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The "Checker", particularly the 1958–82 Checker A series sedans remain the most famous taxi cab vehicles in the United States. The vehicle is comparable to the London Taxi in its nationally renowned styling, which went largely unchanged throughout its use, and also for its iconic status.
Motorized taxi cabs began to appear on the streets of major cities beginning in the early 1900s. Particularly in Chicago, where numerous railroads had terminals, there was considerable need for on-demand, point-to-point chauffeur-driven transportation. Hotels, department stores, and office buildings embraced the amenity, but often limited access to their facilities to a single cab company. Kickbacks were common, and the system favored larger operators, who had the financial resources to "play the game".
By 1920, there were two dominant taxi-cab companies operating in Chicago: Yellow Cab and Checker Taxi. Yellow Cab Company was founded in 1910 by John Hertz who subsequently established his own cab manufacturing business in 1917. Checker Taxi did not own its own cab manufacturing company, but principally used Mogul Cabs, manufactured by Commonwealth.
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 acquired Commonwealth Motors via a stock swap, and merged it with Markin Automobile Body, forming Checker Cab Manufacturing in order to honor the contractual commitment.
Checker cabs were manufactured in Joliet for two years, then production was shifted to Kalamazoo, Michigan. The sturdy Checker cabs gained the acceptance and loyal following of Checker Taxi operators in Chicago.
Markin began buying up Checker Taxi operators' licenses 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. Checker became the first cab company to hire African-American drivers and the first to require that drivers pick up all fares, not just European-American ones.
Competition for fares in Chicago was fierce in the 1920s, and 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 Cab Manufacturing to Michigan.
Hertz had sold the controlling interest in his Yellow Cab Company to the Parmelee Transportation Company, but in 1929, after a suspicious fire at his stables killed his prized race horses, Hertz sold his remaining shares of Yellow Cab to Markin, who subsequently acquired another one-third in the company from Parmelee, thus taking control of both Parmelee and Yellow Cab. In 1940, Parmelee (including Yellow and Checker Cab) became the largest cab company in the United States.
Prior to selling the Yellow Cab company, Hertz had sold his taxi-cab, truck, and coach manufacturing arm in 1925 to General Motors. GM wanted to sell part of the acquired business and made an offer to Markin, but Markin declined. Rather than eliminate the capacity of Yellow Manufacturing, General Motors entered the taxicab business in New York City as Terminal Taxi Cab. General Motors operated Yellow Coach as a subsidiary until 1943, at which time the company was merged with GMC Truck Division, and manufacturing shifted from Chicago to Pontiac, Michigan.
A second "taxi war" broke out, with Checker Taxi Co and Terminal Taxi Co operators fighting it out in New York City. To end the dispute, New York Mayor Jimmy Walker created the New York Taxi Cab Commission, which issued a limited number of cab operator permits, called "medallions", and mandated that cabs have seating for five passengers in the rear compartment, which favored Checker and a handful of other manufacturers that built automobiles which met this requirement. Over the next three decades, Markin was involved in the formation of "Checker Taxi" or "Checker Cab" companies in a number of major U.S. cities.
At one point, Markin sold Checker Cab Manufacturing to E.L. Cord, but bought it back again in 1936. Markin and Cord were friends, and after Cord bought up interest in Checker, he retained Markin as company head. Meanwhile, the large, heavy Checker Model T, introduced in 1932, featured an 8-cylinder Lycoming engine, the same one that powered the classic Cords at the time. Checker had used Lycoming 6-cylinder engines since introduction of the Checker Model G in 1927. Prior to that, most Checkers had been powered by 4-cylinder Buda engines.
The 1935 Checker Model Y featured attractive front end styling that could have been influenced by the Cord 810/812. The Y model continued in production until 1938. For 1939, Checker introduced a brand new model, the Model A. From that time forward, all future Checkers would carry the "A" designation, usually with a number.
The 1939 Model A featured a retractable roof section at the very back of the greenhouse, distinctive stylized headlight lenses, and unusual open-sided front fenders. The rear roof section could be opened if passengers desired an open-air ride. The open-sided fenders in front detracted from the car's styling but made fender repairs easier for fleet owners. Beginning in 1939, Checkers were powered by the well-known Continental "Red Seal" inline six-cylinder engine, until the engine was discontinued in 1964. Starting in the 1950s, Checker offered an optional overhead valve version of the Continental six.
During WWII, Checker, like other American automakers, switched to wartime production, building materiel needed by the U.S. Armed Forces. After the war, Checker cars, although mechanically similar to the pre-war models, were styled like many late 1940's sedans. The new model, introduced in 1947, had a 127" wheelbase and featured unit body construction. This basic design continued in production until 1956.
- Model A2 - 1947-49
- Model A3/A4 - 1950-52
- Model A6-A7 - 1953-54
- Model A8 - 1956-58
- Model A9/A10 - 1959-63
- Model A11/A12 - 1963-82
In 1954, New York City revised its specifications for taxi-cabs, eliminating the five-passenger rear compartment requirement and stipulating a wheelbase of 120" or less, which effectively took Checker out of the game. A brand-new 120" wheelbase body-on-frame design was introduced in December 1956, called A8, and that basic body style would be retained for the duration of Checker production until the end, in 1982.
1956 through '58 A8 Checkers featured single headlights, 1953 Chevrolet taillights (possibly GM surplus, since they were already five years old), 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. Parking lights were housed in each far side of the 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. Another change between the A8 and later models is the rear window. Originally flat in the A8 with a thicker "C" pillar, the rear window on later models wrapped around a thinner roof-line, affording improved all-around visibility.
For 1960, Checker introduced the A9 series taxi, as well as for the first time, a passenger sedan to be marketed to the general public, the A10 Superba. For 1961, the Marathon sedan and station wagon were introduced, upscale versions of the Superba. The Superba was discontinued in 1963, and from that time on, the taxicabs were designated A11, the Marathon became the A12.
Starting in 1965, Checker switched to Chevrolet overhead-valve inline 6-cylinder engines, with the small-block Chevy 283 and 327 V8s optional. Starting in 1970, both Chevrolet and Checker switched to the 350 cubic-inch small-block V8 that was used until the end of Checker production. GM phased out the Chevy inline six in 1979. Starting in 1980, both Chevrolet and Checker offered a new 229 cubic-inch V6 as the standard power-plant, with a small-block 305 or 350 V8 as optional.
The standard transmission for the Checker since the 1930s was a conventional 3-speed manual. In 1956, Checker offered a "Driv-Er-Matic Special" which featured a Borg-Warner automatic transmission and an overhead-valve Continental inline 6. By 1970 GM's Turbo Hydra-Matic 400 transmission became standard on all Checkers.
Starting in 1959, Checker began producing passenger car versions of the taxis to the general public. The first of these models were labeled "A10 Superba" and the line included a sedan as well as a station wagon. Superbas were built from 1960 through '63. A more luxurious model call the "A12 Marathon" was introduced in 1961, and remained in production until 1982. To the public, Checker cars were advertised as a roomy and rugged alternative to the standard American passenger sedan. A Marathon station wagon (Model A12W) 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 1978's introduced the new delta-style Chevrolet steering wheel. In the 1970s, power steering and power-assisted front disc brakes became standard as well. In 1978, the windshield wipers became parallel-action.
During the late 1960s and 1970s, Checker sold a few specialized versions of the A11. These included the Medicab and the Aerobus. The Medicab was introduced in 1969 and was designed to function as an ambulance, or transporter for wheelchair-bound passengers. The rear doors were large enough to allow a wheelchair to enter the car, and they swung open almost 180 degrees. This car also featured a raised roof, and facilities to lock a wheelchair to the floor when in motion. The Aerobus was a stretched version of the A12W Station Wagon. It accommodated up to 12 passengers and was marketed as an airline shuttle.
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 Checker A11/A12s were manufactured in 1982, when Checker exited the automobile manufacturing business. The company continued operation at partial capacity making parts for General Motors until January 2009 when it declared bankruptcy.
Checker Taxicabs in the media
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.
- 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.
- Ernest Borgnine's character Cabbie in the 1981 film Escape From New York drives a Checker cab.
- In the 1992 TV series "Quantum Leap," Sam Beckett (played by Scott Bakula) finds himself as a taxi driver in 1958, driving a New York City Checker cab. However this car has a "V8" insignia on its front fender, indicating it was a 1965 or newer model.
- 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.
- In Martin Scorsese's 1976 film Taxi Driver, the main character Travis Bickle drives a Checker Taxi.
- In the 1990 film Mr. Destiny, bartender Michael Caine appears as a taxi driver, driving James Belushi to his new home (in his alternate reality) in a Checker cab.
- 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.
- The scene of a traffic accident in the 1968 movie Bye Bye Braverman between a Volkswagen Beetle and a Checker Cab takes place at the intersection of Eastern Parkway and Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn.
- 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.
- In the Rush series, A taxi resembling a Checker Taxi appears in the Nintendo 64 version of San Francisco Rush and the arcade exclusive game San Francisco Rush The Rock: Alcatraz Edition, and the Nintendo 64 exclusive Rush 2.
- 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.
- The "Cabbie", a taxicab resembling a Checker, can be seen and driven in the video games Grand Theft Auto III, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories. In Vice City, the fictional Kaufman Cab company strictly runs on a fleet of Cabbies in Vice City, Florida.
- On the season 10 Simpsons episode "Simpsons Bible Stories", Homer (as King Solomon) acts as the judge in a court case between Jesus Christ and the Checker Chariot taxi company.
- 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.
With the exception of the A10, A11, and Marathon models, only a handful of pre-1960 Checkers exist. They were produced in the thousands, but led a life of rough city streets, constant idling, and high mileage. Once they were retired from taxi service, they were pretty much scrap.
Once production ceased in 1982, collectors made an effort to save as many Checkers as possible. If they were restorable after retirement from service, they were often saved. At that time, however, only the later models still existed, so those are the cars that can be found today.
Two restored older Checkers reside in the Gillmore Museum in Kalamazoo, Michigan. One is a 1923 Model E, the other is a 1936 Model Y. The museum also features the very last car the company assembled, a 1982 A11 taxi in Chicago green and ivory livery. At least two A8s exist, one a Driv-R-Matic Special, in restored condition. In the early 1950s, a number of worn Checker A2s and A4s were shipped to Finland to address an automobile shortage. These cars (more accurately, their remains) still exist, and the Finland Checker Club is actively seeking parts to restore as many of them as possible. A 1939 Model A is also in the hands of a private collector, completely restored. This one is believed to the be the only remaining Model A in existence.
Several hundred post-1960 Checkers in various conditions exist. Often they can be found for sale on eBay or other automobile auctions. They can be purchased at reasonable prices, since the market for these big old taxis is very limited.
Checkers in Miniature
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. Sunnyside produced a nice 1/34 licensed 1963 Checker A11 Taxi with detailed engine, interior, chassis, along with the "Checker Special" decal on the rear doors. It was commonly sold as a souvenir in various cities, including New York and Miami and features whitewall tires and small hubcaps as well as a detailed Continental L-head engine and manual transmission with floor shift lever. 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.
- "Yellow Cab Co".
- Evans, Scott (20 January 2009). "Checker Motor Corp., Former Taxi Cab Builder, Files for Bankruptcy". Motor Trend. Retrieved 7 April 2009..