Origin and History of Checker Automobiles

and the

Checker Motor Corporation

In early 1921 the company that would become Checker Motor Corporation, a small Joliet, Illinois auto body manufacturer named Lomberg, secured a $15,000 loan from an immigrant Russian clothing manufacturer named Morris M. Markin in order to keep its ailing operation going. When Lomberg later defaulted on the loan, Markin acquired the firm and renamed it Markin Auto Body Corporation.

Lomberg supplied body panels for an auto manufacturer named Commonwealth Motors, which at the time was building a brand of vehicles called Mogul taxis. As it happened, just before Markin acquired Lomberg, Commonwealth had contracted to sell a fleet of Mogul cabs to the Checker Taxi Company of Chicago. Commonwealth, never very healthy in the first place, filed for bankruptcy not very much later, and in October 1921 Markin merged his Markin Auto Body Corporation with Commonwealth and renamed it the Checker Cab Manufacturing Company. In less than a year, Markin had gone from being a clothing maker to an auto body maker to an automobile manufacturer.

Not long after this, Markin bought up all of Checker Taxi’s cabs and as many individual Chicago Checker Cab operating licenses as he could, and reached the point of running the taxi company himself just in time for the Hertz Yellow Cab vs. Checker Cab “taxi wars” in Chicago in the early 1920’s. Things being dangerous, and Markin being Jewish (he’d had a bomb dumped on his porch in 1922), he began looking for a safer place to live, and settled in Kalamazoo, Michigan in late 1922. By June 1923 Checker cabs were rolling off a new Kalamazoo assembly line. By the end of 1924 Markin was making 4000 cars a year and employing 700 people – and still running Checker Taxi.

By 1929 Hertz, which had become part of Parmelee Transportation Company, had had enough of the taxi wars and quietly sold its 33% stake in Parmelee to Markin. Just as quietly, Markin managed to acquire another 33% from a man named Charles McCulloch. Lacking, I suppose, enough to keep himself busy, he also formed yet another taxi company, National Transportation. He now owned four taxi companies – Checker, Yellow, Parmelee, and National – and operated 7500 cabs nationwide, 10% of the national fleet. He also started his own insurance company, General Casualty and Surety Company, and insured his own fleet. And he still built cabs in the Kalamazoo plant.

Checkers cabs, which were always “assembled cars” (they used running gear made by other companies, with Checker-built frames and bodies), evolved through the years. By 1933 Markin was building medium duty trucks and even a “Chevy Suburban”-like station wagon on a truck chassis, the first of its kind. In 1939 Checker began making steel body panel stampings for other automakers, notably Hudson. With the onset of World War II Checker even made two prototype 4-wheel-drive military “Jeep”-like utility vehicles, one of which still exists. Checker also made truck cabs, trailers, and tank retrieval vehicles for the military during the war. But the war signaled a hiatus for Checker car manufacturing, as it did for the other US automakers.

In 1945, with the war over, Checker had to retool from scratch to make automobiles because Markin, with patriotic fervor, had donated all his pre-war tools and dies to the war effort as scrap metal. But retool it did, once again making purpose-built cabs. However, Checker was threatened when a number of large cities, including finally, in July 1954, New York itself, changed their regulations to allow “normal” passenger cars to operate as taxis. Checker had to compete with the Big Three and many others, even Packard, to sell cars to taxi companies. This turn of events effectively doomed Checker Motor Corporation, though the end would not come for another 28 years. The immediate results were a cessation of substantive styling changes effective in 1956, and a decision to start selling Checkers to the general public near the end of 1959. The owner of the car where you got this flyer is one of the lucky beneficiaries of this decision.

The 1956 model A8 was the first of what we know as the “modern” Checker. The A9 taxi in 1958 saw the introduction of quad headlamps, with the A10 “Superba” being the passenger car equivalent for the general public. The Superba Special became the Marathon in 1961. The passenger versions sported more chrome, more engine and transmission options, and a less spartan interior. 1963 saw the introduction of the A11 taxis and A12 Marathon with changes to the grill and parking lamps that would remain essentially unchanged for the rest of the life of Checker. After 1963, changes were limited to bumpers, a 1.5 inch taller windshield in 1968, side reflectors in 1969, side clearance lamps in 1970, and the famously ugly “battering ram” 5-mph bumpers in 1974.

1966 saw the introduction of the familiar (to those of a certain age) Checker Aerobus wagon, which came in 6-door/9-passenger and 8-door/12-passenger versions. The 6-door A-buses were only built for four years, through 1969, and only 120 were built, an average of 30 per year. The 8-door ‘buses, “25 feet of American iron”, were built through 1974, and a total of 2158 were made, an average of 240 per year. None were built in 1975, Checker having opted to get out of that business (there were domestic vans for the airport limo trade by this time), but in 1976-77 a total of 107 “sedan body” Aerobuses (i.e. with conventional trunks) were built, the last gasp of a magnificent vehicle.

The gasoline crisis of 1973 spelled the beginning of the end for Checker. Passenger car sales, which had been 20% of production until then, dropped off the charts as the public sought smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. After 1974 the station wagon was discontinued. Checker then had to petition the EPA for waivers to its Corporate Average Fuel Economy requirements, which were granted but only after expensive testing and legal procedures. By this time Morris Markin had died (in 1970), and after Morris’s son David proved unequal to the task of leadership, Checker was fortunate to acquire retired General Motors president Edward N. Cole to take over as CEO in 1977, with David as President. Cole and a former Chevrolet engineer, Jim McLernan, then in charge of Volkswagen of America, hatched a plan to build stretched VW Rabbits that would carry the Checker emblem, seat six, and dart through urban traffic. This ambitious plan died abruptly when Cole died, when his private plane crashed in a freak late spring snowstorm on May 2, 1977. Two such “CheckeRabbit” prototypes were built.

Checker’s fortunes continued to slip fast after that, until, on July 7, 1982, Checker management sent a letter to all 800 Checker employees that taxicab production would stop in five days and that “at this time there are no plans for future automobile manufacturing.” After that a final few cars, with unusual Vehicle Identification Numbers, were built for Checker employees, the last one in January of 1983. Checker was out of the automobile manufacturing business.

But not, it turns out, defunct. Checker Motor Corporation is still in business in the same Kalamazoo, Michigan plant Morris Markin built, manufacturing body panels on contract to the Big Three, mostly for trucks and SUVs. And every other year the company hosts the bi-annual Checker Car Club of America meet. The club and its various affiliates, including the California Checker Club with members in California, Nevada, Arizona, and Hawaii, proudly carry forward the legacy of Checker passenger cars and taxis, automobiles with a purposeful, utilitarian beauty rivaled only by the London taxi.