Vintage R&T Road Test: 1968 Checker Marathon – “America’s Ultimate Camp Automobile” – An SUV With A Trunk

This is one of the more fascinating vintage reviews from this mountain of old Road and Tracks in my closet. The Checker was of course designed to be a taxicab, back in 1955 as the Superba, which then evolved into the Marathon. In the early sixties, Checker decided to offer a civilian version, presumably in response to the growing dissatisfaction with the ever longer, lower, wider American cars. The Checker went against that grain with a vengeance, especially the lower part; it was essentially a pickup or utility truck (Travelall/Suburban) with a trunk. With its high ground clearance it was great for camping, but that’s not why they called it “America’s Ultimate Camp Automobile”.

The Checker was of course also the ultimate anti-Detroit-mobile, with its refusal to go along with planned obsolescence and trendy styling gimmicks.

Here’s a nice overlay of the Checker with a Toronado, just about the ultimate expression of wasted space (up to that point in time) despite its FWD. Power choices were Chevy’s 230 six, and the 307 and 327 V8s. A Perkins diesel was supposedly going to be available later in the year. I’m not aware of that actually happening.


The tested Marathon had the 200 hp 307 V8 teamed with a 3-speed Borg-Warner Model 8 automatic. Performance was “adequate” (0-60 in 13.9 seconds). Top speed was 103 mph. The brakes were somewhat disappointing, but probably adequate for typical use.

The dash full of genuine S-W gauges was very much against the grain, and quite appealing.

Despite its 62.8″ height, the Checker handled decently on its fat 8.15-15 tires and fairly firm springs and shocks: “Even at full song and sliding boldly sideways, you still retain the feeling that you’re in charge and the Marathon isn’t going to embarrass you by doing something unpredictable”.

The best part was the tall driving position, superb visibility, and most off all, the huge back seat with seemingly endless leg room. One walked into the rear compartment, something utterly outside of the realm of modern cars.

And the Checker had gobs of ground clearance, making it highly suitable for taking off paved roads. R&T wondered if Checker would let them have one to use as a press car to cover the off road Baja 1000 Rally.

Who bought Checkers, other than taxi owners? R&T’s local dealer in Alhambra also sold Mercedes, and the dealer told him that the two brands attracted similar customers: affluent, not a member of the professions (meaning a self-employed or “self-made” man), and they typically paid cash for their cars. The Checker wasn’t cheap, over $4500 for a decently equipped one, “but they have virtues offered by no other American car”.

FWIW, our neighbor in Towson owned a Checker sedan; in his case it was likely because he was seriously obese, and the Checker’s easy ingress and egress was a boon.

R&T goes on to describe the Checker as “America’s ultimate camp automobile”, and that’s not referring to its off-road prowess. “It’s square in both the literal and figurative sense…and should have tremendous appeal for those thousands of old faithful who can’t buy solid, square Studebakers anymore”.


Related reading:

Curbside Classic: 1967 Checker Marathon – This Ultimate Long-Life Vehicle Is Still Being Driven By Its Original Owners

Automotive History: An Illustrated History Of Checker Motors

Curbside Classic: Checker Marathon – The Brooklyn Bruiser