In March of 1977, Ed Cole, former GM president, and Victor Potamkin, one of the largest car dealers in the US, bought control of Checker Motor’s taxi subsidiary, Checker Taxi Co. The CMC business unit operated Checker fleets in Chicago, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh branded as Checker and Yellow.
Ed Cole was the former general manager of the Chevrolet Motor Division and president of General Motors. In the early 50’s, Cole was the lead engineer in charge of the development of a new Chevy engine built to replace the Stovebolt Six, this new engine was Chevrolet’s small block V8, a massive success that remained in production into the twenty first century.
Victor Potamkin was a popular New York car salesman who used a combination of sales discounting and aggresive advertising to transform a Manhattan Cadillac agency into the flagship of his $1 billion-a-year automotive empire.
At the time, Checker generated net income of $274K on $87 million dollars of sales. The magic formula of Potamkin’s deep financial pockets along with his sales and marketing know-how combined with Cole’s automotive engineering capabilities and GM connections were the perfect combination required to transform Checker. It was an exciting time at Checker! Expectations were high that the new partners would revitalize Checker’s future, new models would be introduced and the company would grow.
At the onset of the transformation was the desire to build a new Checker. Cole and Potamkin partnered with Jim McLernon, President of Volkswagen of America, to explore the feasibility of stretching the VW Rabbit 21.0 inches in order to create a VW based Checker. The hoopla was significant; the US automotive world was watching Checker when tragedy struck. Just weeks into the new partnership, Ed Cole was killed in a plane crash while flying his private plane to Kalamazoo. Despite the death of Cole, Checker soldiered on with the transformation plan.
Three months after Coles death in June of 1977, Checker unveiled plans for the new Taxi to the public in a Forbes magazine article. The new Checkers would indeed be based on a stretched Volkswagen Rabbit. The plan was to stretch the Rabbit 21 inches in the rear passenger area. Modifications would be made to the roof in order to improve headroom. To reinforce the overall strength of the Rabbit design, Checker anticipated adding 300 pounds of weight to the body as structural panels, for a total weight of 2300 LBS. The new taxi would use the same VW transmission used in the standard Rabbit. Added weight required new power options. Three power plants were considered for the new VW based Checker: Perkins, Mitsubishi or Oldsmobile diesel engines.
The VW based design would have been a serious departure from past Checkers. The passenger compartment would have had two rear passengers facing two forward passengers for a total capacity of four passengers, one less than the 5 person rear capacity of the current A11. This layout is highly questionable as passengers would have to compete for opposing knee room.
Ed Cole’s plan assumed sales via GM’s dealer network of 50,000 units a year. After Coles death, Checker CEO David Markin reduced the sales plan down to 30,000 units. The bodies would be produced by VW and shipped to Kalamazoo for final assembly. One test mule was created and field tested. The test encompassed the placement of 500 pounds of sandbags in the rear passenger area of a stretch Rabbit. The vehicle was driven from Kalamazoo to Chicago. In Chicago, the test mule was put into loop traffic and monitored for performance. The resulting test was disappointing. Upon its return to Kalamazoo, the mule was parked and the project was killed as it was decided the VW based concept wasn’t suitable as a taxi. For the rest of the decade, Checker would continue to produce the A11.
We’re happy to report that Jamie Orr of New Jersey has purchased the VW prototype at a local Kalamazoo used car lot. We now know more about the VW prototype. The prototype is equipped with a VW 1.5 liter, carbureted engine mated to a VW automatic transmission.
According to the new owner Jamie, “its underpowered no matter what, then putting all this extra stuff, and people, and some big dudes and luggage in the back, people, that was not going to work”.
The current condition is a challenging, the motor is seized as well as the transmission. Under the front seats is a water cooled heating system. The VW has the CMC jump seat mounting point, Jamie is interested in finding Checker jump seats to reinstall. The prototype also has a Checker installed sunroof!
According to Jamie, “I am going to get it to run and drive it.” He has also discovered that under the current gray/silver paint is the original paint………….is yellow!
We wish Jamie the best of luck on this unique VW/Checker piece of history. If you want to meet Jamie Orr, check out his great video! Just click on the picture below!