How Checker Cars Work


This 1961 Checker Superba shows the basic design the company used on its "civilian" models throughout its run.

Founded in 1922, Checker was long-famous for specially designed taxicabs and airport limousines when it began selling "civilian" models in 1959. Some sources say Checker offered "pleasure cars" as early as 1948, but the Kalamazoo factory always said 1959 was the first year for private sales.

Assuming one could find a Checker dealer (they were never very numerous), civilians bought what was initially called Superba, a four-door sedan or wagon in standard or Special trim. Specials were more deluxe inside, but not much. All were the same tanklike affairs familiar to anyone who ever hailed a cab from the mid-'50s to the mid-'80s. The A8 hit the streets in 1956 with a wheelbase of 120 inches -- fairly compact for the time. Average curb weights were 3400 pounds for the sedans, ­and nearly 3800 for the boxy wagons. Morris Markin, Checker's founder and president, was steadfast: There'd be no change to this dumpy but practical design so long as there were buyers for reliable, durable, "taxi-tough" cars. Not that there'd been many changes before. Aside from noncommercial paint jobs and leaving off the "hire light," the Superba differed from the A8 only in a front-end facelift with trendy quad headlamps.

Superba power came from Continental Motor Company, basically the same 226-cubic-inch L-head six once used by Kaiser (see entry). Here, though, it was available in side-valve and overhead-valve versions at no difference in price.

The former had 7.3:1 compression and produced a mere 80 horsepower, so it must have been meant for areas where gas was of very poor quality. The ohv unit had a more-modern 8:1 squeeze and a more-respectable 122 bhp. Transmissions were the expected three-speed column-shift manual and Borg-Warner automatic.

True to its taxi traditions, the Superba sedan could be equipped with a pair of rear jump seats for carrying up to eight. The wagon, which came with a roll-down tailgate window, had the same roomy back seat, which folded down to make a truly voluminous cargo deck. Unusually, though, the seat-folding was accomplished by an electric servo. This gimmick and the different bodywork made the wagon some $350 more expensive than the sedan.

At a time when mainstream American cars rolled on 14-inch wheels, Checker stuck with 15s, which made for smoother taxi rides over the increasingly cratered streets of urban America. Also reflecting its taxi origins, the Superba boasted tall doors and ruler-flat floors for easy entry/exit and plenty of foot space.

It did not, however, boast much in the way of luxury: rubber mats where carpeting might have been, pedestrian hardboard headliner, and a conspicuous absence of late-'50s safety features like padded dash and sun visors, dished steering wheel, and seatbelts. Plain round gauges nestled within a flat-faced dashboard that looked like something from a '51 Plymouth, a design that would be absolutely unchanged through the very last cars Checker built.

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Checker Cars of the 1960s

The Checker Marathon, shown here as a 1963 model, was an upgraded version of the Superba.

Seeking higher nonfleet sales, Checker applied the Marathon name to the Superba Special for 1961, substituted 14-inch wheels on both Superba and Marathon sedans, and standardized the ohv engine for wagons. Prices stood pat: $2542 for the base Superba sedan to $3004 for the Marathon wagon. Air conditioning cost $411 extra, power steering $64.

The model quartet returned for 1962, the only change being a return to 15-inch wheels for sedans. But Checker now further plied the consumer market with a special new Town Custom limousine on a 129-inch wheelbase.

Optimistically priced at $7500, it came with vinyl roof and a division window between front and rear compartments; there was also a full range of power options. But production was limited by low demand -- understandable, as even the most-expensive nonlimousine Cadillac cost less. The only change for '63 was boosting the ohv engine to 141 bhp for all models.

In 1964, prices rose about $100 and Superba was dropped from the Checker line. The following year, Checker switched to more-modern Chevrolet engines: standard 140-bhp, 230-cid six and optional 283 and 327 V-8s with 195 and 250 bhp, respectively. The Town Custom limo was still around, but only by special order. The 283 cost $110 extra, automatic transmission $248, overdrive $108. For 1966, Checker added a Marathon Deluxe sedan and a lower-priced limousine ($4541), thus re-establishing a four-model line. Both were dropped the following year, but the Deluxe sedan returned for '68, the limousine for 1969.

Checker produced a limousine for sale to the public at various times; this Marathon DeLuxe Limousine was manufactured between 1965 to 1967.

The Chevy V-8s naturally made post-1964 Checkers much faster than the earlier six-cylinder cars. And there was more power to come. The 283 was dropped for '67, and a 307-cid replacement with 200 bhp was available for 1968 only. For 1969, the 327 was joined by a new 350 Chevy small-block with 300 bhp. Emissions tuning cut horses to 250 for 1970. Prices for the optional engines were usually low: in 1968, $108 for the 307 and $195 for the 327. Checker sales were always moderate in the '60s, though adequate to sustain the firm's desired annual volume of 6000-7000 units. Checker's best year of the decade was 1962, when it built 8173 cars, though most were taxis.

Checker founder Morris Markin never wavered from his mission of building taxi-tough cars. It isn't widely known, but Nathan Altman once approached Checker about building his Avanti II. Markin replied that the Avanti was too ugly to bother with.

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The Decline of Checker Cars

The 1972 Checker Marathon wagon didn't see much success -- inflation and the oil embargo would kill it by 1974.

David Markin took over the helm of Checker on his father Morris' death in 1970, but he didn't much change the company or its products until the mid-'70s. That's when Edward N. Cole, having retired as GM president in 1974, joined Checker to launch a new-model development program. Sadly, Cole was killed in a plane crash before his efforts reached fruition.

Checker began a long, steady decline in 1970. The main problem was increased competition for fleet sales from the major Detroit makers who needed this important outlet when passenger-car sales slowed in the mid-'70s (during the OPEC oil embargo) and again at decade's end.

With its low fixed volume and relatively high overhead, tiny Checker just couldn't compete with the Big Three on price. As a result, its passenger-car volume was dramatically lower after 1969: fewer than 400 for 1970, a more encouraging 600-1000 units a year through 1974, less than 500 thereafter.

Relentless inflation-fueled price escalation didn't help. The standard sedan was up to almost $4000 by '73, to near $5400 by '75, over $6000 in '77, and close to $8000 by 1980. That was Chrysler or Buick money, and a lot to ask for such a dull car that wasn't put together all that well. These difficulties were reflected in Checker's dwindling number of models and sales as the '70s wore on. The decade began with the usual Marathon sedan and wagon and long-wheelbase Deluxe sedan and limo. The latter proved unprofitable and was dropped after '71. The wagon disappeared after 1974, but the sedan and long-wheelbase Deluxe sedan carried on to the end. The standard six after 1970 was the stroked 250 version of the Chevy 230, rated at 145 horsepower through '71, 100-115 thereafter. The 350 V-8 remained optional, down-rated to 145-170 bhp SAE net for 1972-79. A 145-bhp, 305-cid small-block became an additional option after 1976 and a 105 horsepower, 350-cid diesel was offered in 1980-82.

The 1980 Checker Marathon, part of the company's last product line, still shows the same basic design as the first Superba.

Through all of this, Checker clung to its extremely dated basic design, resisting all suggestions that it needed to be replaced. The addition of federal "crash" bumpers for 1974 -- big girderlike lumps of steel -- rendered quite ugly a car that had once simply looked old.

The famed Ghia coachworks in Italy devised a prototype for a handsome new-generation Checker in 1970, but it was refused. The same fate awaited "Galva II," a 1975 proposal by Autodynamics of Madison Heights, Michigan. This had extremely simple, rectilinear styling to keep tooling costs to an absolute minimum. It likely failed for lack of money, though managerial stubbornness was still a factor.

But that began to change once the dynamic Ed Cole started planning yet another new Checker soon after his arrival. Targeted for production sometime during 1983, this was a boxy, square-lined, four-door hatchback sedan with front-drive mechanicals borrowed from the GM X-car compacts, which Cole knew were in the works when he joined Checker.

A sturdy new box-section chassis of undisclosed design was planned for three models: a 109-inch-wheelbase six-passenger version, a 122-inch eight-seater, and a 128-inch nine-seater. A variety of low-cost, easily replaced plastic body panels was contemplated, as was an interesting rear suspension with solid rubber springs. Design work progressed as far as a single full-scale mockup.

But it made no difference in the end. The project lost momentum with Cole's untimely death, and by that time even Checker's taxi business had become marginal. With that, the Kalamazoo company ceased all production in mid-1982.

Intriguingly, Checkers show signs of becoming minor collector's items, especially the low-volume Town Limousines and the huge multidoor "Aerobus" wagons built for airport shuttle ser­vice. Checkers, collectible? Company founder Morris Markin would be amazed.

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