Fleet Sales Rx: Checker Redux?

Frank Williams
by Frank Williams

When Ford threatened to pull the plug on its Panther platformed rear wheel-drive cars, the livery and taxicab companies howled in protest and Ford backed down. Ford’s ancient leviathans are welded to the new car lot, but they’re a carriage trade mainstay; there’s no cost-comparable replacement. While rental fleets favor smaller econoboxes and mediocre midsizers, taxis, liveries and police departments still favor big, basic, practical, roomy, reliable, robust, rear-wheel drive automobiles. Sounds like it’s the perfect time to resurrect the Checker Marathon.

In the early 1900’s, America’s taxi business was booming. The demand for cars was so high that Checker Taxi of Chicago contracted with Commonwealth Motor Company to assemble taxicabs using bodies built by Markin Auto Body Corporation. The companies merged at the end of 1921. The Checker Cab Manufacturing Company was established in 1922.

By early 1923, Checker Cabs expanded its sales to New York City. In response to increased production demands (including sales to private buyers), the company relocated its assembly line to Kalamazoo, Michigan. Although the “Checker cab’s” driving dynamics were Paleolithic, the company’s vehicles were famous for their staggering durability and marvelous packaging. The design changed infrequently, which guaranteed consumer recognition and reduced maintenance and repair costs.

In the late ‘50’s, as personal car ownership increased, the demand for taxi and other livery vehicles decreased. In 1961, to offset the decline in taxi company orders, Checker entered the consumer vehicle market. Although the Superba (a Checker taxi with more chrome and a nicer interior) was not a big hit, it helped keep the company afloat. In 1962, the Marathon replaced the Superba Special. In 1963, it became the company’s only commercial model.

The Marathon remained virtually unchanged for the rest of its production run, save for a gradual switch to Chevy drivetrain components. Checker’s limited marketing campaign touted the car’s unchanging style and focused on durability, promoting it as a 200K-car. Meanwhile, taxi companies continued to be Checker’s largest market.

The 1970’s saw Checker sputter to halt. While its vehicles were still a paragon of durability, they weighed two tons and averaged fifteen miles per gallon. Soaring gas prices, double digit inflation, increasing costs, demand for fuel-efficient vehicles and the increasing reliability of Big Three iron made the purpose-built taxi an expensive proposition. Cab companies began converting conventional cars into taxis. Checker’s fate was sealed. The last new Checker rolled off the assembly line in 1982.

Since then, no U.S. based manufacturer has stepped up to the plate with a line of vehicles specifically built for fleet use. With today’s reduced design, development and production costs (including platform sharing and flexible manufacturing), and plenty of component-related talent for hire, perhaps it’s time to resurrect the concept of a Checker Marathon-style vehicle.

If nothing else, such a vehicle could help limit the depreciation mainstream models experience when their rental fleets dump their inventory on the used car market. In fact, this “new Checker” could be parts-bin engineered by any of the domestic nameplates. There should be four models available for fleet discounts.

First up: a front wheel-drive midsize driving appliance for the rental car and company car fleets. It would have a distinctive body shape and one basic configuration, with limited color choices and optional satellite radio and nav system for those willing to pay a bit more at the rental counter.

The other three models would be variations of the same full size rear-wheel drive car. The basic model would be a no-frills machine with a tight turning circle, hose-out interior, V6 engine and optional diesel. The package would maximize interior space; no need for high speed aerodynamic efficiency here (e.g. London’s Metro Cab and TX4). The base model would provide a basis for a blingified luxury-oriented vehicle with a V8, all the amenities and a cushy ride for the livery car and limousine/hearse conversion industries.

Finally, there would be the law enforcement model combining the taxi platform’s robust underpinnings with a hopped-up V8 from the luxury variant and improved aerodynamics, suspension, brakes, and steering for the inevitable high-speed chases. The interior would be specifically designed to accommodate the various gear that has overtaken modern cop cars. It could even have a standard telematic system used to track the car and provide instant communications and diagnostics back to the station (think On-Star on steroids).

There wouldn’t be any annual model changes, only running changes to keep up with the latest federal and state safety and environmental regulations. Prices would be based on volume sales, not individual units.

None of these fleet-oriented vehicles would be offered directly to the public. Eventually, they’d turn up in the used car market. But if they’re not worth much as used cars, so be it. There’s always someone out there looking for the cheapest transportation possible. It might as well be something built specifically for the job.

[RF interviews Checker Taxi Stand maven Matt Fry below.]

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  • Jerseydevil Jerseydevil on Feb 02, 2007
    I prefer the use of hybrid SUV like vehicles, to cut down on the exhaust in center city. OPPS i meant hybrid minivans, even tho I understand NYC is experimenting with hybrid escapes or something.
  • Mud Mud on Feb 05, 2007

    As a longtime driver of a 95 CV copcar and a 2002 LX Sport I gotta tell you - I think that these are some of the better domestics out there. Don't laugh. My criteria: Drivetrain is about a bullet-proof as you will find, they are easy to work on and parts don't have to be ordered with a 3 week timeframe. Both of mine average 20-23 mpg overall city/hiway - with the stiffer suspension and a decent set of shocks/tires they ride and handle reasonably well. With a Marauder airbox/MAF and aftermarket tune, they are a lot quicker than you might think. They have probably been some of the most economical and dependable vehicles I've ever owned. I'm not geriatric aged and we own a variety of US, Japanese, and German cars. For my daily driving, I'll take my CV's any day thank you. Before you sneer at the "old" technology and platform think about WHY so many of these bulldozers are still out there. Maybe because they continue to function day in and day out as originally intended.

  • Teddyc73 As I asked earlier under another article, when did "segment" or "class" become "space"? Does using that term make one feel more sophisticated? If GM's products in other segments...I mean "space" is more profitable then sedans then why shouldn't they discontinue it.
  • Robert Absolutely!!! I hate SUV's , I like the better gas milage and better ride and better handling!! Can't take a SUV 55mph into a highway exit ramp! I can in my Malibu and there's more than enough room for 5 and trunk is plenty big enough for me!
  • Teddyc73 Since when did automakers or car companies become "OEM". Probably about the same time "segment" or "class" became "space". I wish there were more sedans. I would like an American sedan. However, as others have stated, if they don't sell in large enough quantities to be profitable the automakers...I mean, "OEMs" aren't going to build them. It's simple business.
  • Varezhka I have still yet to see a Malibu on the road that didn't have a rental sticker. So yeah, GM probably lost money on every one they sold but kept it to boost their CAFE numbers.I'm personally happy that I no longer have to dread being "upgraded" to a Maxima or a Malibu anymore. And thankfully Altima is also on its way out.
  • Tassos Under incompetent, affirmative action hire Mary Barra, GM has been shooting itself in the foot on a daily basis.Whether the Malibu cancellation has been one of these shootings is NOT obvious at all.GM should be run as a PROFITABLE BUSINESS and NOT as an outfit that satisfies everybody and his mother in law's pet preferences.IF the Malibu was UNPROFITABLE, it SHOULD be canceled.More generally, if its SEGMENT is Unprofitable, and HALF the makers cancel their midsize sedans, not only will it lead to the SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST ones, but the survivors will obviously be more profitable if the LOSERS were kept being produced and the SMALL PIE of midsize sedans would yield slim pickings for every participant.SO NO, I APPROVE of the demise of the unprofitable Malibu, and hope Nissan does the same to the Altima, Hyundai with the SOnata, Mazda with the Mazda 6, and as many others as it takes to make the REMAINING players, like the Excellent, sporty Accord and the Bulletproof Reliable, cheap to maintain CAMRY, more profitable and affordable.