Checker never had sexy models, not even SUVs, in it's history. There are no sport coupes, performance models, unique engineering accomplishments, etc. among Checker models.

Also it was strictly a trade vehicle until the mid-1960s, when they belatedly began selling Marathons to the public. Built like brick outhouses, they were great cars. Perhaps if they were publicly sold for a longer time they'd have made more of an impression, because if they had they might have made more driver-oriented or marketing-oriented cars. Those are the cars people remember.

People collect and remember cars they remember out of past experience or past envy. Almost nobody ever envied a Checker driver, and there just aren't that many cab drivers (like my father) who had personal experience with them.

That was pretty much my opinion until a few years ago. Checker and Jeep, birds of a feather. Durable, utilitarian, and as exciting as a hammer. Period.

However, in my research I discovered another side to Checker. The model M (the yellow, early 1930s car in the Jay Leno interview) featured truly classic styling. In working with Keith Marvin several years ago we discovered that at least a couple of roadsters were built for the Blue Book road mapping folks in the 1920s. Then there was the model M Suburban Utility promoted as a 1 ton, nine passenger wagon that converted into a hearse or panel truck!

During the association with E.L. Cord the Checker and Auburn Saf-t-Cab shared numerous components. In the 1940s the company experimented with front wheel drive cabs as well as rear engine transaxle models. At the Gilmore Museum is a circa 1940 Jeep prototype built by Checker that has four wheel steering as well as four wheel drive.

There was experimentation with the use of diesel engines in the 1950s and production models available with Perkins diesel engines in the 1960s.

I fully understand the lack of interest in Checker from a collector standpoint. As you noted people collect cars that they were drawn to as a kid or from envy and Checker does not fit in either category.

Still, from an historical perspective I find the obscurity of the cars and company interesting.

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Hi Jim, thanks for the link, I enjoyed seeing your interview with Jay and congratulations on the book.

I think Dave has it right saying that Checkers are of limited popularity since they were not the object of teenage desire, but were just workhorses. Of course now that makes them far more rare and interesting than the cars of desire. If I see a Checker at any show I will stop for a look.

Just a brief anecdote, in the 1990s I was talking cars with the owner of a small family company that it turned out had used Checkers as company cars in the 1960s and 1970s. He said that they were able to call the factory directly for parts and technical assistance and the customer service was the best he ever experienced. Todd C

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Guest my3buicks
There was a dealer in Pittsburgh who did a pretty brisk business in Checkers in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I remember seeing quite a number of them as brand new private vehicles in some of the wealthier sections of the city proper. I especially remember several station wagons around the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh, mostly in shades of blue. They were very rare, and almost never used as taxis.

ck690203.jpg

Dave, about 5 years ago there was a blue Checker wagon with a lighter blue roof at the big show in Oakmont Park.

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My brother in law always bought Checkers and I always wondered what my sister saw in him?

He loved his Checkers and kept the last one he had till the body rusted away. He was a good guy and a wonderful husband to my sister. They would have been married 60 years last June but we lost him in February to cancer. He and I shared birthdays and he married my sister the day I was born. I kept my mom from the wedding! Many great memories of him, but the thing I remember the most were those ugly old Checkers!

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In the 70's and into the early 80's I serviced the radios and meters for a small taxi fleet that used what I think were 60's Marathons. They looked more like a 55 Chevy. They used to buy used cabs, sometimes wrecks and rebuild them. If I remember correctly, they only had 2 fenders. The right front is also the left rear and had a bolt-on headlight cap or tail light cap that could be used on either side.. Seems to me that there was only one replacement door that fit all 4 positions. The factory door came drilled for hinges on either side and you cut in the handle where you needed it. I think the hood and deck lid were also interchangeable.

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Checker! I read the reports on the Checker, roomy, built like a tank, easy to service, so in the early 60's I bought one for my young family. Leaky Continental engine, doors wouldn't stay shut, hard steering, my wife hated that car. Then one day a Buick bumped us in the rear at a stop sign, that (built like a tank) Checker folded up like a beer can. The Buick? couldn't find any damage on it, but the tank had to be towed away. We were glad to see that one go!

My wife and I both collect cars but if I were to bring a Checker home she would divorce me. "Ask the man who owned one!!!"

RHL

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What was the new selling price for the Checker Marathon as compared to a base-stripped model Ford or Chevy, Chrysler 4 door sedan of the same time period ?

I assume the Checker sold for much less than base stripped model cars the Big Three offered ?

In New York City you were forced to buy a Checker if you were a cab company as New York City law stated that all Taxi Cabs had to be purpose built for Taxi use and must accomodate five passengers in the rear seating area and could not be standard production cars.

I think the maker/owner of Checker Motors "Got To" the local N Y C lawmakers and thus had this very big Taxi Cab market all to himself for decades !

Edited by Silverghost (see edit history)

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I assume the Checker sold for much less than base stripped model cars the Big Three offered ?

In New York City you were forced to buy a Checker if you were a cab company as New York City law stated that all Taxi Cabs had to be purpose built for Taxi use and must accomodate five passengers in the rear seating area and could not be standard production cars.

I think the maker/owner of Checker Motors "Got To" the local N Y C lawmakers and thus had this very big Taxi Cab market all to himself for decades !

Just my opinion, but I would assume a Checker probably cost more than a stripped full size Chevy or Ford, probably quite a bit more to a retail customer.

BUT I would also think they were probably far more economical for taxi use over the long haul given their savings on parts and service. And their rear passenger layout was certainly second to none in room and easy entry.

Regarding the "getting to" NYC lawmakers, I think back on old movies and such (as I was not around in the 1940s-mid 1960s) and I know there were lots of the DeSoto Skyview cabs in the 1940s and early 1950s. By the late 1950s/early 1960s I recall seeing NYC street scenes with other Mopars and by the early 1970s lots of Fords, so I wonder how that rule worked. Any more to add? Todd C

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Regarding the "getting to" NYC lawmakers, I think back on old movies and such (as I was not around in the 1940s-mid 1960s) and I know there were lots of the DeSoto Skyview cabs in the 1940s and early 1950s. By the late 1950s/early 1960s I recall seeing NYC street scenes with other Mopars and by the early 1970s lots of Fords, so I wonder how that rule worked. Any more to add? Todd C

There were indeed special regulations regarding New York taxis. However, it is not that anyone at Checker had any influence over NYC lawmakers. Postwar, only DeSoto, Packard, and Checker produced cars that complied with these regulations (I can't recall offhand what they were). Packard and Desoto abandoned this market in the early 1950's. That left only Checker able to comply. These regulations were later relaxed and regular Fords and Chevys could then be used as taxis.

The Checker club has a reunion near the Checker plant in Kalamazoo every 2nd year. You will see all kinds of Checkers there. Private owned ones as well as special bodies such as 8 doors, Medicars, pre-1956, etc. The plant was still in use by Checker making parts for other automakers and other stuff until recently. They stopped making cars in 1982 though. Whatever relation that used to own the plant wants nothing to with the Checker cars, and would not sell parts or offer support to the club. I believe the meet was held at some park near the plant since he would not allow them to meet at the factory.

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Here are base prices for new 1970 cars, sedans with base engnes...

Checker Marathon, $3,671, 250cid six.

Chevrolet Biscayne, $2,898, 350cid eight.

Ford Custom, $2,771, 302cid eight.

Plymouth Fury I, $2,930, 318cid eight.

Checker was priced closer to:

AMC Ambassador SST, #3,722;

Chrysler Newport Custom, $3,710;

Mercury Monterey Custom, $3,520;

Olds Delta 88 Custom, $3,755.

TG

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I passed up a wreck damaged Checker being used by a local real estate broker to drive around potential buyers. Were they actually MEANT to be that ugly? Woulda made a nice convertible and I do have a nice secluded barn and a '50s Cadillac convertible top...now who could I get to authenticate it...When are the Scottsdale auctions?

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The Checkers had a big back seat and jump seats and could legally carry more passengers than a standard sedan. Likewise the DeSoto Skyview that used the Chrysler Limousine body on a long wheelbase frame. Packard, not so sure, but they built limos too so they could have built a stripped down version for taxi service.

I have also seen a 1947 Dodge limo with the same Chrysler limo/DeSoto Skyview/ DeSoto Suburban body. It was originally used as an airport limo, obviously no millionaire would buy a Dodge limo. It had to be for commercial service.

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Hi Rusty, the reference to Packard is that circa 1946-47 they promoted a special six cylinder Clipper for taxi use. I do not recall the wheelbase length.

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The checker cabs I serviced were yellow/orange and did look like the ones that Latka serviced. The cab co was called "Zone Cab" instead of the usual "Checker", "Marathon" or "Yellow Cab Co." Their cabs had in-line 6's with standard trans and floor shift. I never drove one on the street but sometimes I had to move one from the parking lot to a service bay and I remember them handeling like a pick up without PS.

I also serviced another larger cab co that had 100 cabs. They were just phasing out their checkers when we took them on as a customer in the early 70's and in about 72 or 74 they had a fleet of AM Ambasadors That were factory optioned for taxi fleet service. I don't remember what engines they had but about the same time we had a county sheriff customer that bought some Ambasadors with a similar special police package that included a police special 4-barrel V8 that was some odd size like 401 or 407 cu in. That engine wasn't available for civilian purchase.

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The 401 AMC engine was available from 1971 to 1974, and in 1975 only as part of the police package. It is not much more than a punched AMC V8, but it made the Matador and (to a lesser extent) the rare Ambassador police cars one of the fastest things on the road. 0-60 times were under 7 seconds, with a top speed of 125 reached in 43 seconds. They were generally regarded as faster than the Mopar police cars of the time, and until the heavy 1974 restyle could outhandle them as well.

One of the more enjoyable days I had working a summer job in college was watching my supervisor lose to one of my coworkers in a drag race after issuing a challenge to him. The supervisor had dual quads on a noisy 396 'Vette. The coworker had a 401 in a Gremlin that looked and sounded box-stock.:D

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Hi,

Thought I should add that my parents had a bought a new 1965 Checker Marathon. It was my first car in High School. I still have it, but it needs to be restored. It was built like a tank and I have plenty of memories of plowing through snow drifts (drift busting) and going to the local grocery store and grainery. I wouldn't trade it for any of the new metal (plastic) out there!

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