What is a Checker?

Lane Darnton

All Checker automobiles were built by the Checker Motor Corporation of Kalamazoo Michigan. The company got its start quite accidentally in 1921 when its founder, a Russian immigrant clothing manufacturer named Morris M. Markin, loaned $15,000 to an ailing maker of auto body panels for taxis. When the company defaulted on the loan, Markin found himself drawn into the taxi business to recoup the money.

And recoup it he did. At one point he owned four taxi companies, operated 7500 taxis nationwide (10% of the U.S. fleet), built 4000 taxis a year in his Kalamazoo plant, and insured them out of his own insurance company. These were “assembled cars”, using running gear made by other companies, in Checker-made frames and bodies.

Three events led to the demise of the Checker. First, the City of New York sued Checker for anti-trust and won. Checker had to separate its taxi business from its auto manufacturing and sales businesses. Second, most cities in the U.S. repealed regulations requiring taxis to be purpose-built vehicles. This forced Checker to compete with the Big Three to sell cars as taxis. It also led Checker to freeze their body style in 1954, and to create more attractively trimmed & powered models for the general public starting in 1959. Third, the 1973 gasoline crisis caused private buyers to seek smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles, and Checker’s non-taxi business – 20% of its total – largely vanished. In July 1982, saddled with EPA fuel economy requirements they couldn’t meet without a complete redesign, Checker ceased auto production entirely. Remarkably, they are still in business selling auto body panels to American automobile manufacturers, just as Morris Markin had started out in 1921!

Aside from their plain, utilitarian beauty, Checkers let a car enthusiast own a relatively modern car, one that came from the factory with a Chevy motor, a Chevy or Borg Warner transmission, a modern unequal length A-arm front suspension, disk brakes, and that any mechanic can work on, yet with styling and manners that never left 1954. And they’re built like tanks to boot!