The world’s largest Checker club, the Internet Checker Taxicab Archive has a new member! Kaelan Benjamin Bentham, Checker enthusiast Michael Pincus recently sold one of his Checkers to Kaelan. Probably one of the most interesting recent transactions, Kaelan flew to New York to pickup his Checker and drive it over 4000 miles to his home on the west coast of Canada!
Driving a Checker across town can be challenging, driving a Checker across the country is truly amazing. Kaelan not only drove his Checker across the US, but he also documented the entire journey.
The Big Blue Tour blog is packed with stories of Checker cars, Checker fans, diners and food. Kaelan has kindly given us permission to publish a abbreviated version of his blog showcasing his trip and meeting with ICTA members. Thanks Kaelan!
Presenting the abbreviated Big Blue Tour by Kaelan Benjamin Bentham
I have been a car guy my whole life, and have been driving since before it was legal. I’m 24 and by my best count the Checker is my 24th car. I think it is my forever car. I used to pride myself on knowing ‘every’ make and model, except the weird German brands who use numbers for names… But I always figured ‘those old cabs’ we’re just standard Chevy deluxe sedans from the day.
Even as a kid, catching reruns of Taxi, I did not realize they were special. That changed about two years ago thanks to the Internet, and as soon as I found out there was a quirky company that pounded out the exact same car for a couple decades in Kalamazoo of all places, mainly for livery use, but built like a truck, I knew I had to have one.
I started looking and researching and planning. I found out that rust was a factory option, but I also found out the drive trains were easy GM parts, which was a fair compromise after spending weeks trying to track down parts for my Lada Signet and my stable full of Yugos, which were also rust queens. I had multiple cars slip through my hands due to my own assholery at not having storage or balking at price, and then I had the option to buy not one but two serviceable A12E (longer wheelbase) models but wanted a standard wheelbase, the traditional look. Two years I searched, and I think that my family and coworkers in the funeral game got pretty damn sick of listening to me rant about old taxis.
In May 2017′ another Checker slipped through my hands – a cherry red A12 that had been bastardized with ugly Ford towing I mirrors – but the 24 hours I waited to sleep on replying was too long and it was gone. In feeble desperation I posted a wanted ad in Bozeman, Idaho, looking for the person who had bought it, to try and make a deal. Strange how things happen. An email came in from a fellow enthusiast in New York who had cars he might part with in the right circumstance.
At first I didn’t think any of the cars were suited for me. You see, my order for Checkers was tall… I did not want the usual V8, and really didn’t want the V6 that came later, and wasn’t fond of the usual automatic th350/400. But I also thought a later model would suit my needs better, and they were rare with that drivetrain. When Michael sent photos through, I knew that I had found a suitable car.
It did not take much to sway me to an older model, though I like the big bumpers of the later cars, the lack of emissions equipment on a 69 spoke to my simple gear head mind. The only thing it didn’t have were the ubiquitous jump seats, but some research showed they can be added to virtually all Checkers.
Less than a week after getting the email from Michael Pincus, I found myself boarding a plane, having depleted my AirMiles account, to see a car… 3000 miles away. If you’re reading this, you probably know how the viewing ended.
Kealan was able to secure a deal, flew to New York, met Michael Pincus and closed a deal to buy a 1969 Checker. Kaelan named his Checker Chelsea.
Leaving Yorktown Heights was delayed a few times due to the lovely wonders of government and banking… Apparently banks reserve the right to take up to “the 12th of never” to complete wire transfers, which wasn’t told to me before I left (or I would have brought a big stack of cash), but Michael was extreme accommodating about everything, and the wire transfer took only half a day after all. I got the feeling they have to tell people the longer timeframe to cover their asses when dealing with people who don’t have a strong banking relationship.
After Michael had his dough, we went to the DMV…. and of course, how could a trip to the DMV ever go smoothly! I didn’t have enough ‘points’ of ID because the BC version of the DMV had given me a temporary paper license the day before my trip, when I passed my commercial driving permit! I think Michael and I spoke to everyone at that DMV… luckily they we’re genuinely interested in helping and after using a State Farm agency to print my “”I-90 visa”” I was good to go. I enjoyed a bag lunch on the pier in Yorktown then hit the road!
Kaelan hit the road and drove through New York City and Philadelphia.
Driving around Brooklyn and DUMBO (“Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass” – what an acronym, and terribly damn roads) to find Grimaldis. Stopping at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery at night. And getting lost on the route to Phillie about a billion times in torrential downpour.
i loved Philadelphia. I could write paragraphs about the half day I spent there, but I would sound like a rambling lunatic in short order. I got completely and hopelessly lost and ended up cruising around West Philadelphia (born n raised, on the playground was where I spent most of the day… Kidding) which is somewhat of a “hood.” But really, even in a stabby part of town, a Checker driver makes friends. I finally found what I was looking for – South street, the a cheese steak at Jim’s. Michael recommended Jim’s, and I can see why. DELICIOUS.
Pennsylvania is beautiful. The scenery is green and lush and the buildings are old and brick. Ifound myself a few miles from famous Hershey, PA and as a gent with a sweet tooth, I had to stop in…unfortunately I cannot recommend visiting the Hershey museum/experience. I can only describe it as a cash-grab.
It’s disappointing to me that a huge corporation like Hershey has monetized something as wholesome as their factory tour, but I guess so many people started showing up that they had no choice.
The free tour would maybe be fun for families, but for adults it is barely even coherent as to how the chocolate making process works. Singing cows were involved. The highlight of Hershey was that they left the gate to the old factory open so I was able to take this sweet photo! Worth the detour.
500 miles into the trip, I started smelling what I described as sulphur. I couldn’t identify the smell. I had been trying to dial in the carb as Michael had been running with the choke half on, because some weird previous owner wired in a manual choke that was the opposite of proper… Slide OUT to turn OFF? So he was driving with the choke on thinking it was off. But the smell got worse.
I stopped at McDicks to leech wifi and google the issue. Then I forgot to do that while eating. But Chelsea wasn’t having it – I had my first non-start. It didn’t take me long to realize that the battery was smoking, and bulging at the sides. Yikes.
I was lucky enough go to break down in Mifflintown, which is the middle of nowhere. I do mean lucky. Brenners GM in mifflintown helped me out a lot with expertise, random sized bolts, and a lot to sleep in. Even the evening was fine, as I stumbled over to a truck stop called Sheetz and inquired with some ladies outside about a payphone to call my Mama. No payphone, but some Midwest hospitality was offered up in the form of Danielle’s iPhone. Well, we ended up chatting the night away on the deck of the truck stop, until 1 am! Great conversation, new friends, and truthfully a great distraction from the breakdown I had to sort out the next day. Thanks again Lauren (not Luren and Danielle (CHEERWINE!!!!) for keeping me distracted and company in your town!!!!
The next day, with the help of a great guy from been era named Cubby, and wiring diagrams provided by Joe Fay, I was on the road. The previous owner had wired in an externally regulated voltage regulator as if it were internally regulated. They removed the external regulator and hacked up the harness. They had the alternator bent up to run off the wrong set of pulleys – running off the air pump pulley, and rubbing against the alternator fan wings, yikes-a-rooney.
That is now mostly sorted out. Got a GM one wire unit in. These are often put in race or show cars for a cleaner look. And tractors for simplicity. Only downfall is won’t charge until you blip the throttle, but that is nothing compared to blowing a battery up like a balloon by charging it with 17 plus volts at idle.
Post Pennsylvania, it was onto to Ohio!
My goal for today was to visit a Checker collector Ben Merkel in Middlefield, Ohio. I made it into town around noon and had some time to kill.
I met up with Ben and it was a real treat to see his collection. He has several dozen checkers, ranging from mint to totally disassembled, as well as some super cool prototype cars and some Chrysler airport limousines. I was able to pick up some chrome window gutters for Chelsea and some awesome original literature to lead through.
I needed to start making some better time, as I’ve done 1000 miles now but only gotten 400 miles closer to my destination. I am planning to head to route 12 in Sturgis MI and use that to get across the remaining states, excepting a few detours to meet other Checker fanatics
Yesterday I had surprise treat heading out of Huron, Ohio. I spent the morning route planning, and debating if I could take the time and gas to toot around Michigan to see Checkers, and I decided to throw caution to the wind and make the detour.
I was only an hour out of town when what did I see, but an unplanned Checker on the roadside! I pulled a u turn to investigate. As I was peering into the windows, the owner came out, thinking I was another wannabe-buyer he would have to chase off, until he saw my Chelsea! I had stumbled onto another collector. David Kniffen.
David owns three Checkers and used to run the red a11 as a cab for his taxi company, Checker / Red taxi on the tourist oriented island of Put-in-Bay in Lake Erie. The red car was a former propane Chicago cab, just like the one Michael Pincus owns!
David had two cars in the barn, a beautiful baby blue Marathon and a work in progress A11 that he got married in. He and his wife showed me their collection and their beautiful property, Giving Tree Orchards, where they do weddings and other events. Everyone I meet shares more valuable info about Checkers!
Onwards I went, south to Kalamazoo, Michigan – Chelsea’s birthplace and home town! I was headed to Kalamazoo. I was able to snag a brick from Morris Markin’s corner office, and a tile from the grand entranceway… My own little pieces of the Berlin Wall.
After Kalamazoo, Kaelan’s visit to Kalamazoo, he continued on through Michigan
Yesterday was a day for making Checker friends. I was on a complete detour from my schedule, and I had worried and fussed over whether I should take the time and gas… But it was DEFINITELY WORTH IT.
In the morning I met Bill Beurkins in Grand Rapids, a lovely city that wasn’t too big. He has a gorgeous pair of cars – a gray A12E with a modern vortex engine and transmission, done to the nines, and a very rare sedan back Aerobus done up just as well. I learnt a great deal about Aerobus history from him, and got valuable info about part sources for a few things i will be needing. Now you non-Checkerheads may be wondering, what the dickens is an aerobus? This is an aerobus – and I dare say it is one of, if not the, nicest one around.
Meeting Bill and seeing his cars was a real treat. He hooked me up with properly sized rear shock bushings, and the first of many die cast Checkers. His A12E is simply gorgeous, but I failed to get iPad photos of that one so you’ll all have to wait… But man, it channels the feeling of my Mercury Marauder with all the style and grace of a Checker e model.
I fought the traffic in the interstates around Chicago, getting waves and thumbs up all the way…. Even traffic in this car is enjoyable.
I made it to the bedroom community of Naperville, where it was my privilege to meet Joe Fay, a remarkable guy and kindred soul who has devoted a large chunk of his life to our hobby and keeping our cars on the road. Anyone driving a Checker owes him a great deal of gratitude for the resources he keeps in circulation and community he builds.
The vehicle above with half of us is a mega-rare ’49 Checker A3 that is being restored. Chelsea’s great grandma! My Checker is rare – there are under 1000 still crushing around by anyone’s estimate, and more likely about half that roadworthy – but the A3 is something else… More like 4 of them anywhere in any shape!!
They were not produced as long, and in a time when old cars were just old cars and few thought to save them – especially taxis. The car Joe is restoring was saved due to a unique provenance and perfect storm of a state with easy weather, a previous owner who ran it as a family car, and a legal battle that tied the car up but preserved it for over 20 years. It is a real time capsule. The seat is not original but is era correct… Look at those seat adjustments! Three way baby!
Even this early on Checker was raiding parts from other manufacturers. I think it was Buick for the speedometer, and doesn’t that look like a Chevy banjo wheel perhaps?
Joe and I are on the same wavelength interest wise and we spoke on the porch, sipping Checker root beers, about his fantastic radio station with a unique NYC provenance, Checkers, and my business plan. We would have spoken well into the night if i hadn’t had one more Checker guy to meet nearby, so around 6 PM, I packed up and headed to Palentine after being gifted more Checker models for my now growing collection!
In Palentine I met with Matt Thomas and his family, and his beautiful 65 Marathon, a close relative to Chelsea with the rarer three on tree transmission. I got some great concept ideas from his car…. So do not be surprised to see some similar stuff done to Chelsea’s dash and lights post cab information.
I find it funny how similar we Checkerheads can be as far as brand preferences… Matt also has a Datsun roadster, with Datsuns being my first love and first real car, and both myself, Ben Merkel, and Joe Fay own panther platform fords, too.
Matt was gracious enough to look into some non-life threatening brake stuff I will be poking into once back home (just firm pedals, don’t worry mama) and he also provided me with fresh instrument decals for Chelsea’s aging dash fascia. I can’t get over the beautiful early red interior in matts car. His family fed me and he got me on the road again with slightly more functional brake lights…. Brake lights, who needs em!
From Chicago, I headed into Wisconsin, home of dairy cows and that 70s show, and once again the timing was perfect to meet another Checker (and car, and bus) collector, Emerson and his wife Rachel.
Emerson has four Checker cabs… And about five schooled…. And a GM transit bus…. A boat tail Rivera… A grand national…. He has a collection to be envious of, and space to keep them all in the beautiful countryside of Wisconsin. After spending a few hours examining his collection, and envying that his cabs are actually cabs (Chelsea will look the part but will always lack the provenance) they treated me to a tour of their area and a delicious dinner featuring real Wisconsin cheese curds…. Yo goodness were those good; mozzarella sticks on steroids!!
Riding around with Emerson and Rachel in the black and yellow cab, a rare floor mount manual example, folks were smiling ear to ear and even asking for rides. Every time things like this happen, I have more faith in my business plan.
I had such a great time staying with them at their country home…. A real treat for a city guy like me, and my first sleep in a real bed since leaving New York was a refreshing halfway marker on my journey. Emerson stocked me up with replacement gauges that had been fried by my earlier alternator issue, and best of all, a true vintage meter for Chelsea, which I can’t get over and unwrap every few hours just to look at.
Emerson and Rachel were my last checker heads to visit until Washington, so I am now on back roads- Route 12 to be exact. This explains my lack of updates… I haven’t seen a McDonalds or bricks in 600 or 700 miles! But I am still alive and trucking. I am driving through North Dakota
And the other North Western states headed to Washington to meet William Crawford
I planned my route towards Seattle. I planned in the manner to which I have become accustomed: half assedly and with room for wandering. I more or less follow a routine; type in my next destination on Google maps, filter out interstates and tolls, and then modify the route for any coastal driving or neat sounding towns. I didn’t think too much of it when the best non-interstate route zig zaged across the state. I soon found out why.
I ended up crossing the Cascade Mountains. It was gorgeous. There was ten feet of snow in places, nearly glaciers. The road was fine, but yeah… It was high. It was cold. And I wasn’t expecting it. I only stopped for one photo shoot because the road was narrow and beheld my imminent demise to one side, but I do have some great dash cam videos to upload soon. I made it across the Rockies in a 69 Checker! Is that a bumper sticker yet?
After exiting the parks in Enumclaw, I started to see familiar territory. I have traveled Washington and Oregon by car before, but still got lost a few times on the way to Bill’s place. I witnessed a beautiful sunset over Lake Washington and had some dinner at famous Ivar’s before heading over to meet Bill.
I had a fantastic time Check(er)ing out the local car scene with Bill, and the following photos are all his doing, and much higher quality than I have been able to share so far! We started the day off by going to check out an A11 that is available for sale (recently sold to Dan Smith, see previous ICTA blog).
This is a true and true cab that was in the road late enough to have a digital meter. Though parts of this car are super solid, we discovered on further inspection that the iron oxide has crept in to the front half of the car in a big way… floors, firewall, etc. hood more or less caved in as the springs were stronger than the metal. Something may still shake down with this car in the way of parts….
We motored on to check out one of Uncle Ike’s Aerobuses! A dispensary in town uses these as promotional tools… we all know that is usually just what a car guy tells himself to justify the purchase… But with Checkers they do actually draw an eye.
He’s got two more Aerobuses including a sedan back. This is a wagon back Aerobus, more common than the sedan back I saw a week back from Bill Beurkin’s garage in Michigan, but still damn cool and in purple too! Just try to hot box this bad boy!
The madness continued with a Mystery Checker… A street find Bill has had his eye on with a mysterious owner. I truly love this car… The ratty patina and just-do-it attitude channeled through the add-on third brake light and cut sunroof channel my inner Rustoration dreams. If Chelsea wasn’t going to be a working girl, I would have ended up in a hoopty like this baby…. Don’t look now but I do know where another checker is rotting into a field in Hope, and one day I hope to pick it up for bones and rat it out.
Finally we headed to a car show at a fantastic drive in where Bill treated me to the best burger I’ve had on my trip so far, and a frosty root beer sweet enough ta make yer teeth ache! Plenty of cool cars around, but none had come from 4000 miles away like my Chelsea!
The drive from Seattle to the border flew by. I took the scenic route, traveling by ferry and then up through Desolation sound. It’s a nice, country style drive I’ve done before with some nice twisty roads.
And that concludes the from-the-road portion of our big trip westward. A boy and his Checker made it….
4,782 miles. That’s 7696 kilometres, metric friends.
Over 40 Checkers, including Ben’s checker farm.
25 nights away from home. 20 nights on the road. 19 nights snug as a bug in the back of a cab.
13 states. New York, New Jersey, Conneticut, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, North and South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington.
8 Checkerheads, and their lovely families.
7 proper, prefab American diners… and a haunted diner themed mini golf course.
2 lovely hosts from Couchsurfing.
2 breakdowns… Aye, 1.5, I can’t fault her for want of a wheel bearing.
1 soda fountain.
1 dream car.
One big adventure!
To read the full blog, please check out Kaelin’s blog
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