Auto columnist Greg Zyla explains the origins of the Checker taxi cabs. If you have a question about collector cars or want to wax nostalgic about old cars, email Greg at email@example.com.
Q: Greg, I enjoyed the article on the USPS delivery vans and wonder if you can shed some light on those great Checker Taxi cabs from the 1970s. Thanks, Bob L., Pennsylvania.
A: Bob, I have to admit I've always loved the Checker Motor Company. Completely different than the usual American production car, Checkers were built in Kalamazoo, Mich., with the transport of passengers its main design philosophy. Checkers came in station wagon, sedan and extended Airport Limo varieties, and there was never a two-door Checker to my knowledge. Although the design looked primitive sitting next to a 1975 Chevy Impala, it served its purpose well.
Known as the "Taxi Cab Company," Checker actually came into existence thanks to business mogul Morris Markin, who oversaw the company's growth from its birth as Checker Motors Corporation in 1922. At the time of Checker's birth, Markin built bodies for several manufacturers and would continue to do so through the history of the Checker Company.
Checker built the "New York City-bred" taxi cabs from 1922 to 1959 exclusively, and beginning in late 1958, entered the consumer car business with a network of dealers and an identical vehicle sans the taxi's livery lettering and paint. The consumer vehicle was marketed on the same "rugged build and roomy interiors" theory and the fact that the style stayed the same each year. The Checker relied on a flathead type six cylinder engine, dubbed the Continental, until switching to General Motors Chevy engines in 1965, including the inline-230 6-cylinder and the 283 small block V8. Sales topped 8,000 in 1962, and averaged 7,500 over the life of the independent dealers. Checker's rear seat and trunk were large, accommodating three full-size adults and numerous suitcases, respectively.
Throughout the 1970s, Checker experienced sales decreases as Ford offered better fleet discounts and sales began to fall. By 1982, the last Checker rolled off the assembly line, but thanks to the good relationship with GM, Checker Motors operated as a subsidiary automotive subcontractor providing body stamping for the GMC/Chevrolet truck lines and chassis components for Cadillac. David Markin, son of founder Morris, continued to act as Checker's chief executive officer.
According to reports, the 2008 automotive depression and David Markin's unfortunate investing with Bernie Madoff spelled the end of the line for Checker Motor Company. David Markin's name appears five times on the official list of Madoff investment victims, with the same address listed in Kalamazoo as the Checker Motors Corp.
Thus, on Jan. 16, 2009, the 87-year-old company filed for bankruptcy in Grand Rapids, Mich. Checker could no longer operate profitably as raw-material prices kept escalating, as did union labor costs. At the time of the bankruptcy, Checker's body stamping customer list included General Motors, Chrysler LLC, Ford Motor Company, Navistar International and GM Shanghai. GM and Chrysler followed Checker's bankruptcy just several months later, although GM and Chrysler survived.
In ending, I still have my Franklin Mint 1/24 die cast checker Taxi Cab, and display it proudly at my home office. Thanks for the question, and one day I may buy a drivable Checker to add to my small, but beloved, non-pristine car collection.
Greg Zyla writes weekly for GateHouse Media and welcomes questions on auto nostalgia, collector cars or old time motorsports. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, PA 18840.