Checker Cabs are icons of the US industry – everyone knows the image of the Yellow cabs in New York or any major US city. You will have seen them in hundreds of movies from the 60s, 70s and 80s.
Checker Motors Corporation was founded in 1922 by Morris Markin, an immigrant from Russia when he combined several companies including Commonwealth Motors and Handley-Knight a small manufacturer that had only been in existence for a couple of years. They were originally based in Joliet, Illinois.
Markin had gained control of Commonwealth when the owners defaulted on a $15,000 loan that he had provided – Markin was primarily in the clothing industry with interests in car body manufacturing, an interesting mix!
Commonwealth had a mixed heritage too! As you can imagine in an industry that had just been born there were hundreds of companies out to take a slice of the market. One of the many companies that started in 1908 was created by William Schaum who developed a 2 cylinder car called the Seven Little Buffaloes – quite why he called it that no one knows! He was based in New York State and his company became the Deschaum-Hornell Motor Car Company. The company moved to Michigan and developed a model called the Suburban and subsequently renaming themselves the Suburban Car Company. They were then acquired and became the Palmer Motor Car Company who merged with Partin to become Partin-Palmer Manufacturing until they moved to Joliet and renamed themselves Commonwealth. Then along came Markin with some investment dollars.
Checker Taxi was a private Chicago based taxi company that had placed a large order with Commonwealth, so to sort things out and get his investment back, Markin merged everything together. So, for a while Markin built cabs and had a cab company using them! He had taken the idea from John Hertz, who had founded the Yellow Cab Company in 1910 who built and operated his own cars. This lead to a price war and ultimately Hertz sold out in 1929 and Markin picked up the Yellow Cab Company but not the manufacturing rights – which went to General Motors. Hertz had been renting out unused cabs when they weren’t operating and this lead to the idea of his pure rental company.
The price war got quite vicious and after a personal attack on Markin, he bought the Dort Automobile factory and relocated Checker to Kalamazoo in Michigan. The company now produced 4,000 units a year with each unit selling for about $2,000. The models had 40hp 4 cylinder engines and a 6 was added in 1927. Their models were alphabetically named reaching Series “K” by the end of the 20s. Checker was also expanding the cab business by setting up sales outlets and cab companies across the US.
In 1933 Markin sold the business to the Cord Corporation who continued the build and operate strategy – Auburn had been building competing taxi models, but as the Cord Corp started to suffer financial strain, Markin stepped back in and acquired Checker in 1936.
Checker branched into building body shells for Hudson and other manufacturers including Ford and REO (of Speedwagon fame). Checker also built some of the prototype Jeeps called the Bantam.
As the cab company grew it started to dwarf the manufacturing side so in the late 50s, they decided to build passenger cars and launched the Superba in 1959 and grew this business through the 60s with the introduction of a second model: the Marathon, to replace the Superba, also called the A11/A12 for the taxi version. It remained in production for nearly 20 years. The cars were thirsty as they not only used large engines but also had poor aerodynamics due to being designed for a Lycoming motor. When Lycoming stopped producing this engine, the Marathon was fitted with a Chevrolet straight six or a V8 as an option. When Chevy stopped production of the 6 during the late 70s, they switched to a small Chevy V6 but the heavy car was still thirsty so they converted them to run on propane!
During the early 60s, the New York State Government had attacked Markin on anti-trust charges because he built and operated cabs and they didn’t like the monopoly, so Markin branched out and started to sell cab licences as well.
When Markin died in 1970, his son David took over the company and in the late 70s, a retired GM executive (Ed Cole – responsible for the Chevy small block V8) bought into Checker to revamp the models. The plan was to buy US built VWs, ship them to Kalamazoo and then lengthen them to suit the taxi format. Unfortunately he was killed in a plane crash before the plan was put into place.
Checker stopped building cars in 1982 due to labour restrictions and the fact that they needed to replace the body dies – they were so worn after 20 odd years of stamping that the manufacturing process and after market mechanics had to manually adjust the panels to fit properly!
Today, there are Checker or Yellow Cab companies in many US cities providing taxi services to the public and now using production models from Ford, GM and Toyota.