By on April 15, 2010

[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.

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40 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1967 Checker Marathon...”

  • avatar

    Beautiful car, beautiful story. I laughed and cried. The driver/navigator story made me think of “God is my co-pilot.”

  • avatar

    The wagon looks better than the sedan. When I see Checkers, I think of the television show, “Taxi”, because most Checkers weren’t on the road by the time I was. When I think of a taxi, I see Chevy Impalas roaming the Chicago Loop, but not Checkers.

    This is an iconic vehicle, but not because of any cult popularity. This kind of car never had a following like the Beetle or the Jeep, and you have to wonder why it avoided that kind of following. Like the Beetle and the Jeep, the Checker was not made to follow fashion, it was incredibly rugged, simple to understand, and solid. However, although it kept the same look, like the Beetle and the Jeep, the Checker never appeared cute. Was it it’s size? It’s dual headlights? Was it the fact that it had styling that looked like a boring amalgamation of late 1950’s family cars?

    The Checker is due some recognition for it’s uniqueness, but why? I don’t know.

    • 0 avatar

      With few exceptions, wagons nearly always look better than their sedan counterparts.

      That said, it is rather odd that the Marathon never really caught that cult following, given how ubiquitous it was for several decades.

  • avatar

    Checkers are great cars; they’re probably the last purpose-built Taxi to roam the cities of the USA. The Checker wagon is still on my list of cars to own someday, I just with it wouldn’t take up all the space between the garage door and the wall at the other end.

  • avatar

    A hundred buck tip always got you to the airport in a hurry and a fast exit out of the country.

    Fedora not optional.

  • avatar

    I once met someone who bought a Checker new. The process?

    He drove out to Kalamazoo to the factory, and met with the salesman. The only saleman. After deciding on a price, the sales guy sais, “what color do you want”?

    The buyer said, “what colors does it come in”?

    Sales guy pulls out the DuPont color book, flips it open, and says, “take your pick”.

    The buyer gave the sales guy a $20 deposit. 6 weeks later, the sales guy called up and said, “your car is ready”.

    Simple as that.

    Movie buffs will remember the film, “Blue Collar”. It’s about a couple of autoworkers, in Detroit. But noneof the Detroit factories would let them film inside, so all of the inside scenes are shot in the Checker plant, but the minute the actors walk outside, they are in Detroit. Only people that live around here would notice, but it sure seemed strange.

    Another, unrelated story. Everyone familar with New York City politics knows that Rudy Guiliani made a lot of unusual appointments when he took office. One of his first was to appoint a very visible gay rights activist to the head of the taxi commission. On his first day, the new commissioner arrives at the office, only to be greeted by a huge collection of protesters. “Oh no” he thought, “gay rights politics is everywhere”.

    When he gets out of the car, it turns out that the protest was a coalition of taxi riders rights activists protesting the demise of the Caprice.

    I’d like to live in NY again, someday.


  • avatar

    I remember riding in lots of Checker cabs when I was a kid in Pittsburgh. There were no other brands run by the Yellow Cab Co.
    There was a company called Peoples Cab that, for some reason used Plymouth Valiants.
    Anyway, back to the Checkers.
    The way they crashed and rattled over the horrible Belgian block and brick streets of Pittsburgh, I wonder if they had any suspension at all. It was like riding in a Conestoga wagon.
    The space, however, was magnificent. You could live in one.
    I really miss them when I have to crawl into a Crown Vic taxi that has less rear legroom than a Camry or Accord.

    • 0 avatar
      Kevin Martin

      I drove Yellow Cab 697 in Chicago for two years from 1969-70. The cars that were available to temp drivers such as myself were fairly well clapped out. Dispatcher told me to find a cab that I liked and that the company would fix it up for me. Good shocks, working turn signals, a smooth transmission, and quiet brakes were high on my want list. We had no radios or A/C.
      The Checkers were great for passengers but way too big for me as a driver. At that time the average fare in Chicago was 1.7 persons. Who needed a six-passenger limousine?
      One day the dispatcher at O’Hare (O’Hara to cabbies) assigned me a woman with the most luggage I had ever seen. I tried to fit it into the front seat and the rear, but I was short about five or six bags. She was screaming at me to use the trunk but I tried to explain to her that it was illegal in Chicago to use the trunk, that I wasn’t even issued a key to it. She called me some unflattering names before the dispatcher assigned two cabs behind me to handle her crap. At one time (during Prohibition) Chicago required hacks to have their trunks WELDED shut to prevent taxis from being used to deliver booze (see “The Roaring Twenties” with Cagney & Bogart).
      The cabs I drove had 250,000+ miles. The vaunted Checker two-piece doors (aluminum extrusions to surround the glass and steel door assemblies-similar to coeval Ramblers) were nothing more than flapping noise generators. Although the car was a pig, it was a fairly neutral pig, and on the Firestone Taxi 100 tires, could actually be tail-happy. Scared the crap out of my fares.
      Checkers did not have thicker sheet metal than contemporary Dodges, Fords, or Chevys, they simply did not use “deep draw” dies. The next time you are at a car show, find a 1970 Mustang, and when the owner isn’t looking, poke the top of one of the front fenders. Watch it oil can. Point made.
      Although Checker claimed that they manufactured the only “purpose built” cab, that was only partially true. My cab had a Chevy 230 six and a Powerglide that weren’t any more reliable than their civilian counterparts. I didn’t need the power and I blew one transmission. Give me a slow-revving diesel and a cvt.
      I don’t miss driving Checkers at all.

  • avatar

    That really brings me back 40 years, when I drove a Yellow Cab. They only had a handful of them among the Crown Vics and Impalas, but I always grabbed one when I could. the customers liked them too.
    I had an idea of buying one and entering a demolition derby with it, but being a cab driver, I couldn’t afford it. Too bad; I might have done pretty well!

  • avatar

    “If you knew where the hidden switch was to turn off the rude-ride effects, that world-beating BOF ride kicked in magically.”

    If one extrapolates a bit from the Harry Chapin song, one may understand why the drivers didn’t notice. Or care.

    I rode in a few Checkers in Grand Rapids as a young man,and none of the drivers knew where that switch was. You’d think they coulda just swung by the factory, Kalamazoo wasn’t that far away.

    It was like riding in a farm appliance (or a Hummer H1).

  • avatar

    “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.”


    AMC lasted until 1987. Chrysler acquired it in July of that year.

    Great write-up, thanks.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      But Renault owned a big chunk of it, having bailed out AMC in 1979. That doesn’t equate to being “independent” in my book.

    • 0 avatar

      But financially it does make it independent as Renault owned 49% of it, not quite controlling interest. And the AMC designs were purely AMC; Renault used it as a distribution channel.

    • 0 avatar

      That is not true, after Renault began its equity participation, many of the vehicles had a Renault lineage …

    • 0 avatar

      Checker Motors Corp. closed its doors in June of 2009, thanks to GM, Chrysler and Bernie Madoff. It was an independent Automobile and Parts manufacturer since 1922. As an independent, CMC clearly outlasted AMC by more than 20 years.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    “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.”

    I’m pretty sure I once saw a pic from some wacky Japanese car show of a JDM Toyota bB with a bodykit intended to look like a late ’50s Crown.

  • avatar

    Yes, Checker did have dealers. Back in 1980 I worked for one (Stewart Motors in West Palm Beach). I couldn’t tell you the volume we did because “volume” was just not a word that equates well with the Checker world!


  • avatar

    Two points about your Checker story:

    1. You mentioned how much it looked like a Russian car. In a TV-movie called “The defection of Silas Kudirka”, Alan Arkin was expelled from the country in a black Checker POSING as a Russian KGB car!

    2. What killed Checker actually happened almost 30 years prior. NYC had VERY strict regs about what kind of cars could be used as taxis; basically only purpose-built ones like Checkers (or some DeSotos)were eilgible. In the early 50’s, NYC loosened these regs up and made regular cars eligible, taking away a very big part of Checker’s business. It just took another 20-25 years for the business to wind down to the point where they couldn’t go on any more.

  • avatar

    I’d love to drive one of those. Might even trade my Vic for one. I think I know where the switch is…

    I remember when I finished my Instrument/Autopilot school at Chanute AFB back in the early eighties, I went with a friend to Chicago for a few days. We rode all over that town in those Checker cabs. Most of those drivers scared the living shit out of me. They’d roll those boats around corners hard enough to make you slide right across those vinyl-clad rear bench seats and back again.

  • avatar

    Beginning in 1960, I owned three Checkers in succession for nearly twenty years. First was a 6 cylinder sedan, then a long wheelbase V8 limo with jump seats, and finally a V8 wagon.. They were one and all splendidly utilitarian. The body structure was light and rigid, despite the high build the C.G. was low and road holding was excellent. Weight was on the rear and they were good in snow, I drove easily in conditions when just about the only other cars moving were VW bugs. I am sorry they are no longer around. I think I still have the double carb manifold I bought for the six somewhere in the garage.

  • avatar

    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.


    For all the crowing about the Panthers and GM B-Bodies, the low roofs and low rear bench make them kind of irritating as cabbies. I’m personally hoping the Transit Connect starts seeing cab duty for that reason.

    I love cars like this, by the way: vehicles made for actual people and what they want, rather than as a testament to some designer’s egomania. Just about everything made before the fifties was like this, at which point the industry went either insane, stupid, or both and stayed there for about 30-40 years, making cars that they wanted to make, rather than what people would actually like to own.

  • avatar

    I drove cab in Green Bay WI for many years. In the fleet, there were four Checkers in 1982, and I hated them. I preferred either of the three Plymouth Volaries or the two Chevy Malibus if I had my choice, but the dispatcher never gave the drivers their choice.

    Three of the fleet of Checkers were standard wheelbase models with the much beloved (?) 229 V-6. The boss’ cab was a stretch wheelbase with a 305 V-8, velour interior and the optional jump seats. All were living on their previous reputation.

    I agree that the sight lines in the Marathons was fantastic, since you could easily see where each corner was, and the high seat gave great viability of the road and all traffic, which made them somewhat place-able among us rogue cab drivers. By the early ’80’s, they also had great “rear-view mirror” visibility, which generally kept other drivers out of your way. Oh sure, the rear quarter panels were removable for ease of body repair, all parts were (for the most part) interchangeable between model years, but these are the only positive attributes I could find with these things.

    Whereas they were known affectionately as “Iron Bastards” by owners with a large fleet, by 1982 they had become tin trash. I remember that their trunks were terrible small and oddly contoured for their size. They had terrible interior lighting, which may not seem too important, unless you are driving night shift and prefer reading over sleeping. I remember having to strategically pound the rear quarters during a snow storm to break out the packed snow. I remember the totally inadequate windshield defrosting, let alone the very poor heater. I remember the tops of the door frames pulling away from their seat at speeds above 40 miles per hour, creating a nice wind tunnel effect while the heater struggled to keep up. I also remember getting hit almost head on by a ’70’s Chevy Nova in which he overrode the bumper on the Checker. He drove away with minimal damage, but the Checker had to be towed away with over $3000.00 of damage, and these are 1980’s money.

    By the final years, these thing were anachronistic, much akin to operating a 1955 Chevy as a cab in the 1980’s. While they may have been fantastic in the early years, the march of time and their final cost constraints soured their reputation towards the end of their production run. Although they may have been iconoclastic among passengers, they were a headache if you drove them consistently.

  • avatar

    My idea of nature’s perfect car. Rugged, durable, roomy, and no planned obsolescence. A friend’s father liked them because “you can sweep it out with a whisk broom.”
    I always liked the lines on these cars. I remember seeing a few privately owned Checkers in my youth, but they were almost always Taxis wherever you went.

  • avatar

    Checkers also had incredibly strong passenger compartments, with effective crumple zones before anyone outside of Sweden had even heard the term crumple zone. Back in the early ’70s I saw one involved in an accident where it t-boned another car (that had blown a red light) at 50 MPH. The front end was destroyed, but the body from the base of the windshield back was unaffected, and the driver (who was wearing his seatbelt) got out thru the still working driver’s door and walked away untouched.

  • avatar

    I’ll go you one further regarding Hollywood: Watch some episodes of “Mission Impossible” (the real 60’s show with the ensemble cast, not the Tom Cruise ego vehicles). Every time they needed an Eastern Bloc car for some politician or spy, a Checker got the role.

    Checker, the last American car company to turn out an honest product. Transportation and load hauling. Nothing more. I also remember them from the ’70’s as even more of a ride-of-choice for the environmental “I hate cars but have to have one” crowd than the Volvo 140/240. Repairs were usually, deliberately, agricultural – say a hasp and padlock to replace a broken trunk lock.

  • avatar

    One day I will own a Checker cab, but I’m going to turn it into a hot-rod…a Crazy Taxi style hot-rod.

  • avatar

    In the 60’s, Joe’s Taxi in tiny little Flin Flon Manitoba always ran a couple of Checkers that had been stretched, as Airport Limosines. He had a 6 door and an 8 door model at one time. Very cool cars.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    It just makes you want to weep.

  • 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 is A

    A 2031 Checker romaming the streets of NYC, as imagined by comic genius Juan Giménez for the 1981 animated film “Heavy Metal”:×29.jpg

    The styling of the Ckecker is so absolutely classical and atemporal that it does not look out of place in a Science Fiction movie.

    The Checker shape is almost a platonic archetype for the concept “car”.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    IIRC, the tv show “mission impossible” used black checkers to simulate Soviet limos. There is one across town in a guy’s back yard.

  • avatar

    For some reason this CC really got to me; not so much for the car (although I fondly remeber them growing up in Texas), but for the elderly couple who own it. I can’t help but feel they are a real team, along with their Checker. You wonder what their life story is like; you want to know what tales that car could tell.

  • avatar
    Mr Carpenter

    I’ve always been a “Checkerhead” (fan of the cars), though never owned one (yet?)

    Never lived in a city, only saw them as taxicabs on the tube, but did see a few Marathon and Superba (i.e. “civilian”) cars over the years, and tried very hard to get my dad to buy a beige 1967 V8 Marathon in about 1971 – he bought a 1968 Pontiac Catalina used, instead, which ended up to be my second car after the first car I ever owned blew and alternator and the transmission went bad.

    Checker also out-lasted International Harvester which quit Scout production in about 1980, if memory serves me right.

    I often wondered why Checker didn’t simply buy the International Harvester 266 and later 304 and 345 V8’s? They’d have been ideal for heavy duty use; they were REAL truck engines.

    • 0 avatar

      I believe they did use International suspension parts, but you’re right – those were wonderful engines which would have served the Checker well, though maybe too thirsty for taxi use.

  • avatar

    A neighbor had a wagon. Two actually – the second was specially ordered to match the first exactly so no one would know they had a new car. How many other cars made THAT possible?!

    I recall that they were powered with a “six cylinder Chevy truck engine”, which I took to be the bigger 292 CI six. Does anybody know whether that is likely?

    IIRC the engines were built at the GM Tonawanda plant, which the owner was invited to tour when he ordered his second car.

  • avatar

    As a minor aside, my family was in the taxi business here in Canuckistan, for many years. Thankfully not anymore!

    If you want to see the car that has the lowest cost of operation, look at what the taxi fleets are using. Fuel is not the only factor; downtime plays a major role. When the car is on the hoist, it is not making money. Ease of service is also a major factor.

    Right now the most popular taxi, at least 60% of the units in Vancouver, is the Toyota Prius. The remainder are almost all Corollas. In the taxi business, the cheaper the fuel, the bigger the car. We pay about $4.20 a gallon here.

    As for history, the GM B bodies were pretty good, especially the Olds versions, which had better rear ends, brakes and interiors. The 307 was indestructible and a rebuilt Turbo 350 was $1000 and four hours in and out. The Crown Vics were not nearly as good. Their electrics and transmissions were awful and the motors only go about 100,000 miles before major work.

  • avatar

    Am daydreaming and wondering what kind of mileage a modern 2.5L four gasoline or diesel version would give in one of these Checker chassis. I mean we default to unibody construction and FWD but what could be accomplished with old style construction and a modern driveline with injection?

    Do we drive unibody cars b/c they are lighter? Not anymore. Because they are cheaper for the car manufacturers to build for us? Because they are throwaway vehicles after 150K to 200K of use?

    Just wondering..

  • avatar

    There is one of these just around the corner from me. I had never took a look in it until tonight when I was walking my dog. I got a chance to take a good look inside.

    The back seat is no joke! Holy cow. I could not believe the amount of legroom in the back. I had never really checked the car out until today after reading this article.

  • avatar

    Wow, last year I met a Portland couple with a very similar story and a 64′ Marathon wagon!  Now I’m kicking myself for not asking to shoot the interior.

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