CC Feature: My Checkered Career With Checker Cabs

Dodge Taxis In New York City

 (all photos by the author)

(first posted 8/25/12)   My first real job was in the summer of 1964 when I worked for a taxi company in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I was paid ten bucks a day, a figure that my father thought exorbitant. In the morning I counted the cash envelopes from the drivers and entered the sums into a ledger. My boss not only taught me how to do this task, but how to swear in Puerto Rican, which I learned was quite different than the Mexican invectives that I had grown up with. Mexican swearing was pretty much profane, as it is in the US. In Puerto Rico it was very much sacrilegious. When I first processed “Me cago en la hostia” (I shit on the host), I knew that a lightning bolt was soon to make a direct hit on our office.

NYC taxi scene.


In the afternoon I did bodywork on the cabs. There was always work to do. But my favorite task was “hardening” the 1964 Dodges that the new ownership had purchased to replace the motley collection of aging Fords, Plymouths and Chevys that made up the fleet. The new owners owned a taxi fleet in New York City–all Dodges, so we did what was done in NYC. We removed all “crash parts”–outboard headlights and rear stop/turn signal lights and replaced them with thin aluminum block-off plates. The chrome-plated zinc headlight surrounds were put on the parts shelf until the cab was sold. Big bumper overriders were installed.  The “1” and “2” pushbuttons were removed from the Torqueflite tranny selector and a block-off plate was installed. Who needs cabbie drag racers?

The Cab Lot at Chicago’s O’Hara.


I enjoyed doing the books and bodywork, but what I really wanted to do was drive. That would have to wait until I turned 21 while in college in Chicago. As soon as I could legally drink I was driving for Yellow Cab. The cabs that part-time drivers got (minimum, one day a week) were generally on their last legs. I was told by the dispatcher to drive a different car every day, find one that was worth saving, and let him know when I had identified my dream cab. He would then have any improvements made that I deemed necessary.

Your typical three year-old Checker


Body work wasn’t included in the desideratum. What I wanted was quiet brakes; shocks that worked; operational turn signals; and a tranny that shifted smoothly. I didn’t care about a working horn. Never used it. Gauges? Who cared? In Darrell Waltrip’s words “I never looked at the gauges, I was going to drive it till the bitch blew”. Yellow Cab #697 became my dream taxi.


The Dream Taxi.


Checker Motors, the manufacturer of Checker cabs in Kalamazoo, MI, prided itself in building the only “purpose-built” taxi on the market. Bolt-on fenders. Super-beefy frames. Huge rear seating area. But the truth of the matter was that the average fare was only 1.7 passengers. I didn’t need a limo. The jump seats in my cab were effectively rusted in the stowed position. I couldn’t use the trunk (didn’t even have a key for it) due to laws dating back to the Capone days of the bootleggers. Not even a spare tire.

One time at O’Hara (cabbies never called it “O’Hare–WTF?) I was dispatched from the cab lot to one of the terminals. The terminal dispatcher then assigned me to a woman with the most incredible amount of luggage I have ever seen, shades of Night at the Opera. I did my best to load all of this harridan’s crap inside my cab but I was woefully short of accommodating everything. She then began yelling, “why don’t you use the GD trunk you effing moron?” I told her that by law I couldn’t. She called BS on me at which point I called in the dispatcher an asked to be assigned another fare. He agreed and I left the airport with some crappy suburban job, but with a lot less baggage.

Were Checker cabs all that great? Maybe from a passenger’s standpoint. They were easy to get in and out of. But from a driver’s perspective (mine), I would have preferred a lot smaller package with greater maneuverability.

The Checker two-piece door.


Checker was proud of its two-piece door design with extruded aluminum window surrounds (same design as used by American Motors). The fact is that with accumulating miles, the frames would loosen and simply bang against the body. I don’t know anyone that wants to listen to that cacophony for 12-hours a day.

The Devil is in the Details.


From an operator’s point of view I would have taken Checker to task for the details that didn’t make it in the real world. Hood releases would crap out and require extreme persuasion to open up the hoods.

Cosmetic Dentistry.


Real world actuality was that cosmetic details were very low on the list of concerns. Passengers could care less and Yellow Cab knew it. Just drive the damn thing and pick up fares. I was instructed not to come back to the hack lot until I had at least $30 on the meter. Some days that was hard to do—we’re talking 1969-70. I took in 42.5% percent of the meter, and kept all tips, which came to 10-15 bucks a day (let’s not talk about “taxable income”). Doesn’t sound like much but my eight-room apartment was only $42 bucks a month, which I cut in half with a roommate. A large Ricobene sausage pizza was $2.50 and a six pack of Red Top beer was 99 cents. Life was good.

El Oucho!


Bolt-on fenders are one thing, but serious damage generally required more work. The front end of this cab looks as though it will require more than an alignment. Cabs of this age generally weren’t repaired and became parts donors. Notice the badge on the hood? It’s called a “medallion”, without which you can’t operate a cab in Chicago or New York. In 2010 Chicago medallions were going for around $250,000, in New York City, which has restricted the number of medallions, a cool million.

Structural Masking Tape.


No gas cap and masking tape on the brake lens. Something tells me that this cab won’t be dispatched in the morning.


The Passenger Repositorium.


Checkers had very tough interiors, but so did Fords, Dodges, Plymouths, and Chevys. Seat belts were never used. Notice the high-mounted brake lights. This was not a universal feature, probably installed by the previous full-time driver.

Command Post.


The only gauge ever looked at was the Rockwell taximeter. All others were irrelevant as far as I was concerned.

Write What You Know.


I used my two years of driving a hack to inform the subject of my senior design thesis in product design. Ain’t gonna show what I came up with cause some of you might be a bit hard on it.

Ever wondered why Yellow Cabs and Hertz Rental Cars share the same corporate colors? Didn’t think so. But I’m going to tell you anyway. It’s because both companies were founded by John Hertz (born Sandor Herz in Ruttka, Kingdom of Hungary). In 1929 Hertz sold Yellow Cab to Morris “The Pantsmaker” Markin, another immigrant born in Smolensk, Russia. Markin was already manufacturing cabs in Kalamazoo, MI at his Checker Cab Manufacturing Co.



There are lots of stories of fares that offered compensation for transportation other than cash. Not to me. But I did pick up a foursome in the Loop after lunch one day (from their behavior, a liquid one), and one of the women asked me, “Kevin, how old are you?”. Fares never referred to the driver by their surnames (my license was displayed on the dash as required by law). It was either “driver” or “cabbie”. I said that I was 21. She then asked me if I knew who she was. I said that I did not. She then told me she was “Mrs. Robinson”. OMG! A Cougar! She then said that her husband was out of town, but that she was having a party at her home that night. Would I like to come by? I respectfully demurred (I was going to drive to Manteno that night for a bang fest with my girlfriend). I would really like a 35-year old to make a similar proposition today.


Chicago’s North Michigan Ave, The Million Dollar Mile.


So what’s the point of all of this? As a taxi paradigm, the Checker didn’t really cut it in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Its design was based on requirements from New York City in the 1930s and ‘40s. It was too big, too cumbersome, too thirsty. By the late ‘60s it was running Chevy inline sixes and V8s so its engine wasn’t exceptional. Don’t know who made the transmission but it was probably a GM unit as well. In Chicago, both Yellow and Checker were owned by Parmelee Transportation, which was owned by Checker Motors of Kalamazoo. All other taxi companies ran one of the Big Three taxi offerings because they were cheaper but equally long-lived. Checker Motors by 1970 wasn’t making a living selling taxis—it only sold about 2-3000 cabs a year at best, mostly to its own operating companies. It’s main source of income at that time was sheetmetal stampings and frame assemblies for Chevy and GMC pickups. That’s not to say a contemporary Crown Vic is the cab of choice. You kidding? Give me a Peugeot 404 diesel with a Powerglide and power steering.  And a trunk that I can use.