(first posted 6/15/2015) This 1970s-era Checker Marathon photographed in Red Hook, Brooklyn has some interesting parallels to its surroundings. For many years, Red Hook was just a simple, industrial neighbourhood, situated close to what was once New York’s busiest port. In recent times, despite its sparse subway coverage, the area has become a somewhat trendy, hipster-ish locale. The Checker Marathon was a no-nonsense, workmanlike car that sold almost entirely to fleets. Lately, though, you may spot the odd Checker being driven around NYC, not dented and driven by a grizzled cabbie, but rather lovingly restored and enjoyed by an enthusiast.
If Morris Markin, the founder of Checker Motors Corporation, was alive today he would probably regard this Checker restoration trend with curiosity. After all, how could he have imagined his Checker cabs would become such an iconic fixture in American cities? How could he have imagined that his “taxi-tough” Checker cabs would be something an enthusiast would lovingly restore years later?
Markin was a simple man who wanted to build a simple car. That car had to be roomy, mechanically straightforward, and reliable. It was Markin who stipulated the new 1956 A8 taxi, which would become the Superba and later the Marathon, should receive little in the way of regular cosmetic updates. Indeed, after 1959 and until the last Checker rolled off the Kalamazoo, MI production line in 1982, the Checker would receive only one major cosmetic update: a pair of ugly, railroad tie bumpers to comply with government regulations.
Thus, the Checker sold for decades looking very much a product of the 1950s. It was a practical decision, as parts could be easily removed and exchanged with other Checkers of varying model years.But it was this utilitarian and stodgy design, as well as its spartan interior, that deterred consideration of the Checker by private buyers. However, if a Rambler or a Studebaker was too glitzy for you, a Checker may have been just the ticket. And you could option one just the way you wanted it, even with luxury accoutrements like opera windows and vinyl roofs. Or, alternatively, you could order a Checker from the factory painted taxi yellow!
Private sales of Checker vehicles didn’t officially commence officially until 1960, but even after that, sales were never very high. Of course, this meant the majority of Checkers were rode hard and put away wet by taxi drivers and thus survival rates are much lower than many other contemporary cars, despite the Checker’s reliability.
Still, both taxi drivers and private buyers alike would have appreciated the Checker’s accessibility – no need to stoop to get in – as well its excellent visibility and extremely spacious cabin. Available jump seats brought seating capacity up to five in the rear compartment. Of course, the longer the Marathon stayed on the market, the less competitive its ride and refinement became.
Earlier Checkers of this shape used two different engines manufactured by the Continental Motors Company, also used in Kaiser-Frazer vehicles. The base engine was an L-head six with a mere 80 horsepower, but it was soon joined by an overhead valve version with 122 horsepower. Transmissions were a three-on-the-tree, or a two-speed Borg-Warner automatic. A final version of the venerable six, with a 2-barrel carbureter, would arrive in 1963 with 141 horsepower, but after 1965 Checker would switch to Chevrolet powertrains. For 1973, they would also switch to a GM automatic transmission, the Turbo-Hydramatic 400.
Those powertrain options generally mirrored what was available in full-size Chevys. Initially, there was a choice of a 230ci straight-six or a 327 V8, then later the 350 V8. Chevy’s 305 V8 would arrive later, and the 229ci Chevy V6 and 267ci V8 were available in the Marathon’s later years. After 1980, these relatively anaemic engines were your only choices. They had a lot of metal to haul around: all Marathons weighed over 3600lbs.
During its run, the Checker Marathon was available in some curious specifications. A 129-inch wheelbase Town Custom limousine was launched in 1962 (regular Checkers spanned a 120-inch wheelbase), complete with an internal division window. Demand was low because it was more expensive than every Cadillac except the Series 75!
The Oldsmobile 350 diesel V8 was an optional engine from 1980-82, but it wasn’t the first diesel Checker. In 1966 only, you could order a Checker with a Perkins 4.2 four-cylinder diesel engine. Checker diesel models must be extinct by now. And of course, there were the lengthy Aerobus models as well as a high-roofed Medicar.
Checkers on 68th Street and Broadway. Photographer unknown.
It wasn’t just engines that Checker borrowed from rival automakers. The company also sourced suspension parts from other manufacturers, such as using the lower A-arm of the 1954 Ford’s front suspension.
Checker on 86th Street and West End Avenue, 1985. Photograph by Matt Weber
Checkers may have been an old and proven design, using old and proven parts, but that didn’t necessarily mean they were built to be tight as drums. Popular Mechanics found in a 1975 road test that their Marathon test car was built no better than most American cars, and featured multiple squeaks, rattles and leaks. And of course, rust was a problem. Hemmings noted Checker switched to cheaper steel in the early 1970s, as well as thinner glass. Existing rust issues were only exacerbated by the use of these inferior materials.
Amazing photograph of 42nd Street between 7th Avenue and Broadway. Photographer unknown.
Build quality may have been just one of many factors conspiring against the Checker’s role as cab of choice for taxi companies. Ford, GM, American Motors and Chrysler were all trying to get a bigger piece of the fleet pie, and their offerings were more modern if not more spacious. Checker limousines and wagons disappeared in the mid-1970s.
Inflation also forced up Checker prices, and the smaller company didn’t have the economies of scale afforded to the larger automakers. By 1980, a Marathon listed for $7,800: a Gran Fury, Impala or LTD all had MSRPs a grand cheaper.
When Morris Markin died in 1970, his son David took charge of the company. It was business as usual until Edward N. Cole, former GM president, joined Checker in March of 1977. Plans to manufacture a 21″ extended version of the Westmoreland-built VW Rabbit were developed. But Cole died less than 90 days later in an airplane crash. But the VW project was continued for some more time, and was announced to the public. But testis of a prototype, called Galva I, were not satisfactory, and eventually the project was scrapped.
In 1981, Checker again started developing a new modern FWD cab, the Glava II. This time, the basis would be GM’s new FWD X Car Citation. Here an extended Citation can be seen next to some of the classic Checker Marathons.
The wooden Galva II body buck is shown above. it turned out to be not so compact after all, and further development would have cost millions. So CMC owner David Markin pulled the plug, although the buck still exists.
For a very detailed version of the Galva I & II chapter of the Checker history, Ben Merkel and Joe Fay wrote up the story at hemmingsblog.com.
The Checker Marathon itself would be dropped for 1982. The company was no longer pulling as much of a profit, and under David Markin’s leadership they would cease to manufacture cars and instead manufacture only parts and sheetmetal for other automakers. With the other domestic automakers snatching up fleet sales, Checker didn’t have a profitable retail business to fall back on: they sold maybe a few hundred civilian Checkers each year.
It’s fascinating to imagine a world in which a new generation of Checkers was launched. A front-wheel-drive Checker, if manufactured to a high standard, may have been exactly the kind of taxi American cities needed. It could have been New York City’s London cab, or Chicago’s Toyota Crown Comfort. Instead, taxi companies switched en masse to reliable, easy-to-repair sedans like the Caprice and Crown Victoria. However, while these cars ticked some boxes, they were hardly perfect taxis. Too heavy on gas. Not space efficient enough. Overhangs that were too long.
For that matter, the Checker wasn’t perfect either. It was just an old sedan with a roomy cabin and with easily interchangeable parts. But its simplicity and longevity lent it an honest charm, and now these old workhorses are sought after years later. They may not be pretty, they may be a little rough around the edges, but that didn’t stop people from moving back to Red Hook.
Historical photos used in this article were obtained via the amazing Facebook page, “Dirty 1970s New York City”, which you all should visit. These pictures were in turn sourced from elsewhere, and thus some cannot be attributed. If any of the original photographers object to their use, I’m more than happy to take them down or attribute them appropriately.