By on April 15, 2010

[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‘s very detailed history. A slightly less detailed but also excellent Checker history is also at 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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61 Comments on “An Illustrated History Of Checker Motors...”

  • avatar

    Who needs overpriced glossy hardcovers from the bookstore when you have Paul and his illustrated histories!


  • avatar

    Man that factory should have become a Checker Museum. I would have traveled there to check it out.

    • 0 avatar

      You should check out the Gilmore Car Museum which is located about 20 minutes north of Kalamazoo, just outside of Richland. I’m pretty sure that second photo (the one with the red barn) was taken there.

      A buddy of mine rented the whole place out for an October wedding this year. While most people were pounding beers and dancing to “Proud Mary”, a few of us spent most of the night ogling the cars.

    • 0 avatar

      That definitely does look like the Gilmore. An excellent museum, well worth the trip.

    • 0 avatar

      I used to live in Tennesee before I joined the army, and when I was in Nashville there was actually an old factory that had “Marathon Motor Company” painted on it in faded letters. I hope it’s still there and that they make it into a museum sometime.

  • avatar

    Flat floor.


    Tear out the rear and front passenger seat, tunnel in whatever manner to the trunk, and one may have a quite suitable car-house to enable one to maintain a semblance of homenessness as the masses slide down that slope into 3rd-world-ness.

    Surely there is a wrecking yard somewhere either specializing or with an adequate stock of Checkers to supply the parts demand.

  • avatar

    Oooh, I see the makings of a rod with the 39 Model A.

    Chop the top, slight changes to the A & C pillars, little work on the fenders, it’d definitely stand out.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s the only surviving Checker Model A known to exist. It would be a crime to customize it.

    • 0 avatar

      A very good article. Just a couple of comments. David Markin is no longer worth a 100 million dollars. He was a major victem of Bernie Madoff, this combined with the GM failure is the main reason Checker went under in 2009.

      Regarding the post above, Checker workers were not represented by the UAW, workers were represented by the United Steel Workers.

      On another note, virtually all the photos are from my Flickr account. This content represents 20 years of collecting Checker related photos. I am also the photographer for many of the photos above, it would have been nice if the author had at least asked for permission to use these copyrighted photos and gave credit for my work by name “Joe Fay”‘.

  • avatar

    Circa late 70s a Prof at U of Toronto drives one of these, he also does a few lectures in our school, thats only time I came close to a Checker Marathon, and not long after that I heard Checker had to close her curtains.
    At first i thought of Gm tried to kybosh her as not to sell her any engines. But I guess when NYC relaxed the Taxi body and the big3 could compete freely.

    During the late 70s i drove Yellow in Van for a season while going to school. Then they bought the used Police cars then convert them to cabs.

    In recent times most Van cabs were consist of Toyota Corollas & Hybrids. I suppose the down sizing of luggages too.

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      Professor Solomon, Political Science. Taught at the Scarboro campus.
      Actually in the last 70’s Checkers became an in car for those consciously opposed to conspicuous consumption. Sort of a Volvo for the avant-garde.

  • avatar

    There was a wheelchair version of the extended body sedan as well. It was possibly the first “production” car available that could readily pick up passengers in wheelchairs.

  • avatar

    When I was growing up, the grown son of the neighbors across the street had a small fleet of Marathons that he’d restored, so he’d sometimes keep a couple of them parked on our quiet street (this was in about 1980). It was the first time I’d seen this vehicle, but it was interesting to learn about them.

  • avatar

    Former GM President bought 50% of Checker for $6 million and began plans to build a completely new car for a new era.


    This needs an edit. You inadvertently left out Ed Cole’s name .

  • avatar

    The reason I read and blog here is for this kind of information! Where else could I go to read about the history of regular road cars? The Checker history here is awesome!

  • avatar

    Always loved the A8. It was ruined in ’58 (or was it ’59?) when they added quad headlights – always a styling error.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    I lived in Manhattan 1975 -1985. It was a sad day when the Checkers disappeared from the streets.

    Mostly, they were replaced with Dodge Darts, because of the reliability of their famous slant-six engine. However, the Dart, when fitted with the front seat armor that was an attempt to keep cab drivers from getting murdered at a high rate, was way to small for a human being to fit into. Eventually the Darts were replace by Ford Panthers which also lack an adequate back seat.

    In the last few years, the cabbies have branched out. If you are lucky, your cab will be a Sienna, or something rather like it. If you are unlucky, they have been buying Priuses. Unfortunately for New Yorkers, the green slime has gotten into their politicians brains and they will be condemned to an eternity of really tiny cabs powered by unicorn farts.

    Looking back on the Checker Marathon, it was a great design. It did what it was meant to do elegantly and economically. It is our misfortune to live in an era where all cars are badly designed, and our political masters are only going to make it worse.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t know about that, I kind of like the Prius taxis (although I wouldn’t want to sit behind the driver…which proves your point I suppose). The worst I’ve seen lately are the Altimas, Jettas and oddly enough, the Escapes. All Taxis should be minivans with trade specific interiors, not just bolted in security partitions. I think I heard that the T&LC has cleared up the insurance limitation that prevented them from carrying more passengers than a regular sedan, despite the extra seats.

      I do not like the Panther taxis, even if they are 90+% of the market. They aren’t maintained well enough, the ride is floaty, not soft, and well, you just aren’t going to be safe in a heavy rwd car if you learned to drive in Bangladesh or over the age of 30.

    • 0 avatar

      Is the US the only place in the world where the driver and passenger(s) are separted by plexi and armor? I’ve never experienced this in Europe or Japan.

    • 0 avatar

      The extended wheelbase Panthers fixed that and were spacious enough for my family of 4 to fit in the back. They were wholly adequate for a taxi. The NV200 taxis are the worst though, narrow with little leg room and minimal space behind the seats for luggage, I think a Passat would be better.

  • avatar

    “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.”

    This isn’t intended as a criticism, but man is that ever a sombre note to go out on. Which is not to say it could have been written any other way.

    If David Markin has his father’s business acument, perhaps he can buy Ford’s St Thomas plant and churn out Checker Victoria’s or Continentals (or both).

    After all, one of the most complex bits, the engine and transmission, were brought in from Chevy anyway so maybe they could strike a similar deal with Ford.

  • avatar

    I remember that a pizza place near my home aptly named “Checkers” had a Checker Aerobus in front of the place as a “mascot”. A Cartoon Checker Marathon also appeared on the pizza boxes. That big monster had been sitting out there since at least the mid 90s, and I saw it all the time growing up; I had no idea what it was, and thought it was a custom-made limo. It was only a few years ago that I learned about Checker and the Aerobus. The place shut its doors two years ago, and IDK what happened to the Aerobus. I hope a car as rare as it is found its way into good hands.

  • avatar

    a biography on Late Ed Cole.
    He did commissioned two cars Corvair & Vega , but both of them were not exactly the best not sure if the watering down of design that caused the ultimate down fall and rendered Ralphy Nader famous. The Vega do I need to say more, it was kind of the Lemon of the year.
    A fnd bought a 75 vega, it wasn’t that bad perhaps they did all the right upgrade only only after burned a ton of the buyers so no any amount of Lipstick will make this Piggy look pretty.

    I read the Corvairs’ handling could be improved immensely and saved many innocent lives if they had spend another 50 bucks to install a better rear anti-roll bar. How else can we explain that the 911 had became a much better handling car even with the engine hanged out in the Derriere.

    • 0 avatar

      Two other Ed Cole facts:
      – Chevy small block V8 (this alone makes up for any later sins related to Corvair or Vega).
      – Father of Dr. David Cole of the Center for Auto Research (CAR) in Ann Arbor, Mi.

    • 0 avatar

      Corvairs handle FINE without ANY rear roll bar. My 1960 Corvair is 53 years old and hasn’t rolled over even once yet. If more owners had read their owner’s manuals, they would have put 8 pounds more air in their rear tires than their fronts, and would have had no problems, just like me. I’ve owned several Corvairs, and never came close to rolling one, even when autocrossing one with the “dreaded” swing-axle rear end. There are good reasons as to why the Corvair Society of America is the largest single-marquee owner’s club in the USA – it can’t be because we’re all dying in tuck-under rollovers…

  • avatar
    Uncle Mellow

    Thanks for the article. Only ever spent a week in the US , in Cleveland around 1980 , but a ride in a big yellow Checker cab was an unforgettable part of the experience . Couldn’t believe it when they stopped production.

  • avatar

    When I was growing up, a friend’s family had a black Checker Marathon wagon. That was the only car that easily swallowed my tuba case (orchestral tuba, not sousaphone – though one of those would probably fit too!)

  • avatar

    Thanks for the part about Ed Cole, I was wondering what the mock up looked like. When I was in the service we had an aging Aerobus to pick up passengers on the cargo planes that flew into our base. It suffered from rust, but never had any structural problems. We had a Dogde van that was half its age and was just a bunch of loose parts moving in the same direction. If nothing else in the parking lot started we knew the Checker would. Oddly enough it had the same motor as our Hyster 10k forklifts.

    The lovely young lady appears in several photos, did Checker have a spokesmodel, or was she family?

    PS, that ’35 model Y is awesome. Do any of them exist anywhere?

    • 0 avatar

      The Lovely Lady in the Checker Photos currently lives in Elmhurst, IL. I can’t give her name, but she was actually a very popular print and TV

      model back in the 60’s from ABC Models in Chciago. Now in her 70’s she is a dance instructor for children.

      Only one complete Model Y exists, another has been saved as tow truck.

      With respect to the 80’s prototype depicted. Its has nothing to do with the Ed Cole “Rabbit” project. That prototype was originally developed in the early 70’s prior Cole joining Checker. The project was started again in early 80’s if completed the Body would have been a Checker design mated to GM Chevy Celebrating components. The suspension was based n the Firestone marshmellow design.

  • avatar

    When I was a kid, Mom didn’t drive and when Dad couldn’t take time off from work to ferry us around we took a cab. In those days all of them were Checkers. We kids loved the jump seats and the bouncy ride. I don’t know if the poor ride was an inherent quality of just a combination of poor maintenance and frost heaved roads. Once, while returning to NY after a train ride to Washington, the family had to take a cab from Penn Station to Grand Central. We flagged down a mid-70’s Caprice. The driver couldn’t fit all our luggage into the shallow trunk, and suggested we take a Checker instead. With a relatively compact and space efficient body, Checker was ahead of its time.

    • 0 avatar

      I remember one day when I was driving a Checker cab for Yellow-Checker (Ft. Worth) I was second up at AA at DFW Airport behind a square back Chevy Wagon (80 something?) and the last ones out of the terminal for that bunch of flights was a family of 5 with luggage for 12. the chevy wagon didn’t have a roof rack and the driver couldn’t put them and all their luggage in that big wagon, I pulled up behind him with my standard Checker Taxi Special (not the LWB model) and loaded them all with all their luggage in my sedan and drove off with the chevy driver scratching his head :)

  • avatar

    Well, that ’39 model shows where Acura went for inspiration for their latest models. I wish they’d left the front end alone, though, and cribbed the landaulet roof instead.

  • avatar

    Checker is a notable automotive industry story not so much for what they had, but for what they didn’t. All the other past automotive icons had, at one time or another, these great engineering/marketing/design personalities that were able to propel (if only briefly) their company into the limelight.

    Checker had none of that. They simply soldiered on for decades, churning out workhorse cabs at a meager (but consistant) profit, eventually succumbing to ever more complex government regulations, cheap Detroit competition and, probably worst of all, an owner that didn’t seem all that interested in keeping the company going.

    Honestly, when one considers that the ‘new’ Checker would very likely have been based on the GM X-body (Chevy Citation), well, maybe it was best that the company didn’t survive. Imagine what an X-body Checker would have done to the solid, stodgy, old Checker’s reputation. In that regard, David Markin’s 1981 decision to halt production was probably the right one. But it still must have been a sad day when the last, new Checker Marathon rolled off the line.

  • avatar

    Brilliant piece Paul.

    I don’t know if it is due to sentimental feelings for this odd beast, or its being filled with a bunch of information, pictures, and back-story that I didn’t know, or both, but I enjoyed this piece immensely. Thanks!

    Re. the photo of the frame … notice the centre-mounted bearing and mid-point u-joint of the drive-shaft assy … this is basically the same technology that premium RWD cars use (think Lincoln LS … when that vehicle was under development, this feature was a big deal to Ford, the result of a lot of benchmarking for BIC-features seen in D/E-segment vehicles. (I know because back around 1995, I developed the compact u-joint cross-pin (1350/1350+) used in that platform.)

  • avatar

    Great reading, thanks! It was very informative and educational

  • avatar

    Paul, thank you for the fabulous, and I truly mean fabulous, article. Checker is a truly under-appreciated part of American automotive history. A few added details, for what they are worth:

    1) I grew up in Kalamazoo, and my father and grandfather knew Morris and David Markin fairly well. I recall they definitely weren’t viewed as car guys. Morris was thought to have made more money manipulating the stock of Checker and his other companies than he ever did building cars.

    2) Your characterization of David caring about tennis far more than the company was dead on, as I recall. He was the principal benefactor of the (excellent) tennis program at Kalamazoo College. Included among his support was a new company car every year for the tennis coach, George Acker. It was always a seriously tarted up civilian Marathon sedan, always in some bilious metallic color with a vinyl roof cover and oval opera windows in place of the normal rear quarter windows. Acker was extremely proud of them.

    3) You were equally correct in your characterization of the company’s research, development, engineering, and styling. It was a small town and we knew a lot of people who worked there. The people on the technical, finance, and management side were as resourceful as anyone I’ve ever met. They all reminded me of Radar O’Reilly on M*A*S*H, in that they had no resources for anything, but they kept things running right up until the day they didn’t.

    4) Later I had a Federal job in Washington. The GSA used Checker Aerobuses as their shuttle vehicles and any time you wanted to go from any agency to any other agency, you just went downstairs, found an idling Aerobus, and hopped on. They were in service all day every day, were crude but comfortable, and never let us down.

    5) Still later I lived in New York just as the taxi fleet was starting to turn over and Checkers starting getting harder to find. Whenever we had time, we always waited for one. The Fox-platform LTD Crown Victorias were, and still are, the smallest big cars ever built.

    6) There was a time, from the mid 60s to the mid 70s as I recall, when Checker fairly actively marketed the car to the general public. I have some of their old sales brochures, and they were a very heavy sponsor of Detroit Tigers radio broadcasts. Their commercials always ended with the tagline, “From the inside looking out, Checker may be the most beautiful car going.”

    Thanks for an exceedingly accurate article and some really great memories!

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      You’re welcome! And I’m always glad to know I got it right. Thanks.

    • 0 avatar

      There was a time, from the mid 60s to the mid 70s as I recall, when Checker fairly actively marketed the car to the general public. I have some of their old sales brochures, and they were a very heavy sponsor of Detroit Tigers radio broadcasts. Their commercials always ended with the tagline, “From the inside looking out, Checker may be the most beautiful car going.”

      Indeed. One prominent auto publication did a review and divided the retail price by weight and found the Checker cost less per pound than ground beef. It was quite heavy.

      A similar calc today would show just how greatly the prices of cars have outstripped the price of beef.

      Maybe the cows should get a union.

  • avatar

    Great article, thanks for that!

    The prototype at the end there looks substantially and suspiciously like a Dodge Aires K wagon.

  • avatar
    Bill K.

    Excellent article! Just wanted to point out a few things. The Model A was conceived in 1939, with a prototype being built that year. It was in production during 1940 and 1941, and it’s possible some were assembled during the war from spare parts. The restored one you depict is the sole remaining Model A, and is from 1941. It’s a limo, which was available via special order from the factory.

    After experiments had been made with the Models B and D in 1945 and 1946 respectively, the A2 cab debuted and was displayed in February 1947 (after a chassis had been shown in December 1946). Due to tooling difficulties, production did not begin until late December 1947 (and this is why the A2 is sometimes regarded as a 1948 introduction). The A3 limousine followed in August 1948. The A4 and A5 (cab and limo respectively) debuted in 1950. The A2-A5 all had eggcrate grilles. The last cab and limo using the 1947 body were the A6 and A7 respectively, and they debuted in 1953, but had horizontal-bar grilles, like the green and yellow one in your article. These went out of production in about 1955, being replaced by the entirely redesigned A8 of 1956.

  • avatar

    A friend of mine’s dad, who had a series of weird and sadly, mostly English cars, somehow wound up with an almost new Checker in 1970 or 1971. It had obviously been a cab, since it still had the meter in it, and it worked! It had the light on top too, but it had no bulb in it. It was two tone Petty blue and white, and came from Minnesota, Duluth, I think it was. It had a block heater in it, and an entire assortment of ice scrapers and even tire chains in the trunk. My friend and his twin brother got their licenses soon after his dad brought it home, and the jump seats came in really handy for running bunches of us around. It was a hassle to drive it alone in the city, as people constantly tried to get in when he would stop at lights, or try to parallel park. One time, He and I went downtown to pick something up at a plumbing supply house, and we parked in front of the place, and when we came out, some old drunk had climbed in, and he insisted that since it was a cab, we should take him home. And we did! He gave us $10, and told us to keep the change.

    Sadly, it disappeared one night while we were in the movies watching The Godfather Part II, and it was about 15 degrees out that night, and we had to go across the street to Big Boy to wait for over an hour for the cab to come and take us home. It wasn’t found until four years later, in one of O’Hare airport’s parking lots. It had been driven about 125K since it was stolen, and was in rough shape from abuse and at least 2 minor wrecks that were never fixed, so it rusted up pretty badly. It had a blown head gasket, which appeared to be what made them dump it. My friend’s dad had taken the insurance check years before and that was that, the insurance company got rid of it, after offering it to my friend’s dad for $400. How it was driven all those miles and almost 4 years without being once checked for being stolen is a mystery. It’s not like it wasn’t an “oddball” among the Checker and Yellow cabs in Chicago. That Petty blue really stuck out.

  • avatar

    In 1972 I drove an eight door Checker Aerobus from southern Maryland (Harry Lundberg School of Seamanship) to Brooklyn NY (headquarters of the Seafarer Union)about 600-700 miles in one day. I loved driving this vehicle, the motion was a lot like being on a boat.
    One time a car rear ended me. When the police came they could not believe what they saw, the checker had a small dent on the rear bumper while the other car, a Pontiac as I recall, had it’s entire side ripped off. Many fond memories of driving that car.

  • avatar

    I’ve always thought a Aerobus style vehicle would make a great family vehicle. I briefly considered what it would take to add an additional set of doors to our CR-V giving it seating for 8. Yes it would be “slow” at red lights but you’ve got understand where we live – it’s just not a problem (small town). We have always called the luggage space in our CR-V the “wayback”. I guess that would really make it “WAYBACK” once stretched.

    I’d rather have a six door CUV than a big SUV with a 3rd row anyday. Probably more than a minivan too. Or a used limo… MUCH easier to live with and with all the rear seats laid flat we could do some MAJOR hardware store trips!!! (PLENTY of length for two by fours!)

  • avatar

    Fascinating history Paul. I am a bit suprised at your attitude to innovation though. You say it was probably for the best that their wackier creations didn’t see the light of day. Why? It’s not like Americans are incapable of innovating and making that innovation work.

    Design conservatism might have ensured easy profits for a while but it also guaranteed the companies eventual extinction.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Checker was sorely lacking the resources to properly develop anything out of the ordinary. Taxis operators avoided FWD like the plague until recently, because CV joints didn’t last. And they would have had to engineer a whole transaxle assembly. It was way out of their league, and would likely have killed them that much sooner.
      Taxis have generally not been a good platform for innovating, since the operators most want a rugged, simple vehicle, cheap to buy and operate.

      • 0 avatar
        Old Checker

        Sorry to disagree, The 1946 Model D was well engineered and well within Checkers capabilities to produce. The front wheel drive system was designed by Herb Snow. You know Herb he was the Head of Engineering at little company called Auburn Cord Duisenberg. Over at ACD he designed a memorable car called the Cord 810….yeah it used FWD. Herb also introduced the X-brace frame on the 1930 Cord and its first rear drive application on the 1931 Auburn. As Head Engineering at Checker he also worked with a fairly well known guy name Raymond Dietrich, I am sure you have heard of his ground breaking styling innovations. Two Model D prototypes were assembled and test for over 150k miles in real world taxi service. According to a 1962 interview with Snow, he indicated that the Model D’s performed very well. All feedback from tests were excellent. The reason that the cars were not put into production was because cost analysis indicated the Taxi operator inventories and maintenance costs would go up and make the vehicle less desirable.

  • avatar

    Check out the Flickr pictures. The Checkers with snow on them parked at the plant have HUGE bumpers!!! Like park bench bumpers!

  • avatar

    I was closely associated with Checker Sales and Service (1010 Stayton St., Ft. Worth TX) serving the 5 state area from 79 thru 83 and I would like to note a few omissions that you may have glossed over from everything I knew from our end of things at the time.
    It was said (and I have never heard it disputed) that the reason Checker ceased production was that at the time the UAW was having to take cuts from all the major automakers and when it came time to negotiate the contract with Checker they demanded an increase. Mr. Markum said something on the order of; I know you have had to take cuts from everyone else, we will not demand any cuts and will hold the same but we can’t give you an increase. The UAW said that they get an increase or they will strike. Markum said strike and we’ll close. And on the eve of the strike in the summer of `82 Checker closed. We could no longer get any cars and what cars we had in stock were sold off in less than a week! I also remember that the only way you could tell a `82 Checker (last year) from a `74-`81 (the last change was in `74) was it had 2 tag lights instead of one.

  • avatar

    Why do the American car companies put up with the UAW bullshit like this? Why don’t they just pack up and move to “Right to Work” states here in the South?

    I see very little reason to keep making anything where the Unions strangle the company from time to time. Understand I don’t want to see the other extreme either – where companies pay 3rd world wages or lie and cheat their workers (see various union struggles over the years). At different times over the years the unions come off as a labor mafia rather than something to help keep people well employed at fair wages. What good are the wages the union promises if the company goes broke?

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    I drove a Yellow Cab in Denver for 6 years, late 1970s to mid-1980s. Denver Yellow Cab (for a while when the drivers owned the company as a co-op, Yellow Cab Cooperative Association) if I remmeber correctly was a mostly Checker fleet. I owned a for 2 years (cab 444), and I believe it was a 1978 or so with a V8, 2 jump seats in the back, driver’s side spotlight, AM-FM radio, and AC – the body was a bit longer than the regular Checker. Used to have the oil changed every 2 weeks and alignment done every 6 to 8 weeks.

    Man, you felt like the king of the road with the massive fenders.

    And those cars were well built. In 2 years, IIRC between myself and my opposite drivers (drivers I leased the car to when I wasn’t driving it) we put about 150,000 miles on the car I owned. And it had no squeaks and still looked like new when I sold it to another driver.

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      Hey chug,

      I picked up a ’78 Checker Yellow Cab, still in it’s original colors, from a used car dealership here in Denver and I’m trying to get the details on the history of the car and the former owner. It’s car #410 and on the glove compartment, there’s an etched out part that says the car was made for Ron Topping back in July of 1978. I’ve talked to a couple of old cabbies who’ve asked about the car when I was driving around and they’ve said that Ron’s story is pretty tragic but didn’t go much beyond that. Can you shed some light on this?

      • 0 avatar


        I just stumbled onto this post not sure if you will get this 9 years later but Ron Topping was my father do you still own the Checker I would love to see some pictures of it. I grew up in that car.

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    I shuddered when I read that they had considered the GM X body as a taxi platform.

    OK, maybe if they were cheap enough to allow a six month service life!

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    How complete can this history possibly be with no mention of E. L. Cord? That’s a pretty big omission.

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    Wow, that is some interesting stuff. I used to own a 1967 Checker my grandfather bought new. This was not a Marathon, but the basice Checker used for taxis, but in black with a grey interior. Lot’s of fun for someone just out of high school (1982). I drove it until ’89 when I went to Germany, when I got back the engine was frozen and I didn’t have the time to work on it.

    This car was actually the second one my grandfather bought, replacing his ’56 after asking my grandmother what kind of car she wanted and she said she would be happy with another Checker. The ’56 he bought because he knew one of the engineers from his time working at Lycoming.

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    Great Story, Paul.

    The easiest way to see Checkers being built is to check out the Richard Pryor film ‘Blue Collar’ made in the late 1970s. It’s about three autoworkers who have various problems and fights with both management and unions.

    From what I remember, the UAW (a parody – its given another name) comes out particularly bad, the workers don’t expect to be treated well by the company (the foreman or assembly line boss is the only management character featured) but they feel very let down by the union leadership, and there is a implication of corruption.

    Obviously the Big Three wouldn’t have let these filmmakers into their plants, but Checker did, probably because of the independent ownership, and they get a acknowledgement in the credits.

    The film features the plant quite a lot, particularly at the start of the story – it looks pretty old fashioned for the mid to late 1970s, with (apparently) no automated welding or paint facilities.

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    Sometime around 1956, Our family took the train from central Il. to Chicago to pick up brand-new Checker for my grandfather.  His hips had given out, but , being a farmer and avid hunter, he wanted a war wagon as tough as he was to get him where he used to go.  He kept a 12-gauge pump under the seat, and many was the time I held on for dear life as he plunged across a plowed field after fox or pheasant, shotgun blasting broadsides from the window.  The generous leg room in back was handy for loading up a newborn calf or sick sheep to haul to the barns.  Mechanics found it a joy to work on, with its high ground clearance and undercarriage wiped clean by corn stubble and clover.

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    I like the 1939 model A cab and so do a lot of fellow model train buffs who have made scale models of NYC in 1/48 scale with trolleys and elevated trains along with the models of the 3 rd Ave trolleys and buses these types of taxis would be the perfect thing, would there be any way 1/48 scale models be made of these model A taxis ? not just for model train builders but also for model car collectors as this was a unique taxi.

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