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Checker Taxi was a dominant taxicab company and national franchisor that was based in Chicago, Illinois. Checker Motors was an American car company (formerly: Markin Automobile Body). Both companies were owned by Morris Markin by the 1930s.
The Checker, particularly the 1959–82 Checker A series sedans remain the most famous taxicab vehicles in the United States. The vehicle is comparable to the London Taxi in its internationally renowned styling, which went largely unchanged from 1959 to keep production costs down.
Motorized taxicabs began to appear on the streets of major cities from 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 taxicab 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 by George Hilsky in Chicago and New York City 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 (now called the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission), which issued a limited number of cab operator permits, called taxi 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, or the 1933-34 Ford V8. The Y model continued in production until 1938. For 1939, Checker introduced a brand new model, the Model A. From that time, 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 material 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 1940s sedans. The new model, introduced in 1947, had a 127-inch (3,226 mm) 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 taxicabs, eliminating the five-passenger rear compartment requirement and stipulating a wheelbase of 127 in (3,226 mm) or less, which effectively took Checker out of the market. 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.
The 1956 through 1958 A8 Checkers featured two headlights, 1953-1954 Pontiac Station Wagon taillight lenses, 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.
With the cancellation of the Continental inline six-cylinder engine for 1965, Checker switched to Chevrolet overhead-valve inline 6-cylinder engines, with the small-block Chevy 283 and 327 V8s optional. Starting in 1970, Checker used the ubiquitous 350 cubic-inch small-block Chevrolet V8 as an option, which was available until the end of 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 engine, 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 1963. A more luxurious model called 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 buyers preferred style and power over practicality, so the Checkers saw limited sales with 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 U.S. 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 1974 models replaced the chrome-plated bumpers for larger, beam-type units that were painted aluminum and protected the lights in a 5-mph impact. The 1975 and later models were labeled "Unleaded Fuel Only," and 1978 introduced the new delta-style Chevrolet steering wheel. In the 1970s, power steering and power-assisted front disc brakes became standard. 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 Medicar and the Aerobus. The Medicar 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 reputation as a basic taxicab, luxury, limousine-type Marathons were also available mostly in later years. One 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 during its production run 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.
- Travis Bickle, in Taxi Driver, drove a 1975 A11.
- Phoebe Buffay, in Friends, drove a 1977 A11.
- David Johansen as the Ghost of Christmas Past in Scrooged, drove a 1978 A11.
In Grand Theft Auto games, the Checker Taxi appears as a controllable taxicab known as the "Cabbie".
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 typically were scrapped. Once production ceased in 1982, collectors became interested. At that time, however, only the later models still existed, so those are mostly the cars that can be found today.
Two restored older Checkers reside in the Gilmore 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. A 1939 Model A is also in the hands of a private collector, completely restored. It is the only Model A known to exist today. Several hundred post-1960 Checkers in various conditions exist. Checker A2 was restored in 2017 in Finland, and was to be shown in Lahti Classic Motorshow 2017. It may be the only fully restored A2 model in the world. One single 1949 Checker Model A3 pleasure car is currently under restoration. Two Checker Model A4 survive, one restored in 1950 and one in 1952.
- "Yellow Cab Co".
- London Taxi
- Evans, Scott (20 January 2009). "Checker Motor Corp., Former Taxi Cab Builder, Files for Bankruptcy". Motor Trend. Retrieved 7 April 2009.
- "Ainutlaatuinen entisöity Checker-taksiauto esitellään Suomessa – 'Tiettävästi maailman ainoa'" [Unique restored Checker taxi car presented in Finland - 'Known only in the world']. Tekniikan maailma (in Finnish). 24 April 2017. Archived from the original on 19 May 2017. Retrieved 24 April 2017.