1979 Checker
1979 Checker. Click image to enlarge

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Article and photo by Bill Vance

If one were describing the quintessential taxicab it would likely be a rather tall, roomy vehicle with big doors and lots of space inside. One could be describing the Checker, the most famous North American cab, and one that no doubt appeared in more movies than the most famous screen star.

The Checker traced its lineage back to a highwheeled car with the whimsical name of Seven Little Buffaloes manufactured in Buffalo, New York in 1909 by the DeSchaum Motor Syndicate. Few were built.

DeSchaum failed, and William DeSchaum moved to the Midwest and established DeSchaum Motor Car Co. in Ecorse, Michigan, to build a car called the Suburban. It was also not very successful, and Mr. DeSchaum departed under a cloud.

The company was taken over by ex-Cartercar executive Randall Palmer and reorganized as the Palmer Motor Car Co. He soon joined with Partin automobile sales agency in Chicago, becoming Partin-Palmer making cars of that name.

In 1915, Partin-Palmer was reorganized into Commonwealth Motors Co. of Joliet, Illinois, and Partin-Palmer cars became Commonwealths in 1917. Commonwealth began venturing into the taxi business with their sturdy vehicles that came in four-, and later, six-cylinder versions. By the early 1920s the company sensed a growing market and began building taxis fitted with bodies supplied by Morris Markin’s Markin Auto Body Corporation, also of Joliet. A fleet order soon came from Checker Taxi Co. of Chicago.

In spite of Checker’s business, Commonwealth was failing, and Morris Markin merged it with his auto body company in 1921, changing the name to the Checker Cab Manufacturing Co. He gradually entered the taxi business itself, gaining control of Checker Taxi Co. by the late 1930s.

Production of Checkers began in mid-1922, and the following year Markin relocated the operation to its ultimate home, Kalamazoo, Michigan, apparently to escape Chicago’s vicious gang warfare which included taxi-cab operations.

By luring some of the best staff, notably chief engineer Leland Goodspeed, from the rival Barley Motor Car Co. of Kalamazoo, whose products included the Pennant taxi, Checker produced sound cabs that sold well through the 1920s. By 1925, production reached 75 vehicles a week.

Checker survived the Depression, even for a short time becoming part of E.L. Cord’s empire. It developed several models, including six-and eight-door versions for hotels and airports. It also tried selling cars to the public during the early thirties with little success.

During the Second World War, Checker, like other motor manufacturers, contributed to the war effort. When peace came it returned to its pre-war designs. Enticed by the demand for cars, Checker again tried the civilian market in the late ’40s, but soon abandoned it.

Checker became Checker Motors Co. in 1958, and with the introduction of its all-new A8 model decided to once more try the regular car market with the 1960 Superba in both sedan and wagon versions. The Superba was joined by the virtually identical Marathon, which soon replaced the Superba name.

It was powered by the same 3.7-litre Continental side-valve, six-cylinder engine that had been used by Kaiser-Frazer. Of the almost 7,000 1960 Checkers produced, about 1,000 went to private owners.

This response encouraged Checker to continue public sales. The Continental engine was getting a little underpowered despite an optional overhead-valve version so Checker started using Chevrolet sixes and eights in 1965. A few also came with Perkins diesels.

Checker continued producing 5,000 to 7,000 cars a year, mostly taxis, through the 1960s, peaking at 8,173 in 1962. Founder Markin remained in control until his death in 1970, when his son David took over.

The Checker Co. went into decline in the early 1970s. Its cars were now out of date, being basically the same model that had come out in the ’50s. Another factor was that the big Detroit automakers had started discounting models for fleet buyers. With relatively high overhead costs Checker could not remain competitive.

Edward Cole who had retired as president of General Motors in 1974, joined Checker as chairman and chief executive officer. His dynamic presence was expected to result in a new model, but unfortunately, Cole was killed in 1977 in a plane crash flying to a meeting in Kalamazoo.

Although several new model ideas were considered, including a stretched Volkswagen Rabbit and a version based on GM X-body (Chevrolet Citation, et al.) components, none came to fruition.

With production down to the 500-a-year range and the prices it had to charge making it uncompetitive, Checker went out of the car-building business in 1982, its 60th anniversary, but continued making body panels for other car makers, and other products.

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