Checker Taxi

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1982 Checker Marathon in green and cream with Checker's trademark checkerboard trim.

Checker Taxi was an American taxi company. It used the Checker Marathon produced by the Checker Motors Corporation of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Both Checker Taxi and its parent company Checker Motors Corporation were owned by Morris Markin.[1]

The "Checker", particularly the 1958–82 Checker A9, A10, Marathon, remains the most famous taxi cab vehicle in the United States. The vehicle is comparable to the London Taxi in its nationally renowned styling, which went unchanged throughout its use, and also for its iconic status.


Morris Markin, a clothier from Chicago, Illinois, became the owner of 'Markin Automobile Body', an auto-body manufacturer based in Joliet, Illinois following a default by the owner on a $15,000 personal loan. The facility made bodies for Commonwealth Motors, which marketed the vehicles to cab companies under the trade name 'Mogul'.

Commonwealth Motors was on the verge of bankruptcy but had an order from Checker Taxi (a privately owned cab company in Chicago that had no affiliation with Markin at the time). Markin merged Commonwealth Motors with Markin Automobile Body in order to honor the contractual commitment.

Inspired by John Hertz who had set up a taxi business in Chicago (later known as Yellow Cab Company) in 1910, Markin began buying up Checker Taxi's vehicles in 1924, gaining full control of the company in 1937. Markin followed Hertz's business plan in having drivers open doors for the fares, and outfitted each driver with a uniform.

Competition for fares was fierce in the 1920s, and the easily spotted drivers began ganging up on one another between fares. The fighting between the two cab companies escalated to the point where Markin's home was firebombed, which prompted Markin to relocate Checker Taxi to Kalamazoo, Michigan. Checker became the first cab company to hire African-American drivers and the first to require that drivers pick up all fares, not just white ones.

Hertz had sold his Yellow Cab to the Parmalee Transportation Company, but in 1929, after a suspicious fire at his stables killed his prized race horses, Hertz sold his share to Markin who then acquired another one-third in the company from Parmalee, thus taking control of both Parmalee and Yellow Cab.

When Hertz had sold off the cab business, the manufacturing arm went to General Motors, which wanted to sell part of the acquired business and made an offer to Markin, but Markin refused. Rather than eliminate the capacity of Yellow Manufacturing, General Motors entered the taxicab business as Terminal Taxi Cab.

A second fare war broke out, with Checker Taxi Co and Terminal Taxi Co staff fighting it out in New York City. To end the dispute, New York Mayor Jimmy Walker created the New York Taxi Cab Commission, which ruled that all cabs in New York had to be purpose-built cabs, not consumer car conversions.

Markin sold Checker Cab to E.L. Cord, but bought it back again in 1936.

In 1940, Parmalee (including Yellow and Checker Cab) became the largest cab company in the United States.

From its inception until 1956, Checker taxicabs had unusual and sometimes bulky styling. A brand-new body was introduced for the 1956 model year, called A8, and that body would be retained for the duration of Checker production until the end, in 1982.

1956 through '58 Checkers featured single headlights and a thick, single-bar grille. In 1958, quad headlights became legal in the U.S., and Checkers featured the quad headlights from that time forward, along with a new egg-crate grille insert. Taillights were also changed to the familiar vertical chrome strip housing dual red lenses. Early models also featured a single separate bumper-mounted backup light.

Aside from the body, components for the A8 and subsequent models were sourced from various manufacturers. Studebaker parts were used in the interior, suspensions came from Ford, engines were built by Continental, and the automatic transmissions were originally Bendix units.

Starting in 1959, Checker began producing passenger car versions of the taxis to the general public. Called Marathon for most of its life, the Checker car was advertised as a roomy and rugged alternative to the standard American passenger sedan. A Marathon station wagon was also offered, but American buyers preferred style and power over practicality, so the high-riding bulbous Checkers never sold well to the public.

In 1964 the State of New York pursued Markin and Checker on antitrust charges, alleging that it controlled both the taxi service and manufacture of taxis, and thus favored itself in fulfilling orders. Rather than allow Checker drivers to begin buying different brands of cars, Markin began selling licenses in New York City.

As Federal safety rules increased throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Checkers kept pace and despite having the same basic body design, Checker enthusiasts can often identify the year of a Checker based on its safety equipment. For example, starting in 1963, amber parking/directional lights were used up front. 1964 models introduced lap belts in front, energy-absorbing steering columns came in 1967. 1968 models featured round side marker lights on fenders along with shoulder belts, and 1969s introduced headrests for front outboard seating positions.

1970 began the use of full-size Chevrolet steering columns and steering wheels. 1973 and 74 models replaced the chrome-plated bumpers for larger, beam-type units that were painted aluminum and protected the lights in a 5-mph impact. '75 and later models were labeled "Leaded Fuel Only," and 1978s introduced the new delta-style Chevrolet steering wheel.

Despite its bare-bones reputation as a taxicab, ultra-luxury, limousine-type Marathons were also available, especially in later years. The A-12E model, specially built for the wife of the CEO of the company, remains in brand-new condition with less than 50 miles on the odometer. Checker limos offered vinyl roofs with opera windows, power-assisted accessories, and luxurious upholstery.

The final Marathon was manufactured in 1982, when Checker exited the automobile manufacturing business. The company continued operation at partial capacity making Cadillac parts for General Motors until January 2009 when it declared bankruptcy.[2]

Checker Taxicabs in the media[edit]

Because their styling changed little from 1958 through 1982, many film producers were not careful to use period-correct Checker cars in their work. Often, a later model Checker (with side marker lights, late-1970s bumpers, etc.) was used in 1950s or 1960s settings. However, true Checker fans can spot the inconsistencies and at least, the approximate year of the car.

Metal die-cast model of a 1981 Checker taxicab by SunStar
  • In the 1978 film Blue Collar the opening of the movie was set in Checker car plant.
  • In Twisted Metal, this car is used by one of the main characters.
  • In the original Mission: Impossible television show, episodes that were supposedly set in Eastern Europe often used Checkers as vehicles, as was sometimes evident in closeups of the cars.
  • Also used in the 1983 comedy film D.C. Cab as the main type of cab in the film.
  • In the 1984 film Rhinestone the character of Nick Martinelli drives a checker taxi.
  • In the 1986 film Ferris Bueller's Day Off, the taxis waiting at the taxi stand in downtown Chicago are all Checker cabs. Ferris Bueller and his friends escape Mr. Bueller by getting away in one of the waiting cars. In a later scene, two other Checkers are featured.
  • In the 1989 movie Major League, one of the baseball players arrives at the training camp in a Checker Taxi.
New York City, 2011
  • In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Checker cabs were featured prominently in the television show Taxi. Set in the fictional "Sunshine Cab Company" headquarters in New York City, all or most of the cabs in the Sunshine fleet were Checkers. Nearly every episode began with footage of Checkers in action, and the background of the garage interior often showed several Checkers getting worked on or waiting to be dispatched.
  • A Checker Cab and its cigar-chomping driver made cameo appearances in various Blondie music videos between 1978 and 1980. Their music video for "Call Me" centered entirely on the Checker and driver, traveling through the traffic-filled streets of Manhattan.[3]
  • Checker cabs continue to be featured in movies set in New York City long after they have become rare or even absent in the city itself.
  • Friends TV character Phoebe Buffay often borrowed, and later inherited, her grandmother's Checker Cab to drive upstate and see family or take friends on ski weekends. One episode involves her driving back from Las Vegas to New York, after Joey Tribbiani had borrowed it to drive out to a film shoot.
  • A slightly modified version of the "Checker Cab" or "Marathon" can be seen in the 2000 movie Unbreakable. The car is pictured as the antagonist's vehicle, chosen for its tank-like appearance and protective structure.
  • In the German TV series "Der Checker - viel Auto, wenig Geld" (engl. "The Checker - much car, little money") on DMAX a 1965 Checker Cab is used by host Alex Wesselsky aka "Der Checker".
  • In Scrooged, a Checker Cab is used by the ghost of Christmas past to take Bill Murray's grouchy, media tycoon character, Francis Xavier Cross, back to his childhood.
  • In Regular Show, Pops owns a yellow checker cab which he thinks is "brownish." It is only seen in the episode Ello Gov'ner. The episode also features a haunted British taxi.

Checkers in Miniature[edit]

Until recently, accurate scale models of any Checker automobile were extremely scarce; however after these venerable taxis disappeared from big cities, several manufacturers of die-cast models have issued licensed models of the A10 and A11 Checkers. Most notably, Sun Star produced several versions of the 1981 A11 taxicab in New York livery, along with Chicago and Los Angeles colors and markings in their usual 1:18 scale. These models feature detailed interiors, engines, chassis, and have accurate emblems and markings on the body. In smaller scales, Matchbox produced a miniature yellow Checker that featured the well-known "Checker Special" logo on its rear doors. Greenlight produces an accurate 1/43 scale 1977 New York Checker cab modeled after "Friends" Phoebe Buffay's car. The Franklin Mint produced a 1963 Checker, again a New York City version, in its usual, highly detailed 1:24 scale. Perhaps the most unusual Checker diecast is Brooklin's 1949 New York Checker A2, a long-forgotten model. Other small, inexpensive models may be available; however some of these are only stylized Checkers and do not accurately represent the Checker in scale.

Many of the above models can be found at online auction sites, such as eBay.

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