How Checker Cars Work

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 serĀ­vice. Checkers, collectible? Company founder Morris Markin would be amazed.

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