By on January 18, 2017

checker-pickup-1

Being a non-conformist used to mean driving a German or Japanese car. For those who really wanted to make a scene, Sweden was more than happy to provide a quirky Volvo or Saab. Well, that strategy is out. Everything’s just too mainstream.

What’s an individualist to do? Electric cars have become too commonplace, and regulations make building your own car too much of a hassle. Enter Checker, which tentatively plans to build two offbeat versions of an already offbeat classic starting next year.

Checker Motor Cars, based in Haverhill, Massachusetts, is the indirect descendant of the Kalamazoo, Michigan company that cranked out odd but iconic Marathons from 1961 until 1982. Those boxy vehicles, which looked old even when the model debuted, populated taxi fleets from coast to coast and earned the Marathon a cult following. The original company officially bit the dust in 2010 after leaving the auto manufacturing business in 1982. Now, a reborn Checker services and restores those earlier vehicles.

Original parts are dwindling in number, but Checker always made do with components sourced from other manufacturers — most notably, engines from General Motors and suspension parts from Ford. The new company has devised a million ways to keep old Marathons running and on the road. Hell, they’ll drop the old body onto a new frame if need be. What the company can’t do, however, is manufacture a new body for surviving relics, or offer a whole new vehicle.

checker-sedan-side-view

Well, that could soon change. When Checker released a series of conceptual drawings back in 2015, the company said it hoped to build new cars in limited numbers by 2018. Now, the company is confirming it. With fingers crossed, Checker plans to take advantage of the recent Low Volume Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Act and build two models — a two-door pickup version of its classic sedan (called the Sport Pickup Cross-over), and a six-door, 12-passenger version, similar to the old Aerobus airport hauler. The company says it’s making headway, with a host of suppliers lined up.

Under the new law, a car manufacturer can produce up to 325 replica vehicles per year without worrying about modern safety and crash test standards. Builders can apply for an exemption from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, but still have to meet Environmental Protection Agency emissions standards.

“By no means do we expect to produce thousands of these,” Checkers CEO Steve Contarino told TTAC. “These are boutique-type vehicles.”

The company plans to assemble the vehicles in work cells, forgoing an expensive and unnecessary assembly line. Using as many available parts as possible — a Checker tradition — should keep costs down. Contarino knows the company isn’t catering to high-end clientele, as hotels, tour companies and smaller businesses that want to make a visual statement are expected to make up the bulk of the volume. Of course, it would be great if private buyers show up, he said.

Owners of restored or used Checkers buy the vehicles because they like the old design, and that’s what Contarino wants to offer. Because building bundles of replica Marathons is out of the question, he says it makes sense to instead build small numbers of unusual variants. Production isn’t expected to exceed 200 per year.

As the six-door would require a longer wheelbase, the company plans to source a basic frame with an unboltable center section for use in six-door models. The shortened version would underpin the pickup, as well as vintage models in need of restoration. A GM flex-fuel crate engine will offer the necessary V8 power and be EPA compliant.

checker-pickup-rear-view

No old parts will go into the new Checkers, and not just because the shrinking supply of original components.

“I’d rather use today’s technology than something from the 1980s,” said Contarino. “We’ve got the designs, but it’s a matter of feeling comfortable with making the commitment. We don’t want to make (the models) for just one year.”

While sourcing bumpers and manufacturing the iconic front clip isn’t a problem, a question mark surrounds the body shell. At this point, Checker isn’t sure what material to use — steel, fiberglass and composites are all in play.

“We have proposals for all three,” said Contarino. “There’s advantages to each.”

Right now, there’s a key unknown that could hold up the company’s plans. Essentially, the problem lies with the NHTSA, which oversees replica vehicles built under the new law, and the potential limitations it could place on low-volume manufacturers.

“Right now, there’s no requirements or guidelines for a replica automobile,” he said. “Will they say that you just need seatbelts, doors and four wheels, or will they hold us back? Without any guidelines on body integrity, where do you go with that? You can make the vehicle, but at the end of the day we don’t know what the NHTSA might want to change.”

Contarino has written to the regulator in the hopes of finding some clarity, but hasn’t heard back. He claims that, like himself, other potential low-volume producers are just “waiting to see who builds the first car” under the new law. The reborn DeLorean Motor Company could be that company, he added.

As for his own company’s production target of late 2018, Contarino claims the timeline hinges on body shell development and a timely go-ahead from the NHTSA.

[Images: Checker Motor Cars]

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60 Comments on “Big Yellow Taxis: New Checker Vehicles Are Still Coming in 2018, Company Says...”


  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    El Checkero. Can I get the Diablo package? (Like a GMC Caballero.)

  • avatar
    Corey Lewis

    Okay, El Camino Checker truck – fine. But the six-door funeral and airport limo business was dead 20 years ago, and I think they’d be much better off making a regular sedan for the collectors/weirdos/specialty livery who don’t want to use a Transit Connect to advertise.

    Steve, listen to me!

    • 0 avatar
      bunkie

      I’m not sure about that. There’s a hotel in Long Island City called the Z Hotel. For years they operated a stretched Cadillac as a shuttle between the closest Manhattan subway and the hotel. It now sits atop the entrance to the hotel, you can see it from the 59th Street Bridge as you drive into Queens. They operate a typical van-based shuttle now, I’m sure they would love to operate a Checker. Given the small numbers, I’ll bet Checker can sell every one to niche markets. The real question is whether they can make money doing so.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    Coming back? There was a very good article on the Hemmings Daily blog the other day, about how Checker stayed alive after the car manufacturing stopped in 1982. It was mostly by doing subcontract metal stamping for GM and others, along with other things, like F-Body subframes.

    https://blog.hemmings.com/index.php/2017/01/15/how-checker-remained-in-business-after-the-end-of-taxi-production-building-everything-including-the-kitchen-sink/

    • 0 avatar
      JustPassinThru

      Correct.

      The Crash of 2008 killed them, though.

      It was a family-run business; and the third generation didn’t have their heart in it. Safety standards and technological advances made the Marathon obsolete in 1982; and the tenuous profitability of the American auto industry, suppliers as well as the Big Three…led to Checker locking up.

      It had no reason to be; frankly, it had no reason for existing once the Tailfin Era went away. Daimler-Benz made boxy cars suitable as cabs on a larger scale. Studebaker and AMC also stayed away from Bill-Mitchell styling. With the downsized GM B body, which was so much the right car at the right time…there was no reason for cab companies to pay more for the clunky, kludgy, miserable-driving Checker.

      In 1983 I drove for a small suburban cab company owned by the big-city Yellow franchise. We had Granadas; but the Yellow parent was transitioning from Checker to Chevrolet.

      We shared an airport cab stand and I talked with some Checker jockeys. They got a big break on their leases…$20 a day less; and even then, some drivers got forced into Checkers. They were sturdy…sturdy JUNK.

      I cannot imagine anyone actually wanting to recreate that experience, and certainly not for the price of admission that a low-volume special-interest car will go for.

      • 0 avatar
        krhodes1

        They were the ultimate Panther – rugged above ALL else.

      • 0 avatar
        ect

        I don’t know about other cities, but unless it has changed in very recent times, Toronto has an “age limit” on taxis – I believe it’s 5 years. This removes any incentive a taxi operator has to pay more for a vehicle that will last longer.

        By contrast, Atlanta had no such rule when we lived there in the late ’90s. The average age of taxicabs there was something like 14 years. And speaking of junk…

        • 0 avatar
          NOSLucasWiringSmoke

          Ottawa has a limit of [I think] 10 years that was instituted in the late 90s. When I first came to the city in 1997-98 most of the taxis were 80s-vintage GM A-bodies (as they were in Halifax, the other city I spent most of the mid-to-late 90s in).

          • 0 avatar
            ect

            Interesting. When I was a growing up in Toronto, the majority of taxis seemed to be Plymouth Fury/Belvedere and Dodge Coronets. Checkers were pretty much non-existent.

            These days, the Camry seems to bu very much the vehicle of choice for cab companies/drivers.

      • 0 avatar
        Johnster

        I’ve also heard that some of Checker’s money was “invested” by esteemed financial whiz kid, Bernie Madoff. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

      • 0 avatar
        George B

        Anyone who wants to own a boxy taxi cab can buy a W210 Mercedes pretty cheap. Unlike a Checker Marathon, an E320 or E430 is also pretty safe in a crash.

        • 0 avatar
          PunksloveTrumpys

          Sorry, but the primary requirement for any taxi is reliability.

          While some of the older Merc’s can still cut it, 190E, W123/126, etc, I don’t think the W210 is up to the task.

          Well, at least nowhere near as much as a Checker Marathon!

  • avatar
    Vulpine

    I see a fun replacement for an old Ranger, though I admit it’s a bit larger.

    • 0 avatar
      Johnster

      Have you looked at the early to mid-1960s Humber Super Snipe?

      It’s like an 8/10ths scale version of a Checker Marathon. I used to see one regularly in west L.A.

  • avatar
    gtemnykh

    I’d be neat to see a deregulation of the “cottage industry” type builders and encourage these short-run retro cars. I had a blast piloting a ’63 Chevy II sedan a few years ago, manual steering, three on the tree shifter, small straight-six under the hood. Totally bomb-proof feeling suspension that just swallowed up bad inner city roads like no new car can.

    • 0 avatar
      raph

      —> Totally bomb-proof feeling suspension that just swallowed up bad inner city roads like no new car can. <—

      Well big thick rubber suspension bushings will do that for ya along with spring rates better suited for a wrist watch along with bias ply tire pressures.

      Most Americans would probably be totally happy with that sort of suspension setup had the major rags not so eagerly promoted cars designed for crappy twisty narrow little roads (however much fun they are) and told the average gringo that they wanted it.

      Sometimes I think Lincoln might be on to something with its American Luxury rhetoric these days. Especially in light of all the clapped out Camrys and Accords I see driving around with dampers that gave up the ghost last century.

      • 0 avatar
        thattruthguy

        99 percent of people driving a 20 year old car with worn out shocks aren’t saying “I finally got the compression and rebound damping just where I want it.”

        • 0 avatar
          Lorenzo

          I used to drive a 20 year old 1963 Chrysler Newport. I never said anything about the ride. Instead, I mostly said “I sure hope the brakes can stop this tank” and more often on the freeway, “Wow, look at those Beemers and Mercedes change lanes to avoid me!” In fact, besides multiple dents, there was a 7″ deep crease in the front bumper, and I assume the previous owner put it there when he derailed a freight car. Nobody pulled out in front of me in that car.

  • avatar
    Lou_BC

    Make a lifted 4×4 version. That would be too cool.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    Somewhere in hell, Travis Bickle is smiling…or is he?

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Not that I would buy a Checker but they have very good head and leg room and you can see out the windows. Checkers with proper care could run forever. Crown Victoria/Grand Marquis and Chevy Caprices are other large vehicles that can last with proper care. I would much rather sit in a Checker than a new Ford Focus. It will not be produced in any significant numbers anyway. It is not popular to make a vehicle that will last 10 or more years since manufacturers need to make money selling new vehicles. Planned obsolescence is what maintains sales. This is true of appliances that use to last 20 or more years and now are lucky to last 10 years.

    • 0 avatar
      JustPassinThru

      With meticulous care any vehicle can be made to “run forever.” Just be prepared to replace all wear parts periodically…little stuff, like bearings…ball joints…engines, transmissions, rear axles.

      That, and avoid road melting agents, and your Checker, or your Rambler Classic, or your Ford Pinto, will make it to Classic Car status, easily.

      I grant you that heroic rebuildings of an old Checker taxi would still be cheaper than one of these low-volume special-edition new ones.

    • 0 avatar
      GeneralMalaise

      Checkerlove?

    • 0 avatar
      ect

      10 years? The first set of appliances we bought started to go at about 13 years of service. The current set are now 17 years old – the dryer’s a bit wonky, but the others (stove, fridge, dishwasher and washing machine) still work fine. Our friends seem to have about the same experience.. YMMV, I guess.

      • 0 avatar
        NOSLucasWiringSmoke

        Those numbers are approximate based on a “bathtub curve”; some people are lucky and get the “good ones” that go longer, some people are not lucky and they die even sooner.

        Our six-year-old fridge (one of Amana’s higher-end brands) died last summer, out of warranty we decided to replace it and were told to expect seven years “give or take” from a new one by the appliance salesman.

        • 0 avatar
          ect

          Wow, that’s bad luck. We each have our own experience =s, of course.

          The first fridge we bought was still working 13 years later when we sold it with the house. The fridge in the house we moved into was original to that house, so about 11-12 years old. We had to replace it about 3 years later.

          The fridge in the house we now live in was also original to that house, then about 7-8 years old. We moved in 9 years ago this month.

          None of these was even close to top-of-the line. Based on conversations with friends and appliance delaers we shopped at, I’d expect any major appliance to last at least 12 years – dishwashers being the most likely exception.

          Sorry for your experience. For my own peace of mind, I need to believe that it’s unusual. Whether or not it is.

  • avatar
    Paragon

    I was wondering how many people on here are old enough to remember the Checker cars. I certainly do. Of course, I don’t recall ever actually riding in one. They were a rather common site in large and medium sized cities in years past. The old proper and normal seating position seems to be no longer available in any other car, and could explain why some families, who aren’t Texans, use crew-cab pickups rather like a four-door sedan.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      Cab 804.

    • 0 avatar
      highdesertcat

      “could explain why some families, who aren’t Texans, use crew-cab pickups rather like a four-door sedan.”

      Yup. That’s why 4-door pickup trucks were so designed; to replace ye olde 4-door sedan like the Crown Vic, Mercury Marquis and Chevy Impala.

    • 0 avatar
      JustPassinThru

      I remember them, as noted. Never actually drove one – but sat in one, yakking it up with another driver at the airport.

      Yes on the seating. It was ALSO the time when the Jeep SJ vehicles, even then, 20 years old, were growing in popularity. You sat up high. Alas for the SJ Wagoneer, rear-seat room wasn’t as great as might be expected. And yes I did many hundreds of miles in the back of a Kaiser J-100 Wagoneer.

      But the high seating was a plus. People were starting to tire of sitting low at the wheel…and noticed the higher position of the VW offerings, first the Beetle and then the more-mainstream GolfRabbit…followed by the ChryCo Omnirison and the Ks.

      I don’t know we have Checker to thank for it, but that’s probably one reason cab companies bought the obsolete Marathon as long as they did. But with the New Chevrolet downsized Bs selling for far less, it was harder and harder to justify.

    • 0 avatar
      pdieten

      Just once. Where I went to college in the early 90s a cab company that operated an all-Checker fleet was in business, primarily to ferry drunken students around. Our trips were subsidized by the school. $1 anywhere in town (“town” had a population of 11,000)

      Anyway, one day I walked to the computer store downtown, picked up a tower case and some parts, and realized I had no way to get the stuff home. So I called a cab. A Checker rolled up a few minutes later and I climbed in the back. Could NOT believe how spacious the back seat was – the family car when I was growing up was a ’77 LeSabre, and that Checker made the Buick look like a Monza.

      As an (ahem) “person of size” I would certainly appreciate having a vehicle like that to drive around in. But I have to settle for my ’09 Taurus, which is not a bad substitute at all.

      • 0 avatar
        Arthur Dailey

        Had 2 different Profs in University who drove Checkers. One of the things that killed them in the marketplace is that they were absolute pigs on gas.

        • 0 avatar
          PrincipalDan

          “person of size” – that was much of Checker’s civilian market. I believe it was over on Curbside Classic that someone posted a story about a neighbor that drove a Checker and weighed somewhere around 400 lbs. It was a sad day for that man when he couldn’t buy a new Checker anymore and tried to squeeze into a GM B-body.

          • 0 avatar
            pdieten

            Yeah, I remember reading that article too.

            That dude was just born too early. Nowadays they build vehicles to fit bodies like that, instead of all that longer-lower-wider bullshit from the ’60s and ’70s. I suppose if he were alive now he’d either be driving a Tahoe or a minivan, and be quite comfortable in it.

            My problem is that I’m built like a retired nose tackle and although I can get my hips into almost any car seat, good luck finding ones that can fit my shoulders and also aren’t so low that I can bend my knees far enough to get in without banging my head on the roof. It sucks getting old.

    • 0 avatar
      lon888

      I’m 55 so I remember riding in them quite vividly. They all “smelled funny” and had cold vinyl seats that seemed indestructible. I was fascinated with the Aerowagons.

      • 0 avatar
        JustPassinThru

        All cabs smell that way, or used to.

        Rental cars, too, before the automakers started dumping huge numbers of slow-selling models on fleet managers.

        It’s called “Raw…@ss.” Dirty, sweaty drivers; dirty, sweaty passengers…going places like County Welfare, the Parole office, the homeless shelter. Senile old ladies who’ve forgotten to bathe this month.

        A couple years of that, and the funk adds up.

  • avatar
    SailorHarry

    Cool concept. I’d have thought that if you’re making a six door sedan and the two door ute, it would be little additional effort to make the four door sedan as well. But they probably know their market better than I do.

    Regardless the ute’s styling needs a little work. The way the side trim ends at the door is all wrong, either continue it thru the rear quarter or leave it off. And the sail panel is too bulky looking, either slim it down or use the final gen El Camino trick of filling it with glass. That’s my two cents worth of styling analysis.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Salt and beat juice does a real number on the bodies but yes you do have to replace bearings and other wear items but at least you have a vehicle that is relatively simple and can last. I wouldn’t compare a Ford Pinto to a Checker especially the exploding gas tanks when hit from the rear. I do agree that the crew cab pickup is bought by many who want the easy of access of the sedans of the past. I don’t have a problem with technology but there is something to be said for simplicity and not hitting the back of your head on the rear window. Again I probably would not buy one but I can see the appeal of a Checker. I rode in a Checker cab with rear facing jump seats years ago and I found that it had more than enough head and legroom.

    • 0 avatar
      JustPassinThru

      And what explodes when you hit a Checker in the rear?

      IIRC, the filler neck on those things was above the bumper, near the trunk lid cutout. Meaning the fuel tank was close to the rear.

      Yellow Cab, which I didn’t work out of but sometimes had to show up for, paperwork and such…had a third of its yard given over to crashed Checkers. By that time the Marathon was out of production and the company was cannibalizing the hulks. But some of those wrecks were impressive.

      You wanna talk simplicity? Ford Pinto. I had a ten-year-old Texas Pinto (in Ohio) I kept running with spit and baling wire.

      The advantage of the Marathon was, exactly, one. REAR PASSENGER ROOM. And that’s it. It didn’t handle for squat; it was unsightly; it was a rolling kit-bashed collection of parts, everything from a 1953 Ford front suspension to TorqueFlite transmissions. Whatever smaller GM engine was available…IIRC, Yellow had some 250 sixes and some of the Buick split-pin 90-degree Vs in the last order. Checker stopped using Continental Engine company flathead sixes only with 1968 emissions laws.

      I understand the romantic appeal of nostalgia, but my memory of these things was of a different perspective. Feeling sorry for the poor sap who got forced into one at the cab garage. The heater was marginal and air conditioning was so crappy, many cab companies didn’t order it.

  • avatar
    30-mile fetch

    I want more of this, modern car exteriors are so plasticky.

    The six door looks ridiculous, I’d rather see a standard 4 door sedan.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Since we’re friendly with Cuba again, I’ll be that island country has more than enough parts to supply Checker.

    Then they wouldn’t have to pay for expensive tooling for just 200 cars/year.

    • 0 avatar
      RHD

      I was thinking Cuba as well… you beat me to it.
      They could build these in Cuba, and sell the excess production to the islanders. The Checker would be right at home in downtown Havana or along the Malecon. And when it doesn’t want to start any more, a carburetor from a rusty Lada will somehow bolt right on.

    • 0 avatar
      NOSLucasWiringSmoke

      Most of the old cars in Cuba have been kept running by backyard engineering modifications to adapt stolen parts from Eastern-bloc-sourced military vehicles and cars like Ladas (even swapping the engines). Cubans developed considerable inventive genius at scrounging and adapting things to keep their cars going.

      GM and Ford cars in Cuba were hard-hit by the embargo; 50s and 60s Soviet military trucks had a flathead six engine that was a copy of the Chrysler flathead six (albeit metricated so the part sizes were not quite right); many Cubans kept their old Plymouths and Dodges running for two generations on “liberated” parts from army trucks.

      One of the major car magazines (I want to say “Automobile” but it might have been R&T or C&D) did an article on the old cars of Cuba circa 1992. By the time I went there for the first time in 2008 the mix was about 1/3 pre-Communist iron, 1/3 Communist-era cars, and 1/3 newer cars that have been imported since the Warsaw Pact broke up; Renaults, Peugeots, and Hyundais are all quite popular. One of our tour guides told us that there is a saying in Cuba that “if you have a Lada, you have nada”.

  • avatar
    AoLetsGo

    Worthless Ute or stupid six door? F that, I want the four door cab with the cabbie from Scrooged as my driver.
    Go back to Jersey, Ya, Moron!

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    It would make more sense to reproduce the 2012 Escape Hybrid. Or even the “box” GM wagons.

  • avatar
    Chi-One

    I drove a Checker cab owned by the Checker Cab Co. in Chicago while home from college for the summer. What an experience. With no A/C my ears would ring from the traffic noise at the end of the day.

  • avatar
    jimble

    Marathon was the name of the model sold to consumers (yes, they did sell a few); the commercial cabs had alphanumeric designations. The Marathon that debuted in 1961 already looked old because it was, being based on a taxicab model that entered production in 1956.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    I don’t think it would be that hard to install a more modern heater and air conditioning system in a newer production Checker. As for suspensions why would you use a 53 Ford suspension when there are newer suspensions available? As for engines this article states that the new Checker will use a modern GM V-8 and they could use a more modern GM transmission. I doubt most who would own a Checker care about it handling like a sports car but even the handling could be improved. If you ever watch Leno’s Garage there are many cars older than a Checker that have been updated with modern suspensions, disc brakes, electronic ignitions, and a host of other updates. A more updated Checker might handle better than you think. Pintos and Vegas were typical Malaise Era quality which helped the Japanese gain a foothold in the US car market. A fairer comparison to the Checker would be International Harvester passenger vehicles which were less refined than the Big 3 but very simple and fairly reliable.

    I am not endorsing a newer Checker but it is not accurate to state that a newer version of a Checker would be exactly the identical car. It might look similar on the outside but I seriously doubt it would be exactly the same. Even the last Checkers produced in 1982 were not exactly the same as the 1961. For one thing the later Checkers has silver painted cow catcher bumpers and no chrome grills versus the chrome bumpers and grills of the 1961 version. Also there would be not white wall tires and chrome hubcaps.

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