We recently presented the history of Checker Motors Corp’s Parmelee division, in this blog we’ll expand on the cab operations history and share the story of Checker Taxi of Chicago. The company name that would have the biggest impact on the taxicab trade.
Checker Taxi started out as an affiliation of drivers founded over 100 years ago on Feb. 6, 1919. The affiliation of cab owners created a coop that allowed members to leveraged their combined buying power and efforts to build the largest taxi operation in Chicago next to John Hertz’ Yellow Cab Company.
In 1918 Commonwealth Motors, also based in Chicago introduced a purpose built taxi, the Commonwealth Mogul Taxicab. The Commonwealth Mogul was essentially a modified version of the Palmer-Partin Model 32, with a special taxicab body placed on the Model 32 frame. The body was produced by the Lomberg Auto Body Company just outside of Chicago in Joliet, Illinois. The chassis was designed with a heavy duty chrome nickel alloy steel frame, the top of which was layered with thick felt in order to reduce body squeaks and rattles. The resulting platform would be highly desirable for taxicab operators.
In 1919 the Checker Taxi company purchased Commonwealth Moguls, these units were branded as Mogul Checkers. Many purpose built cab manufactures would actually brand the taxicab, after the large taxicab operators fleets name. Hence riders would see Checkers, Luxors, Ascot etc.
The Checker Taxi transaction would create a strong alliance for between Commonwealth and Lomberg Auto Body, both companies needed each other to survive.
The Lomberg Auto Body Manufacturing Co. was founded by a Russian immigrant named Abe Lomberg. The primary business was to manufacture bodies for several local Chicago based auto manufacturers, including Commonwealth Motors Corp.
Unfortunately for Abe Lomberg, while he had orders to make bodies for Commonwealth, he did not have the financial capacity to execute the plan. In order to fulfill the order for Mogul Checker taxi cab bodies for Commonwealth, Lomberg was forced to seek funds to fulfill the order. The funds were provided, in the form of a loan, by Morris Markin.
Unfortunately for Lomberg, the expected sales of Commonwealth’s Mogul Checker taxicabs
fell far short of expectations and, by the end of 1920, Lomberg could no longer keep up with the payments. This resulted in Markin taking over Lomberg Auto Body and renaming the business the Markin Auto Body.
Markin’s largest customer was a financially floundering Commonwealth Motors. When Commonwealth again went into receivership, in order to protect his body business, Markin was able to take over the entire operation. Once Markin had control of another company, he would name it the Checker Cab Manufacturing Company. Essentially he named the company after the popular Chicago Taxicab he was producing for Checker Taxi of Chicago. Markin was able to take the new Checker Cab Manufacturing through a public stock offering which generated the funds required to grow the company and clean up the balance sheet. Markin established his Checker Cab Manufacturing Co. Feb. 2, 1922.
Perhaps because association members were disorganized and combative, Markin tried to ensure a market for the taxis he was making by buying control of Checker Taxi of Chicago Eventually, he and three partners gained control of the Checker Taxi Association from the inside out. Joining the association with 35 repossessed taxis, the partners bought out poorer members. He would not gain full control of Checker until the early 1930’s. That said he had effective control for most of the 1920’s.
As he expanded Checker Cab Manufacturing he sought control of other cab-operating companies in several cities, including New York City, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh. This assured sales of Checker in major cities across the country.
Once Markin gained control of Checker Taxi in Chicago, a significant rivalry ensued, the competition between Checker Taxi and Yellow Cab. Yellow Cab dated back to 1909 created by John Hertz and the Chicago based Shaw automobile dealership, by the twenties Yellow was producing their own purpose built taxicab called the “Yellow Cab” and was the largest operator in Chicago. Run by John Hertz, Yellow Cab was also franchising operation all over the US.
The competition in Chicago was fierce. More than a competition, the battle between to two companies lead to the Chicago Taxi Wars. The taxicab industry was tough business in the roaring twenties. Recently the Taxi Wars was described by Chicago Tribune writer Ron Grossman: “Then as now, cab wars were turf battles, struggles over who had the right to pick up fares at choice locations. But at the height of the conflict, during the Jazz Age, they also involved political clout, labor unions, corrupt cops and gangsters. Reams of purple prose were generated, both sides claiming to have the public’s best interest at heart. Officeholders disputed such assertions, saying that honor belonged to them. In 1923 Cook County State’s Attorney Robert Crowe declared “war against the taxi war.” Two years later, Chicago Mayor William Dever threw down the gauntlet, declaring: “We will see whether the taximen control and own the streets or the people.”
“It has only been comic opera warfare until tonight, but from now on it is going to be a fight to the finish,” John Hertz, president of the Yellow Cab Co., told the Tribune on June 8, 1921. “We feel we might just as well end the whole business right now.”
His no-more-Mr.-Nice-Guy announcement was occasioned by the killing of one of his drivers as the man was shooting the breeze with fellow cabbies at Roosevelt Road and Kedzie Avenue. Witnesses said a large automobile sped by, and three men fired 25 shots, the fatal one striking P.A. Skirven just above the heart. That same night, another Yellow driver was shot in the foot at Logan Square and Milwaukee Avenue, and a Checker taxi driver was arrested during a brawl at a taxi stand in front of the Hotel Sherman.
In 1923 The tribune reported: MAN SHOT TO DEATH IN CHICAGO QUARREL
“Affair Apparently Outcome of Clash Among Taxi Drivers Chicago. June 7, 1923 (UP) – Frank Sexton, declared by police to be connected with a labor union, was shot to death early today by two taxicab drivers in a pool room on West Division street. Authorities said the murder was apparently the outgrowth of a war between independent and union drivers on “Checker” taxis. About a dozen drivers were arrested for questioning.”
The following day Markin’s house was firebombed, at this point Markin packed up shop and moved to Kalamazoo.
But the war was more than just nasty street fights. There was also a significant corporate war going on between the two companies.
In 1923 Yellow Cab was selling new Yellow Cabs equipped with Checkerboard striping. Markin was building his own Checker Cab brand: not only manufacturing Checker Cabs and operating Checker Cab fleets in several cities, but he was also franchising the name Checker Cab. Meanwhile Hertz was building and selling Yellow Taxicabs with checkerboard banding, it was effectively a trademarking violation.
Litigation ensued and Checker won a court order injunction against Hertz/Yellow Cab for the production and selling Yellow Cab’s with Checkerboard banding. In March of 1924 the USPTO issue trademark 165915 for the use of Checkerboard banding on taxicabs, successfully stopped, Hertz nor any other Taxicab could produce or operator Taxicabs using the Checkerboard banding.
Meanwhile Yellow was trying to stop Checker from using the shuttered rear coach windows on the Model H. In April of 1924 the USTPO refused the Yellow Cab shuttered window trademark. Checker heralded the ruling as another example of a failed attempt of Yellow Cab trying to build a national taxicab monopoly.
By 1926, Hertz had had enough had made plans at the age of 46 he exited the taxicab business. The strains of being drawn into the taxi wars of Chicago, Having his private stables fire bombed and many of his prized race horses were killed, accusations of financial wrong doing, failed trademark claims and the constant litigation. Hertz decided to divest from the cab business.
Hertz sold a majority share in Yellow Cab Manufacturing Company together with its subsidiaries, Yellow Coach Manufacturing Company and the “Hertz Drive-Ur-Self,” system to General Motors. Hertz became a main board director at GM. The Yellow Coach company would transform into what is the GMC division today. The transaction allowed Hertz to expand his Omnibus Corporation a national transit company.
This left Markin with a great opportunity to not only control Checker, but to acquire Yellow Cab, It took about about five years but by 1930 Markin gained control. Dated September 22, 1930 the following was reported in Time Magazine article Checker Yellowed “Long and bitter has been the battle between the Checker Cab Manufacturing Corp. taxi interests and Yellow Cab Co. In back of Checker has been its founder and president, Morris Markin, Chicago Russian Jew. Behind Yellow Cab has been its founder and, until last year, president, John Daniel Hertz, Chicago Austrian Jew. Last January Mr. Hertz resigned from Yellow Cab, sold his interest to Parmelee Transportation Co. Last week the onward march of Cabman Markin continued when Checker acquired control of Parmelee. The entrance of Mr. Hertz into the cab business was indirect, gradual….”
All of Markin’s taxicab company were integrated into the Parmelee Company (including Yellow and Checker Cab) became the largest cab company in the United States. Eventually, the cab company revenues exceeded those of Checker’s automotive manufacturing division.
Throughout the 30’s and 40’s the Checker used the brand name Parmelee in New York and Chicago, however by the 50’s Checker started to consolidate Checker fleet operations as National, Checker and Yellow. Some cities operated multiple Checker owned brand names. Chicago utilized both Checker and Yellow. While in New York City Checker consolidated around the name National.
In 1964 the state of New York pursued Markin and Checker on antitrust charges, alleging that it controlled both the taxi service and manufacture of taxis, and thus favored itself in fulfilling orders. Rather than allowing Checker drivers to begin buying different brands of cars, Markin began selling licenses in New York City. Throughout the sixties Markin would continue to exit various taxi fleets across the US. In 1969 Parmelee was effectively shuttered.
That said Checker did retain, the Checker Taxi and Yellow Cab operations. In 1982 Checker would exit the cab operation business but still retain the Checker cab operations. The Checker Model A11 fleet would be wound down by 1987 based on Chicago’s limits on taxicab age. Over the next twenty years the Checker Taxi fleet would be largely Ford Crown Victoria or Chevy Caprices.
In the late 1990’s Checker Motor Corp. would sell its interest in Chicago Checker Taxi and Yellow Cab. Both operations now run as associations, similar to how Checker started close to 100 years ago. The fleet today still runs the famous green color and Checkerboard banding.
Checker cabs are no longer made but at least its nice to know the one of the companies owned and expanded by Morris Markin still exists 100 years after its Chicago introduction.