Fleet Sales Rx: Checker Redux?

Frank Williams
by Frank Williams
fleet sales rx checker redux

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.]

Join the conversation
2 of 72 comments
  • 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.

  • Art Vandelay Best? PCH from Ventura to somewhere near Lompoc. Most Famous? Route Irish
  • GT Ross The black wheel fad cannot die soon enough for me.
  • Brett Woods My 4-Runner had a manual with the 4-cylinder. It was acceptable but not really fun. I have thought before that auto with a six cylinder would have been smoother, more comfortable, and need less maintenance. Ditto my 4 banger manual Japanese pick-up. Nowhere near as nice as a GM with auto and six cylinders that I tried a bit later. Drove with a U.S. buddy who got one of the first C8s. He said he didn't even consider a manual. There was an article about how fewer than ten percent of buyers optioned a manual in the U.S. when they were available. Visited my English cousin who lived in a hilly suburb and she had a manual Range Rover and said she never even considered an automatic. That's culture for you.  Miata, Boxster, Mustang, Corvette and Camaro; I only want manual but I can see both sides of the argument for a Mustang, Camaro or Challenger. Once you get past a certain size and weight, cruising with automatic is a better dynamic. A dual clutch automatic is smoother, faster, probably more reliable, and still allows you to select and hold a gear. When you get these vehicles with a high performance envelope, dual-clutch automatic is what brings home the numbers. 
  • ToolGuy 2019 had better comments than 2023 😉
  • Inside Looking Out In June 1973, Leonid Brezhnev arrived in Washington for his second summit meeting with President Richard Nixon. Knowing of the Soviet leader’s fondness for luxury automobiles, Nixon gave him a shiny Lincoln Continental. Brezhnev was delighted with the present and insisted on taking a spin around Camp David, speeding through turns while the president nervously asked him to slow down. https://academic.oup.com/dh/article-abstract/42/4/548/5063004