(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.
CC Feature: My Checkered Career with Checker Cabs
Curbside Classic: 1967 Checker Marathon
Automotive History: An Illustrated History of Checker Motors
Wonderful article on a car for which I’ve always had a distinct fondness.
You mentioned the diesel Checker; there is one in Auburn that I saw last fall. The first museum we visited the day of the CC Meetup had about six Checkers of this generation in a row – with the diesel being one. I was talking to 1964bler at the time; perhaps he better remembers details.
The Checker story is an interesting one and your stating Morris Markin had refrained from updating the car has answered an age old question for me. I had always presumed it was lack of money on Checker’s part.
This reminds me…I have a brochure for a civilian Checker. I should scan it and post it at some point. My wife’s grandfather had shopped for a Checker long ago and my mother-in-law gave me the brochure for that along with a 1976 Ford Granada.
They also have one that seems to have been converted to propane.
Diesel Checkers were most likely developed to cater for the Israeli market to compete with the German (MB), French (Peugeot) and Italian (Fiat) competition, all of which offered 8-seater cabs with diesels. The Perkins engined ones were slow but reliable; the GM engined oned ruined Checker’s reputation and caused it loses as the court ordered them (and GM) to repurchase all cars fitted with that dreadful contraption. I heard GM put the repurchased vehicles on a barge and dropped them of the coast somewhere, no idea what they did with the Checkers…
Remembering the last time I rode in a Checker taxi. It was around 1989, and the Checker was one of the later Chevy V8 models. I know because the driver spent most of his day with the hood open, constantly feeding the radiator. He couldn’t turn the engine off. The engine was scraping along on 1.3 cylinders, spewing a giant cloud of oil and steam and indescribable pollution.
Seems like the driver would have done better to find $300 and buy an old Buick or Dodge or something. Literally any vehicle you could pay money for would have run better than his Checker. He would have been able to drive more steadily, and customers wouldn’t have turned away in disgust.
But I suppose he had his reasons….
Was this in the US? Sounds like maybe not.
In any case, it doesn’t sound like it was the Checker’s fault. After a half million miles or so, any engine, even a Chevy V8, is liable to croak. But a replacement engine was always readily available, which is what Checker drivers did when this happened, because the car was worth a new engine.
A world famous built-like-a-tank taxi, good to read more about it.
About the Perkins diesel. It’s not a 4.2 (liter) engine, but a Perkins model 4.236 (4 cylinders, 236 ci displacement). Also used in Massey-Ferguson farm tractors, for example.
I am glad these are now sought out by hipsters to restore. As with the London cab, the Toyota Crown Comfort and the MB E class diesel in their countries. the Checker became an iconic national treasure when seen by new arrivals in New York. Seeing how many people could pile in seems to be representative of the vastness of America as one is driven around the skyscrapers. I can see how a roomy stretched X car could seem like progress in 1980, but I am glad it was not to be.
Now the ideal taxi according to NYC is a small minivan body on a all electric Nissan Leaf. You can’t argue too much with the rationality assuming the range/ recharging issues are solved. I wonder of we are loosing something though.
Thanks for the writeup. I really enjoy reading the challenges and occasional successes of the small manufacturers and the people behind them.
We are, I ride in NYC cabs weekly, and I still find the Crown Vics to be the most comfortable cab to pile into the rear of and lean back. I can only imagine one of these. The newer cargo vehicles they have are a bit better than the Prii and Camries, but I don’t like climbing up to get in. Can’t remember the last Checker I rode in as I couldn’t have been more than 6 or 7 years old.
Cool to see these being preserved, surely, an unknown vehicle to those under 30 and really barely known to those of us under 40, these were pretty thin on the ground by 1990.
I’m 46 and my only ride in one was in 1973 as an airport limo from our then home in Darien, CT to La guardia. When it pulled up I was disappointed as it was to be my first ride in a limo. Even at 4, a Checker was not what I thought of as a limo. Once inside, the vastness was striking though compared to my parents 71 Valiant.
Much later in life, I got rides in the other nations taxis. It is amazing how in each case one could see what great taxis they all were and yet how much national character was built into each one. Globalization will probably eventually see all the great world cities driving the same electric taxi. The decisions that led to it are rational and the results are often positive, but sometimes I like to celebrate the differences and abhor the homogenation.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
This might be a stretch but to me homogenization like this to me is akin to putting the Eiffel Tower in every city in the world. It’s irrational and inefficient to fly across oceans to see landmarks, so why not just duplicate them everywhere?
The United States is a young country from a global perspective, and much of it’s most defining traits in expression isn’t in art and monuments like many old countries are known for(most of ours is frankly derivative of them and shallow at best), it’s our cars, our infrastructure and all the other stuff that led to the US to becoming a giant in the 20th century. The Marathon was one of those, as were many other cars or product designs from a certain period, but the tragedy is these are what are phased out, thrown out, revamped and tarred over, all in the name of all mighty efficiency and ever increasing pressure to meet “global standards”. Luckly we have a bunch of ugly skycrapers and faux Italian Renaissance style apartments to be shuttled between in efficient Japanese Taxi vans though!
As one immigrant said to me:
America is the land of disposable strip malls, drive through banks, gas stations, and fast food at every corner, and too many coffee flavors. You have the illusion of more choices because you cannot see all your choices have no difference.
I can feel for the immigrant you quoted. The choices he is talking about must all seem so American and so to a newcomer the same. Like one third of immigrants go back when homesickness rears or prospects prove less then hoped. I don’t think that reflects on America itself, which gave someone new a chance when it didn’t have to.
The immigrant isn’t going to care what the taxis are in a place. It is the local for whom a Checker or a certain restaurant has become part of the pleasant background of life, that will note the passing with regret.
Very well said. Look up the saga of New York City’s Penn Station… that story will make you shed a tear or two.
The facts regarding Ed Cole and the utilizing Citation parts are totally wrong! I would suggest you not lift material from the web and do some real fact checking. Ed Cole was at the helm of Checker for just three months he died in 1976! He had nothing to do with the Galva project of killed in 1982.
Thank you for correcting us on the details of Cole’s involvement with Checker Motors. I read your excellent article on the subject at hemmingsblog.com, and I have updated and corrected this post accordingly.
The article can be found here: https://www.hemmings.com/blog/2015/08/12/galva-and-galva-ii-the-checker-cabs-that-could-have-been/
It’s probably a typo, but Cole died in 1977.
Paul, correct on 1977. That said, there is new information recently received via Fisher Body Corporate Newsletters. Chronilogically here how it plays out. 1. Galva I 1974, partnered with US Steel, CMC cancels the project. 2. 1977 VW project, fails after testing, killed in late 1977. 3. 1980, Fisher Body project, Citation stretch. Project killed after GM and Fisher Body will not commit to ten years of production. 4. Galava II partner with Auto Dynamic, a new FWD Checker to be developed using Checker OEM body and chassis, Fisher Body accessories and GM X-body driver train. Project killed 1982 and funds directed to third party manufacturing.
Joe, now I’m going to give you a possible correction. In your very thorough article, the B&W picture of the Galva with three onlookers is made out to be the VW-based Galva I. I really don’t think so, given the GM X car wheels, and the fact that it looks exactly like the renderings of the Galva II as well as the body buck.
Are there any pictures of the VW-based Galva I?
I love Checkers. The International Travelall of passenger cars. The car’s no-nonsense design appeals to me. But I suppose living with a car in which every comfort and performance metric is subordinated to durability might not be the most pleasant thIng.
I have long wondered if Checker would have fared any better had Ed Cole lived. It seems to me that former GM top executives have seldom proved successful running small ventures or turnarounds. It’s just not what they have gotten experience in during a GM career.
The one pictured is a 1976. I know this because I have seen it in Red Hook and Park Slope/Gowanus before and photographed it.
I have always found the Checker to be a fascinating vehicle. A friend once told me about someone he knew that owned one used to put his motorcycle in the back and haul it around with no problem getting the thing in and out of the car!
We used to see a few civilian models around town when growing up, but not often. Several old ex-taxis would be seen on occasion.
Once, in Chicago on business in 1979, I saw what seemed to be a dozen Japanese business men & women being stuffed into a Checker, complete with the drop down “rumble” seats being used. Rather close quarters, but that would be a unique experience!
As ubiquitous as these were, I have never had the opportunity to ride in one. Wish I did.
I had the opportunity to ride and drive one.
Being a passenger is much better and they are fun to parallel park.
You talkin’ to me? ARE YOU TALKIN’ TO ME? You must be talkin’ to me because I don’t see anyone else around!
Want to ride in a Checker cab? Head to Clearwater, Florida.
N.Y. Cab is located at the corner of Missouri Ave. & Druid Rd.
I saw the checkers all over the place when I was at the clearwater beach in 2011, I they had loud exhausts from what I recall. Never bothered getting a ride in one though, since the island is so small and traffic is so slow since the beachfront “beautification” and subsequent elimination of 90% of the parking. I was there this year and I didn’t see them though, I almost forgot about them until you mentioned it.
am i the only one who thinks the red checker wagon above would be a great car? would love to have one of those esp with the older style bumpers.
No you aren’t the only one. I used to see their ad in the “Navy Times”. The common sense half of me wanted to buy one ever time I returned from deployment and had major league discounts available. The young and dumb half of me always won out and I never did.
I never thought it was a very remarkable car mechanically but loved the packages it came in. Always been a real sucker for wagons.
Nope. It’s a beauty!
I’ve only seen one Checker Marathon in person, and I’ve never ridden in one. However, I’ve seen enough pictures of the Checker Marathon and I’ve seen tv shows and movies that feature the Checker Marathon. Among the most famous was the tv show Taxi.
My great uncle had a civilian Checker in the 70s and 80s, although I never go to ride in it. His was Brougham style with a padded vinyl roof and the rear quarter windows covered up. I’m guessing that vinyl tops are a key identifier for civilian Checkers.
It may be a key datum that he was a statistician doing academic research and his brother the pharmacist drove a 1968 Mercedes 250 for about 20 years or so.
No I think the padded top was simply one of the few options for the civilian version of this car. I have a good friend who was a co worker of mine in a past job that has his mother’s old 1977 Checker Marathon that she gave him in 1982 after she bought a new car(I am not sure what replaced the Checker but I do know that her last car was a 1995 Deville bought new(which he also has) )
This 1977 Checker was bare bones with no options at all in it and was painted silver. No padding and no broughamy seats.
I spotted the remains of a 1970’s Checker Marathon with a padded half roof and a very Lincoln like port hole side windows on it at the local junk yard a few years ago.
Here is my friend’s 1977 Checker peaking out of the big snow occasion in December 2009(that was before the big snow occasion of Feb 2010(aka snowmaggedon) )
In front of it is the 95 Deville
Where are the rust holes ? .
I love Checker’s with opera windows. They give them a very stately look. Sort of like seeing someone in overalls all the time and then catching them in their Sunday best.
The immortal Checker. Probably the most honest,least pretentious car ever built.It was what it was supposed to be, nothing more, nothing less.
Virtues, PhilB. A forgotten market.
I’ve often said my “dream car” is most likely a Checker Marathon. It has all the attributes I want: ruggedness, simplicity, dependability, ease of repair low maintenance costs and practicality [all body panels removable, rather than welded]. I always saw it’s ” in your face” lack of change for the sake of change being a positive statement against following fads and mindless face lifts as a virtue.
Some of that emerged in the 70s with the mainstream compacts and sub compacts with their claims of staying with a bodystyle that wouldn’t be changed for five years and even featured it in their advertising.
That was more driven by the Beetle’s influence rather than the Checker’s. Now with longer production runs of a body style between changes it seems standard procedure and it makes sense even today.
Feature bloat “connectivity” and tech have scuttled any chance of a simple rugged easily repaired offering similar to a Checker. The last we saw of that was a Saturn S Series.
A shame, but it’s a tiny market for fans of that sort of automobile offering, so I doubt it’s in any manufacturer’s interest to even try.
Especially when offerings like the Mirage and Versa are immediately savaged by the press because they dare to offer low spec base models and a low price.
Ah, but the Mirage and Versa are SELLING. That, not the bleating of the “enthusiast” press for More Stuff, is what counts.
No photo of the MediCar ? .
We had an Aerobus in…. 1968 IIRC , a very sturdy car indeed , routinely stuffed full of unruly kids then run over bad roads in Rural New England , it rarely gave any trouble , it was killed eventually by the tin worm .
An elementary school classmate’s family had an Aerobus too. I wasn’t old or bold enough at the time to enquire about it. One never forgets novelties like that. I wonder how it compared to the Club Wagon or ChevyVan?
Where did you live at that time? My family had several Checkers back in the mid to late ’60s, including 2 Aerobuses. We lived in Brook Park, Ohio at the time.
When I was a kid, a family in our neighborhood (I think their son was on one of my youth soccer teams) had a Checker wagon. They were known as being very well-to-do and maybe a little eccentric, and unconcerned with what anyone else thought of their automotive choices, or any other choices. They had that car for years and it was always immaculate–I thought it was the coolest car in the neighborhood.
There is a red sedan model running around Gallup NM that looks to be a civilian version. I seldom see it and it looks to be un-restored (faded red paint, grey painted bumpers) but must have been a Southwestern car all its life because it looks as solid as an anvil without even surface rust. Personally I’ve always been fascinated by the car just because once they started using Chevy V8s and the THM400 transmission – imagine the possibilities of engine swaps! Plus I get sick of seeing Camaros, Chevelles, and Chevy IIs all over every car show.
Someone should lovingly restore a Checker cab and use it in Uber or Lyft. I’m sure they would be a very popular hire.
An Uber Checker would be a great idea! A natural, really.
There IS a restored Checker taxi that I have seen in the car show circuits in NY and NJ. I cant say what year it is,but it does have the checkerboard decals on the sides and the Checker logo on the rear doors. It has no partition, but it does have a black interior with the jump seats in the rear, underdash AC,an old flag style meter and the roof light. The owner displays it with a life size stuffed animal Pink Panther “driver” with a captains hat in the drivers seat. Never met the owner, but its as cool as hell!
Know somebody that does Uber and he tells me there is an age and/or mileage limit. Probably some way around that for a classic but who knows?
One big problem for Checker, in reaching for civilian sales was their lack of a dealer network. Most of their dealerships were in cities that had taxi fleets leaving most of the country without access. It’s a little ironic because I think they would have made great cars for living in the country in the days before everyone drove pickups. I saw a Marathon Deluxe Limo in a junkyard about 30 years ago. I knew then that it was special but it needed more than I could give it. The wagon is the one that I dream about.
Our next door neighbors in Towson had a Checker Marathon. He weighed 400+lbs, and the Checker was the easiest car for him to get into. He eventually replaced it with a ’71 Buick LeSabre, and watching him struggle to get in and out was…painful, in more was than one.
Nice job, William.
Great article — I particularly find the ads and sales literature fascinating. I have always been under the impression that Checker never seriously marketed the non-fleet Marathon, so it’s great to see so many ads in one place here. It’s still hard to imagine who the “typical” Marathon purchaser was.
I did know a couple once who owned a Marathon. They replaced in the 1980s with a used Peugeot 405, so clearly they had an affinity for slightly offbeat cars.
The Checker was a cool car in its day, and was designed to a NYC taxi spec, which is the reason that they were so rarely used as cabs anywhere else. Even when gas was cheap, fleet operators would shy away from the Checker for three reasons:
1. The cars were expensive.
2. The cars had heavy fuel consumption.
3. Those convenient replacement panels were very expensive.
Choosing a car as a taxi should (but not always!) have nothing to do with emotion. It is all about getting the most comfortable car with the lowest overall operating costs.
Checker’s were everywhere in Boston.
In the article William wrote they weighed 3600 pounds and had Chevy 6 or V8. At least until 1977 B bodies woundn’t they have more fuel efficient that full size US cars and perhaps on a level with midsize?
Checkers were common in Omaha Nebraska until the mid ’70s and I think I remember they ran on propane.
Maybe in Canada they were, but here in the Sates in most large cities Checkers were thick as thieves. They sure were here in Cleveland!
_BIG_ time ! .
In the mid 1970’s a buddy of mine drove for The San Gabriel Taxi Co. , almst the entire fleet was Checkers and it was a rinky -dink outfit as were most small town cab companies back then .
One of the neat things were steel braces leading from just under the front bumper to the suspension’s cross member ~ it turns out you can hit a tall curb @ 45 MPH and the Checker just scraped over it , wheels up , making a terrific racket but inflicting no damage ~ we had to test this feature multiple times with our buddies loaded into it…
Late joiner to the refuters: they were everywhere in Israel, too…
The Village of Bedford Park, Illinois had a Checker Squad car for a brief time in the early 1980s. It wasn’t popular with the Officers and it had constant mechanical issues in service so it was de-commissioned.
Oddly It was never auctioned off. It wound up sitting in a holding yard near a water tower for years. It finally disappeared around 1998.
Neat to see one in nice shape in a vintage setting. Is that a vinyl top on it?
These were actually pretty popular as cabs in Omaha when I was growing up. If I recall correctly, they were branded “Happy Cab” and were usually bright red. There was a “Yellow Cab” that may have used some Checkers, but I think they also had a lof of Plymouth Satellites / Furys in those times.
Such an Iconic cab that it seemed like Hollywood and advertisiers kept using them as props for quite a few years as they were fading out in the real world.
What is old is new again – the Checker’s tall architecture towers over most cars in those ’70s and ’80s vintage photos, but it would probably fit right in with today’s CUVs and SUVs.
The nose on that X-car based clay looks almost *exactly* like a Dodge Mirada. Wonder who stole from who?
There are two Checkers that can be found around Richmond. Presume both are original civilan models rather than converted cabs, but I don’t guess there’s a good way to tell. Both are white, one is a ’67 with a red interior and the slim bumpers, the other is also white but I haven’t been able to date it other than post ’72. Cool cars to see “out and about”. I’ve never ridden in one, though, maybe someday…
I’m just glad the X car based checker never panned out. That was one truly ugly design that I really wouldn’t want to see roaming the streets for 23 years. The Marathon was a dated brute but it had character and looked like nothing else and happened to be relatively timeless(even with the big bumpers), that boxy first gen Cavalier nosed thing though would have looked dated in 3 years and plain awful in 20 just as the actual X cars did(and still do for the most part).
I kind of equate it with the GM “new look” busses getting replaced by the RTS. The fish bowl was timeless and distinct, the RTS looks like the soulless efficient dull late 70s design that it is.
I think the last time I rode in a Checker cab was around 72. Looked new. Lots of squeaks and rattles, noise, rough ride. If you take the beancounter’s view, what matters is cost of operation. Passenger comfort, not so much. Driver comfort least of all.
The subcontracts for GM petered out several years ago and Checker closed. The plant was in the process of being torn down when a fire helped things along five years ago.
Really enjoyed the article. I’m from NYC and have been in a Checker cab. They were an experience as compared with anything else.
I mean, NYC are beaten. They all squeak, rattle, and roll after a few years. I mean, when the Checkers were prolific was a time when New York was in financial decline so the roads had to have been terrible. I mean, they are bad now, and you can’t turn people away.
If any of you saw the Martin Scrocesse documentray about Fran Lebowitz a few years ago, she talks about how she still has a mint Checker she bought after finding success. Still has it. Doesn’t drive it. Has a thing about pumping gas and needs someone to pump it for her.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pwPPmqbzA78 starts at around 44:34
Poorly-maintained roads must be a good argument for SUVs?. This is the same issue early cars like the Model T had to address, needing lots of clearance, suspension travel, & a rugged frame.
Frames of Model As were actually quite flexible, with pieces held together by rivets instead of welds. Strong steel with some movement in the joints. I presume that Model T frames were constructed in the same way.
The frame of my ’70 C10 was held together with rivets. Over time they loosened and the bracket attaching the idler arm to the frame would wiggle big time when the wheel was turned. The brackets holding the top of the rear shocks were also mounted with rivets and loosened up and rattled. I “fixed” that with mini C clamps taking up the slack. Pretty much everywhere the rivets held the frame together after 30 years were loose and a lot of flex was the result. Made for a lot of rattles and sloppy steering, along with worn steering box, balljoints, bushings and tierods. One of the reasons why I decided to sell it.
Here’s the undersized authoress with her oversized sedan. Fran is an echt Manhattanite, and so probably wanted the “New York-iest” car ever made. She found it.
In the early ’90s, the weekly paper New York Observer did more than one report on the dwindling number of Checker cabs still on the streets. In the first one, there were something like eight or nine left, still plying their trade on the pot-holed pavements of Gotham. An update a few years later said the stable was down to only two. That number surely reached zero before the Millennium.
I recall that one of these NYO articles mentioned that the remaining Checker cabbies said their hacks were never empty: as soon as one fare would exit, another would get in — often telling the driver “We don’t really have to go anywhere, but we never get to ride in a Checker anymore. So, uh, just drive around in circles for a while until we tell you to stop, OK?”
Neat cars, someday I would like to have one. A friend of mine owns one of the 5.7 Olds diesel powered units. It was owned by Checker and used by one of their executives. I drove it once, not a terrible experience.
Talk about the CC effect; I have seen and photographed this very car in Red Hook! And it does have a vinyl roof.
When I saw the Checker Marathon, the Hindustani Ambassador suddenly came to mind as India’s long-standing fleet car, built for decades with little change. The Amby was not only a taxicab (with the meter located out on the fender, in many cases), but also the ride of choice for government officials, including the Prime Minister.
Great write up, William – and you’ve been hunting in my neighborhood. Red Hook has a fascinating collection of relics, although they are shrinking in number as gentrification continues apace.
We had two taxi companies in my small (40,000) city growing up – GI Cab and Veterans Taxi. Both used Checkers, as did Yellow Cab in Pittsburgh. Yellow was formerly a Makin-owned company, as were other large fleets, giving Checker a captive market.
That said, it’s amazing the A8/Marathon lasted as long as it did, given that its main reason for being, NYC’s 5 passengers in the rear mandate, disappeared two years before the A8 hit the market. You couldn’t charge more for the extra passengers, but they were simple to repair, if not as durable as you’d think.
I had a regular black car driver in the early 90s who’d driven Checkers back in the 60s and 70s, and he told me that on one trip, while twisting up to the 59th Street bridge, the rear driver’s side door simply fell off, terrifying his passengers. Also, the hood latch was notorious for letting go at highway speeds, so many operators put rubber tie-downs up front.
I did love riding on those strange round, angled jump seats though.
Fun fact: the 1978 movie Blue Collar, about three assembly line workers who rob their corrupt union, was filmed at the Checker factory. Yaphet Kotto meets a particularly nasty end in the paint booth.
When I was a kid my uncle lived in a nice condo with indoor parking.
The first time I was there I spotted in a row dress right dress as if lined up perfectly in
the motor pool. A 7 series BMW, A Jag, A Benz, A 308 Ferrari and Harley. All charcoal
grey. The last car was a Checker Yellow Cab, with the meter, sign, light etc… I met the man once and he told me that he loved the Checker the best!
I drove a Dodge Coronet cab for a fleet in NYC in the 70s. When cabs were plentiful people flagging would put their arm down and let me go by to get a Checker.
My late father was part owner of a Checker dealer (Sanford & Cox Motor Sales) in Lakewood Ohio back in the late 60’s and very early 70’s, and I remember well him picking up and delivering a ’69 Marathon with a Perkins diesel.
I imagine the dealer was more a labor of love than a profit making machine. Were most of the sales new to taxi fleets or to private customers? Many taxi fleets these days rely on clapped out used cars. Not an improvement.
I’ve never ridden in a Checker Marathon as a passenger, and I’ve only seen one in person. But knowing their reputation for durability and toughness, I find it unforgivable that anyone would discontinue such a vehicle, however dated it may look on the outside.
Flood Checker/Pontiac dealership on Connecticut Ave in NW WDC just north of my high school. They had the HUGE bumpers by then, but they still attracted my attention more than the ponchos.
Have you heard about Checker plans to come back on the market?
There was another attempt to give a big new look for Checker in the late 1960s-early 1970 with a prototype designed by Ghia.
I’ve seen the Hemmings article regarding the Ghia Centurion. It’s a shame that Checker never used the body to produce the Marathon. I thought the best looking feature of the car was its front end. From the hood forward the Ghia Centurion was quite handsome to look at.
When you consider how well these Checker Marathons were built, it’s damn unforgivable that they were discontinued when they were. However dated its appearance may be, if it works, use it! 🙂
The movie ” Blue Collar”( 1977 or 78) with Harvey Keitel and Richard Pryor was supposedly filmed in part at Checker, great movie and soundtrack. The movie can be hard to find but has some great assembly line shots and is worth seeking out.
yes, great movie! the opening scene is one of the best ever: shoot on the (Cheker) assembly line, at some point a guy lights a cigarette with a gas weld! And John Lee Hooker’s soundtrack (If I’m not wrong) !
A great scene…the guy lighting the cigarette with the blow torch!! The factory looks almost medieval, a dark movie for sure. The opening song, ” Hard working Man”? was sung I think by Captain Beefheart.
Hi, here goes a pic from the only one knowed in Spain.
A Checker Aerobus! , with its 8 doors.
I can’t believe I missed this the first time around… superb article and thanks for sending me down that ’70s NYC Facebook wormhole (which I spent 3 hours browsing through)
I’d buy a Checker Marathon if I could find one in decent condition. However dated it may look, I believe that the old Checker can still be used as a taxi cab. I would prefer a Checker any day over a Toyota Prius.
Just a couple of corrections. Galva I was a proposed new Checker developed by US Steel in 1974. Ed Cole developed the VW Rabbit stretch project that ended in the fall of 77. The Chevy Citation stretch project of 1980 was jointly developed by Checker and Fisher Body. The final project Galva II was a joint project by CMC and AutoDynamics. Galva II was a clean sheet project that would have utilized a Chevy Celebrity drivetrain hooked up to a new Checker built body….which strangely looked like a giant K-car
Mostly useless trivia:
The round side marker lights Checker used from 1970-82 (1968-69 were just chintzy reflectors) started life on the rear of 1969-70 Buick Electras and Rivieras. The model specific frippery Buick used in the protruding center section was deleted, and they were of course duplicated with amber lenses for the front of the Checker. Unfortunately, the amber plastic or colorant Guide used tended to fade badly when exposed to UV.
The wheelcovers on the featured car came from Studebaker, who used them from 1959-63, then dusted them off for a final showing in 1966, just stamping a new emblem into the center section. Checker stamped their own logo into the design, and ran with it. Not sure what year they first appeared on the Checker, but they lasted until the very end in 1982.
The Checker was a five-passenger capacity for the rear passenger area. When New York City no longer required this, non-limousine cars were put into service. Growing up in New York City, most taxis were Checker or De Soto, which were the eight-passenger sedans, limousines if they had a glass divider between the front and rear passenger areas. How do you like this 1939 Checker Cabriolet that I have attached?
Here is the distinctive front end of the 1939 Checker.
I _LOVE_ the 1939 Checker Cabriolet ! .
How many survived ? .
I’ve written before about my 1968 Checker Marathon. My parents bought it new in 1968. It had the 230 Chevy 6 and manual everything. It was slow and you had to practically stand on the brake pedal to stop. Parking was a workout. The Borg Warner overdrive allowed me to get 30 mpg cruising on the highway. I took my driver’s test in it. I had lots of fun in high school piling a bunch of friends in and getting up to teenage hijinx. Later when I was gigging with a rock band the trap case and a gigantic bass speaker cab were easily swallowed by that huge cabin.
In 1986 the rust got to be too much and the car was sold on. I miss that Checker more than any other car I’ve had.
I’ve only ridden in one Checker, but it is a rare beauty, a lovingly restored Medicar, belonging to an old friend of mine. I don’t have any pictures of it, but if you google 1971 Checker Medicar, it’s the blue one.