A Brief History
On June 18, 1923, an American legend was born when the first Checker Taxi Cab hit the street in Chicago, the product of a Russian American Jewish immigrant named Morris Markin. Having immigrated to the United States in 1912 at the age of 19, Markin narrowly missed the European conflagration that was World War I. An ambitious and determined businessman, he manufactured pants for the US Government during World War I before turning to the growing automobile industry in 1921.
Markin’s move into the auto industry was of major significance to the future of the American taxi cab business, both in manufacturing taxi cabs and in running a taxi service. Astute acquisitions of failing auto plants and companies helped Markin form the Checker Cab Manufacturing Company in 1922, based in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The company remained headquartered in Kalamazoo until it ceased to be in 2010. Throughout its history Checker used components manufactured by other companies and also made components for other auto manufactures and makers of other types of vehicles, such as trailers.
Checker made 4 cylinder engine cars until 1929 when they first used a 6 cylinder engine. That 1929 model, the Model K, was a giant leap forward in design as a car made specifically to be a taxi cab and the first model to be totally a Checker design without major components from other automotive designers or producers. The Model K was a huge success, with 8000 of the type working in New York City alone. Together with the Yellow Cab Company, Checker became one of the 2 major taxi cab producers in America, the smaller companies being forced out of business by the 2 taxi giants.
The Great Depression saw orders plummet in 1932, but Checker coped by introducing an 8 cylinder model, the Model T, with engines provided by Lycoming, a company in the Auburn, Cord, Duesenberg (A-C-D) automotive empire. Checker further strengthened the alliance with A-C-D by providing cabs to the Safe-T-Cab Company of Cleveland, an A-C-D affiliate. The Model Y followed in 1934, which became the foundation for many of the models to follow. Varieties with 6 and 8 doors were offered. The Model Y was the first car manufactured with the “3 box” design layout, a concept followed by other car manufacturers after World War II.
The Model A of 1940 was a further leap forward in automotive design, let alone cab development. Checker continued to come up with innovative features for its cabs, including a glass roof section for sightseers to enjoy the view and also a model with a retractable roof for passengers that preferred the open air ride of a convertible. The semi-convertible (“landaulet”) style was equipped with a canvas sunshade so that passengers could enjoy open air while being protected from direct sunlight. Other Checker innovations included an adjustable driver’s seat and an air vent for the driver.
World War II intervened in the auto industry, with American manufacturers turning to the production of war machines. Post-war design ideas included rear engine and front wheel drive models, but in the end a modified Model A called the Model A2 was chosen for production in 1946, with a Model A3 to follow in 1947. The Model A3 became the first Checker cab to feature a rear trunk of the type we are familiar with. (Note: Prohibition era laws prohibited taxi cabs being equipped with a trunk in order to discourage “rum running” by the cab operators!) Checker also offered its cars to the general motoring public in 1947, a dramatic shift in corporate direction.
By the mid-1950’s the Checker cab had attained its iconic look and remained easily identifiable from its outline thereafter. Models with 6 cylinder or Chevrolet produced 8 cylinder engines were offered, and the Checker Aerobus was sold from 1962 to 1977, an early version of the “stretch limo” concept with multiple rows of seats, each with its own set of doors, including a station wagon version. Maximum rows of seats were up to 5 rows, though 3 or 4 rows were most common. Adaptations of the taxi model for commercial sale to the public included the Marathon and Superba models specifically designed and marketed to be sold to consumers in the 1960’s.
The 1970’s saw a dramatic decline in demand for Checker cabs and cars as gasoline prices soared after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The Checker vehicles were heavy and durable but offered poor gas mileage. Checker resisted radical modernization since the mid-1950’s, with the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. Customers kept ordering the Checkers and Checker kept making robust cars designed for heavy use. Soaring gasoline prices and a recession at the end of the 1970’s made the company struggle, with production costs placing the price of the Checker nearly into the luxury car category. Industry advances in lowering the weight of cars and improving aerodynamics had been ignored by Checker, and by 1980 this failure to keep up with the times doomed the company’s ability to offer cabs at a competitive price and operating costs. A lame attempt to produce a propane powered model failed and the constant use of stamping dies to make the same old sheet metal fenders and parts resulted in worn out equipment that needed replacement at a time when money was scarce.
Checker ceased manufacturing taxis and cars after 1982, and New York taxi regulations requiring all cabs and livery vehicles be replaced after 6 years of service saw the end of the massive New York market for Checker cabs, the last of which were in service in 1999, the end of an era. Checker continued in business as a supplier of automotive parts to other auto manufacturers, mainly General Motors. When the Great Recession of 2008 hit the automotive market, especially General Motors, extremely hard, Checker was devastated financially and was forced out of business by 2010.
Today you may find all sorts of regular consumer vehicles adapted for use as taxi cabs, sedans, wagons, vans and mini vans. With the advent of ride sharing services such as Lyft and Uber, the traditional taxi business has been shaken to its core. No longer will fares ride in cavernous back seats accessed by large wide doors with big trunks for their luggage, taking a tank-like ride around town. To Checker Motors Corporation, we bid a fond and bittersweet adieu.
Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever had a ride in a Checker Cab? (Did you like it?) Let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Hinckley, James. Checker Cab Photo History. Enthusiast Books, 2003.
Merkel, Ben and Chris Monier. The American Taxi: A Century of Service. Enthusiast Books, 2006.
Merkel, Ben and Joe Fay. Checker the All-American Taxi. Earlswood Press, 2015.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Greg Gjerdingen from Willmar, USA of a 1923 Checker H-2 Taxi Cab, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. This image was originally posted to Flickr by DVS1mn at https://flickr.com/photos/52900873@N07/34297682100. It was reviewed on by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.