If you hadn’t seen the title, and I told you I had found a rare 1966 Beijing Sedan (aka: “The East Glows”) or a GAZ-13 “Chaika” would you believe me? Maybe, if you were under a certain age and hadn’t lived in a big city with lots of taxi cabs, or were just gullible. OK, the Checker is iconic. But there’s something so distinctively un-Detroit about this Checker; well, lets just say that it’s all too obvious that Harley Earl, Virgil Exner or their kind had nothing to do with it. It looks a crappy commie imitation of a real American car, drafted by a civil engineer while gazing at some car ads in old US magazines and assembled by political prisoners in a little brick factory to fulfill the specialized fleet needs of the party bosses. Paint it black, put a couple of red flags on the front fenders, and no one under thirty-five will be the wiser. Welcome to Checker-land, the car that snubbed its nose at Detroit, and perpetually made money doing so.
Maybe my overactive imagination is running loose again, and I’m barking up the wrong tree, because the Checker sedan is of course known as the ultimate NYC taxi cab, where they were once virtually uncontested in their role. And plenty of regular taxi riders there still bemoan their passing. With their tall roof, totally flat floors, sofa seating and unlimited leg room, anyone who has ever ridden in one will forever curse the low and cramped Crown Vics that took their place. But Checkers were sold to the public too.
Well, strictly speaking, it was the boxy B-Body Chevy Impalas of the eighties that actually took their place in NYC, but when those went the way of the Checker, the CV finally had its day. The CV was third choice back then, but it just happened to be the last man standing. You take what you can get, if you’re a taxi owner. And so for quite a while, Panthers were the only choice. And now Toyota Sienna vans are the hot NYC taxi, as easy or easier to get in or out as the Checker, and the driver opens the (electric) door for you!
Checker motors was founded in 1922 to build taxis and commercial limousines, and built its rep by their sheer ruggedness. Never taking their eye off that market made them tailor made for the job, and beloved by their owners and riders. The American equivalent of the London Taxi, Checkers survived despite their somewhat higher cost because of their solid construction and communality of simple parts. Engines, transmissions and all drive train and mechanical parts were bought from suppliers, leaving Checker to build frame and body and to assemble the whole indestructible lump.
It all happened in a little factory in Kalamazoo MI the old fashioned way, the process never really changing since the first ones rolled off the lines in the the twenties. In its best year ever, 1962, exactly 8,173 Checkers rolled off the lines there, most of course heading for the taxi fleets of NYC and elsewhere. But they were available to private buyers too, at least since 1959. And the last one rolled off the line in 1982: the ultimate living automotive dinosaur.
Until 1965 Checkers were powered by the same Continental 226 CID sixes that purred under the hoods of Kaiser-Fraziers, and the Willys of yore. When that twenties relic finally was deemed fully obsolete, Checker started buying engines from Chevrolet; the ubiquitous 230/250 sixes and the ever-changing palette of small block V8s. In the very last few years, from 1980-1982, the SBC 229 CID V6 and even the Olds diesel V8 was available. As attractive as a diesel Checker cab sounds, that was the wrong choice. The Nissan six cylinder diesel that the IH Scout used would have been the killer app here. But by that time it was too late anyway, when total production those last years barely reached 2k units.
This wagon was bought new by its devoted owners, who are now in their eighties, and drive as a team: she navigates (“turn coming ahead!”), he does the actual control inputs. And since this hardly lightweight wagon lacks power steering and has a three-speed manual on the collumn, the driver said it wasn’t exactly getting any easier to drive. He noticed my xBox, and took quite a bit of interest in it (“does it have power steering?”). I always said the xBox was the ultimate cab, especially if it had a slightly bigger trunk. Now it just needs a new front clip with that Checker retro styling, and a longer-travel suspension.
But it would be hard for these owners to part with their beloved Marathon; it’s taken them all over the NA continent, with numerous trips to Mexico and Canada. I sure can’t imagining parting with such a long-term partner in travel. And that dash board! Does it not live up to its name more perfectly than just about anything that’s ever not come out of a small factory in England? Alright, I know it’s just wood grain on a steel panel, but its sheer utter simplicity is just what one would ask for in the ultimate long-life vehicle. A handful f off-the-shelf SW gauges and that awesome radio blank plate! Yes, they don’t make them like they used to, but Checker sure gave it a try for as long as they could.
Our next door neighbors in Towson had a Marathon wagon exactly like this (how unnecessary was that!; they all look exactly like this). it was a pragmatic decision, despite god knows where the nearest Checker dealer might have been. Did they even have “dealers”? they only sold a few hundred civilian Marathons per year. Anyway, it made sense for him, because he had a severe obesity problem; he was the first four hundred pounder I had ever seen. The ease of getting in and out of the tall Checker was what sold him. He eventually replaced it with the biggest GM sedan he could buy, a 1972 Buick, but it was painful watching him getting himself in and out of that.
I had a friend who drove an elderly Checker taxi in Iowa City, and sometimes I was bored enough that he would let me ride along in the front seat, telling his fares that I was a “trainee”. And one day, when he was really hung over, we swapped positions on the front seat, and he became the “trainer”. It drove pretty much exactly as you would expect: ponderous. But the visibility was superb, and the ride? Well, the Checker had a body on frame (BOF), and as we all know, that meant it automatically rode better than any unibody car ever made in the universe; better than a new Phantom, Maybach, S-Class, Lexus LS; even the famous hydro-pneumatic Citroen DS. Believe me; I wouldn’t kid you about that.
It turns out the pitching, wallowing and creaking of the half-million mile old suspension and springs on the Checker that most folks experienced crashing over the pot holes of NYC were just clever electronic effects to keep the taxi drivers awake, since riding on that magic BOF carpet ride tends to put one into another mental sphere altogether, as though one had been drugged. If you knew where the hidden switch was to turn off the rude-ride effects, that world-beating BOF ride kicked in magically. Perhaps Crown Vic taxis have the same switch, but most of the drivers just haven’t found it yet. Or maybe you actually have to be drugged to experience it.
Magic ride regardless, the Checker’s age was showing, and sales started a steady drop after 1970. What really creamed it was that the Big Three practically gave away big fleet cars during the two energy crisis years, and meanwhile Checkers were just getting more expensive. In its last year, 1982, a Marathon listed for a bit over $11k, while an Impala’s MSRP was $7900. Don’t ask what the taxi fleets were paying; probably closer to $5k. The Checker was checkmated.
Ed Cole, the former GM president, took a position in Checker after his retirement, and made a valiant effort to design a completely new FWD Checker for 1983, but his premature death in his airplane killed that. If I can find some good pics of it, I’ll put up a separate post. But let’s leave Checker with this parting thought: it was the last true independent auto-maker outside the Big Three, outlasting Studebaker and AMC. And it stayed perfectly true to its brand, for better or for worse, right to the bitter end.
But the remarkable story of Checker Motors did not end with the last Marathon in 1982. Stay tuned for a complete history.