Bus Stop Classic: 1948-1953 Checker Motor Coach · The Frequently Forgotten Bus from the Country’s Most Famous Taxi Maker

first posted 17 June 2017

We’ve reviewed quite a few motor coach manufacturers that hoped to cash in on the post-world-war-II sellers’ market with operators rushing to renew their fleets, which had been worked hard during the war.  Small, regional manufacturers and the larger national brands all had eager customers waiting in line, ready to sign contracts for new buses.  That prompted some interesting players to throw their hat in the ring, one being a company more well known for making taxicabs.

But we begin with Ford. Since the mid-1930s, Ford had been producing a small urban transit coach in cooperation with the Union City Body Company of Union City Indiana. Ford produced the chassis, which was then shipped to Union for final assembly.  Ford called this model the “Transit Bus”.

The Transit had a rear-mounted, 239-cubic-inch flathead V8 and a 3-speed manual transmission.  It was 96 inches wide and about 25 feet long, and would typically seat 29 passengers.  It sold well, with over 12,000 built between 1939 and 1947.  Customers included Detroit, Washington DC, Philadelphia, and Chicago.

Ford marketed the buses through Transit Bus Inc., a joint venture established with Union City.  But even though they sold well, the immediate postwar period was an extremely tumultuous one for Ford, and in 1947 they decided to end their association with Transit Bus.

Both Union City and Transit Bus now needed a new chassis provider, and they found one in the Checker Cab Manufacturing Corporation. Checker was looking to expand and had some excess capacity at their Kalamazoo plant.

In 1948, Transit designed an updated 31-passenger model and selected Checker to produce the pusher chassis.  It was similar to the earlier Ford bus, but the Flathead V8 was replaced by a rear transverse-mounted 226 cubic inch Continental inline six-cylinder ‘Red Seal’ gasoline engine, the same one used by Kaiser-Frazier.

The buses were assembled at the Union City plant and sold through Transit’s Dearborn-based distribution network.  Sales started off well; over 500 were built in 1948-49, 300 of which were purchased by the City of Detroit.  But Transit had hoped for much larger sales, and in 1950, both Transit and Union City approved a buyout offer from Checker, which thus became both a bus and taxi builder.

Checker then introduced their version of the bus, marketed as the Series E, in 33- and 40-passenger models.  Union City kept making the bodies, and the finished vehicles were marketed by Transit Buses; both companies had become subsidiaries of Checker.  The City of Detroit quickly ordered 450 units.

But further sales failed to materialize. Operators were looking for larger coaches like the GM Old Look, Twin Coach, and Mack.  Only 50 Series E buses were sold over the next three years, with Checker finally pulling the plug in September 1953 and going back to building just sedans, cabs, and extended-wheelbase station wagons.

It was an interesting sideline from a very interesting company!

Further reading:

Curbside Classic’s Illustrated History of Checker Motors