The Truth About Cars » checker motors http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Sun, 19 Oct 2014 11:58:25 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.0 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars editors@ttac.com editors@ttac.com (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » checker motors http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/wp-content/themes/ttac-theme/images/logo.gif http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com Save This 1969 Checker Aerobus From Getting Made Into Chinese Washing Machines http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/02/save-this-1969-checker-aerobus-from-getting-made-into-chinese-washing-machines/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/02/save-this-1969-checker-aerobus-from-getting-made-into-chinese-washing-machines/#comments Mon, 18 Feb 2013 13:00:39 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=477926 I like unusual cars. I’ll walk right past a half dozen ’57 Chevys and ’69 Camaros to see a single 1961 Rambler American. The Orphan Car Show in Ypsilanti is penciled in as an annual stop for me. From that info you can probably figure out that I dig Checker cars. If a Checker is […]

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I like unusual cars. I’ll walk right past a half dozen ’57 Chevys and ’69 Camaros to see a single 1961 Rambler American. The Orphan Car Show in Ypsilanti is penciled in as an annual stop for me. From that info you can probably figure out that I dig Checker cars. If a Checker is unusual, then a Checker Aerobus is unusual squared . The Aerobus, as the name implies, was typically used as an *airport shuttle and came in seven and nine door wagon body styles (and 8 door sedans in 1976-77). Essentially it was an A8 Checker (taxis were A8s, retail models were Marathons) with a special double reinforced long wheelbase frame and extra doors. When I saw that one was listed locally on Craigslist, I had to check it out, or at least make a preliminary phone call.

Apparently it’s most recent use was as a promotional vehicle / billboard for an establishment named “Checkers” and the Aerobus is skinned in a checkerboard pattern. With no working drivetrain, it’s being offered as an $800 “parts car”. Of course one person’s parts car is another person’s restoration candidate.

The ad said that the interior was good, and I figured that if the body was anywhere near sound, at a near 24 Hrs of LeMons claiming price, it might be worth getting on the road, or at least salvaging as an artifact. Since Checker used an assortment of Chrysler, Continental and Chevrolet engines over the 3 decades that they made the A8/Marathon, a small block Chevy and Turbo Hydramatic drivetrain would be a relatively inexpensive no-brainer.

So I called the number listed in the Craigs ad. I asked him one question, “how bad is the rust?” His answer was kind of scary. Apparently the door frames are rusted out. He didn’t say just how badly, but I got the impression that some of the many, many doors might fall off if they were unlatched. Still, in the photos in the ad the doors seem to be sitting more or less straight. How bad could it be? Surely it could be shored up with some creative welding.

Even if this Aerobus really is beyond repair, I’m hoping that some Checker enthusiast will see this post and buy the car as an actual parts car. I doubt Checker spent the money on unique doors for the Aerobus and I’m sure that those doors and  many of the other parts will indeed fit one of the shorter wheelbase Checkers. They belong on another Checker, not as part of another Chinese made appliance.

If you are interested in saving this historic artifact, and potentially beyond way cool cruisemobile, a word of caution about price. I first spotted the car when it was $900 and in talking with the seller about how firm his price is, it’s clear that any potential buyer would be competing with the price of scrap steel. The remark about Chinese appliances was no joke. A 9 door Aerobus wagon has a curb weight of over 5,300 lbs. At $250/ton for scrap steel, do the math.

Murilee’s Junkyard Finds often elicit “someone should save that car” comments. While Murilee has a fine eye for cool cars, many of those ‘restoration candidates’ are nowhere near as rare, or register anywhere near the coolness factor that any Checker has today, let alone a 9 door gazillion passenger Checker station wagon. Think of it. Enough room for the band, the roadies and a couple of groupies, plus cargo room for the amps. Though 1969 was the Aerobus’ highest production year, Checker still only made 436 of them that year, out of about 3,300 Aerobus wagons that were made in Checker’s Kalamazoo factory from 1962 to 1974. That’s not as rare as other notable depot hacks, the 1959 Cadillac Broadmoor Skyview station wagon, or the Miller-Meteor Oldsmobile Toronado based Jetway 707,  but it’s still uncommon. How many other cars have D pillars, let alone Es and Fs too? Checkers have an active enthusiast community and how can you not love a car that makes people smile? Save this Aerobus!

*Brochures touted the Aerobus as “for businesses, institutions, resorts, service firms, schools… even big families!”

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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Checker Thursday Finale: Vintage Checker Ads http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/04/checker-thursday-finale-vintage-checker-ads/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/04/checker-thursday-finale-vintage-checker-ads/#comments Thu, 15 Apr 2010 18:21:31 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=352677 Someone has posted a treasure trove of Checker photos at Flickr, and I’ve pulled a few of the ads to share (thanks, whoever you are!) because they’re irresistible. Checker obviously couldn’t afford the big agencies and ad campaigns, but their quaint and home-baked ads are as compelling in telling the Checker story as the cars […]

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Someone has posted a treasure trove of Checker photos at Flickr, and I’ve pulled a few of the ads to share (thanks, whoever you are!) because they’re irresistible. Checker obviously couldn’t afford the big agencies and ad campaigns, but their quaint and home-baked ads are as compelling in telling the Checker story as the cars themselves.

Checkers were valued not just in the US, but were exported successfully for their rugged service and longevity. Those were the days, when American-built products still had the reputation of being exceptionally well made.

As we mentioned in our CC, Checker made the decision to sell their cars for retail customers beginning in 1959, and I vividly remember some of the ads extolling their virtues.

In 1962, Checker was celebrating its fortieth anniversary.

I don’t know how many dealers signed up at the NADA convention, but the “high gross (margin)” line probably didn’t hurt.

The Checker wagon could swallow 4×8 sheet goods as readily as haul the cake to a picnic.

In a stark sign of the times, in 1971 Checker offered the first bullet-proof taxi partition (“costs less than a nickle a day…pretty cheap when you consider it’s your life we’re trying to save”)

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An Illustrated History Of Checker Motors http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/04/an-illustrated-history-of-checker-motors/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/04/an-illustrated-history-of-checker-motors/#comments Thu, 15 Apr 2010 17:33:28 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=352626 [Note: Three related Checker posts: 1967 Marathon Curbside Classic; Vintage Checker Ads; and Tomorrow's Checker? Also note that these pictures were found at a variety of sites, but it appears that the original source for most of them were posted on this Flickr account by Drivermatic. Thanks for the superb photographic resource!] For sixty years, […]

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[Note: Three related Checker posts: 1967 Marathon Curbside Classic; Vintage Checker Ads; and Tomorrow's Checker? Also note that these pictures were found at a variety of sites, but it appears that the original source for most of them were posted on this Flickr account by Drivermatic. Thanks for the superb photographic resource!]

For sixty years, Checker Motors had a record unbroken run of profits building a few thousand cars per year in a small little factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan. In 1981, it posted its first loss, $488,326, and its owner made good on his threat to stop production of the iconic Marathon if his workers didn’t accept wage concessions. But Checker continued to stamp out body parts for GM into 2009, including for the Buick LaCrosse. The Carpacolypse of 2009 finally shuttered the ancient plant, but no need to shed a tear for the original owner’s son, David Markin: his wealth is estimated at over $100 million. And it was all due to a shrewd investment of $15,000 that his father made in 1920, which put him in the driver’s seat of Checker Motors. Let’s take a ride through Checker’s history. Taxi!

To understand the origins of Checker, one has to know that the taxi business was once very different than now: two or more companies competed fiercely in each city for the growing and lucrative business in those days. If you want the remarkable details of shady deals, graft and stock manipulation that created the two largest cab companies, Yellow and Checker, head over to coachbuilt.com‘s very detailed history. A slightly less detailed but also excellent Checker history is also at checkertaxistand.com. Lets just say the upshot was that Checker Cabs wanted a custom built taxi, and somehow the son of a poor Russian tailor, Morris Markin, cleverly managed to manipulate himself (and some stock holdings he managed to get revalued) in the position to provide it, the first Checker Model C of 1922.

It’s important to remember that in the twenties, there were dozens of small car manufacturers, so in its early days, Checker’s scale wasn’t at all unusual. And the factory instantly became a profitable enterprise. And Markin expanded his holdings with Checker stock and profits including some large taxi operating companies and in later years truck trailer building (Great Dane) and other businesses.

During this period, taxis competed on prestige, size and comfort, as most working folks stuck to taking the streetcar or bus. The Checkers from the late twenties were large handsome cars, and as in the old coach-built tradition, often had a rear roof section that could be lowered in nice weather, as much as to be seen as to see.

Checker styling started becoming a bit adventurous in the thirties, but the the full degree of that was still a few years off.

As always, Checkers were designed specifically for the job, both in their layout and rugged construction.

The all-new 1939 Model A feature a highly bizarre front end whose only redeeming feature was that it was recognizable from half a mile away. The debate who designed it is still unresolved, but actually, from the front end back, it was a quite a conservatively styled sedan with a highly unusual feature.

It had a remarkably advanced (and patented) optional steel rear laundalet roof section that could be lowered as seen here.

Rather unusual for such a small company, Checker ambitiously explored advanced designs during the forties, including this one-off rear-engined prototype. Looking all the world like a giant Fiat 600 Multipla, it was probably for the best that it was not developed further.

But a FWD prototype, with the straight six in a transverse arrangement was built and seriously considered. This is the first I’ve seen or heard about this, and its quite a remarkably advanced design for the times, looking much more French than Kalamazoo. Technical difficulties with the FWD transaxle killed it, probably for the best in terms of preserving the Checker reliability reputation.

The conventional new A6 of 1946 had traditional styling, and with minor retouches, was the iconic cab of the post war era.

Like the legendary later Aerobus, Checker was building extended wheelbase vehicles in the forties, like this six door, twelve passenger wagon. These were the shuttle buses of their day.

In 1955, an all new Checker was developed in their advanced styling sudios (a corner of the factory partitioned off with drapes). The new A8 was designed to meet Manhattan’s new taxi regulations, and featured independent suspension on the front for the first time. Not that it made the Checker famous for its ride, however. The suspension engineering department lived in the janitor’s closet.

Interior space was always the highlight of the Checkers, and the Marathon’s tall roof, totally flat floor and two folding jump seats meant that up to five patrons could be accommodated in the rear compartment alone. Guess who got the jump seats? The pretty young lady. Beats sitting in the guys’ laps, anyway.

There’s a treasure trove (143) of vintage Checker photos that have been posted at this Flickr account, the source of many of the pictures here, including an extensive tour of the Checker factory led by this charming and knowledgeable woman, who here is pointing out the finer details of Checker’s legendary frame, the source of its ruggedness and flat floor.

The six and eight-door Aerobuses were the stuff of legends in their day. Unlike today’s stretch limos with their cut and welded frame extensions, these long boys sat on a completely unique and specially designed frame, and enjoyed a high degree of structural integrity.

Not surprisingly, the rugged Checker frame lent itself well to custom coachbuilding, like this Swiss ambulance. It was the Checker’s taxi cab image that probably kept it from more success in the US as a limo and hearse source. If folks couldn’t afford a Cadillac while they were still alive, they at least wanted to ride to their graves in one.

Checker also made an extended body sedan, and pushed it as a limo alternative, including versions with padded roofs and even an opera window. But time was moving on, and the garish seventies made the Checkers look like stale bread.

Checker Motors operated most profitably with an annual production of 6-8k cars, but after 1970 that became increasingly difficult, due to major markets like NYC loosening their taxi regulations to allow conventional sedans to operate. They were obviously cheaper for the Big Three to build, and the fleet dumping practices of the seventies was Checker’s coffin nail as a producer of cars. In 1981, Checker had its only posted loss after some sixty years, having survived the Depression profitably, if on a smaller scale.

Former GM President Ed Cole bought 50% of Checker for $6 million and began plans to build a completely new car for a new era. His first prototypes were based on lengthened VW Rabbits, but his death at the controls of his personal airplane ended that. But some work continued based on his ideas, and utilizing GM’s X-Body (Citation) FWD drivetrain and a solid rubber rear suspension spring. Checker founder’s son David Markin was more interested in tennis than new adventures, and it all came to naught.

But Checker continued to build parts until 2009, when the downturn finally swamped them too. The little factory that hummed away for almost ninety years has been razed, leaving just the footings to mark where one of the more unusual automotive stories played out.

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Curbside Classic: 1967 Checker Marathon http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/04/curbside-classic-1967-checker-marathon/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/04/curbside-classic-1967-checker-marathon/#comments Thu, 15 Apr 2010 14:29:18 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=352535 [Three related Checker posts: An Illustrated History of Checker Motors; Vintage Checker Ads; and Tomorrow's Checker?] 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 […]

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[Three related Checker posts: An Illustrated History of Checker Motors; Vintage Checker Ads; and Tomorrow's Checker?]

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.

More New Curbside Classics Here

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