For most people, the Checker will always be a lowly taxicab. A bottom feeder within professional car service, people today are likely to think of taxicabs in terms of modern day service: dirty, junky and cheap yellow people movers.
The term taxicab is derived of two words, tax for a fare and the French word cabriolet. The term cabriolet is defined as a light 2-wheeled one-horse carriage with a folding leather hood, a large rigid shield in front of the seat and upward-curving shafts.
The 1910 Rockwell Taxicab is a perfect example of an early motorized taxicab, indeed it appeared to be one-horse carriage without the horse. The Rockwell passenger area matches the concept of a carriage with a folding leather hood and a rigid shield placed in front of the cab. The carriage driver now controlled steering, acceleration and braking as opposed to a horse. The driver was out in front of passengers exposed to weather.
Yellow Cab of Chicago would lead the industry in the further development of the Taxicab. In 1917 owner/operator John Hertz would produce his own Taxicabs in Chicago. The Yellow Cab now sported enclosed cabins for the paying passengers but the drivers were still exposed to weather. The drivers wore uniforms to protect them from the weather and to create a professional experience and an air of luxury.
As the auto industry expanded various niche markets were created. The luxury car market was always big in the early days of the auto industry, producers of Cadillac, Lincoln, Packard would serve the market well. Augmenting the big luxury car manufacturers were special body companies such as Murray, Moller, LeBaron and Brewster. These body companies would further the automotive sense of luxury and continue to develop carriage like bodies fitted with the finest trim and materials.
There were other smaller niche luxury producers, just one example is the McFarlan of Connersville, Indiana. McFarlan was founded as a carriage company in 1856. Making the successful transition from carriage to automobile production, McFarlan would produce roughly 200 luxury cars a year. McFarlan would produce luxury cabriolets in the tradition of the carriages produced since 1856.
A great example of McFarlan luxury cars and the continuation of the cabriolet concept is the McFarlan Model 154 Knickerbocker Cabriolet. Produced for silent film star Fatty Arbuckle the Model 154 Knickerbocker Cabriolet is consistent with concepts of the automotive cabriolet. At about this time the automotive cabriolet configuration started to take on a new name, the town car.
By the late 1920’s Checker would take over Yellow Cab and further innovate in the development of the taxicab. As Yellow had done, Checker would model taxicabs after popular luxury cars. Checker’s first in-house developed taxicab would be the 1928 Model K. The Model K would continue to mimic luxury car styling, a true town car or cabriolet, the closed cab would sport leather seats and leather covered roof with landau bars. The driver was now seated under a folding roof.
In 1931 Checker would introduce the Model M, like the Model K, it too was a true town car. At the same time Checker would start to expand into other markets, including specialty car manufacturing.
Perhaps the best example of this expansion is the Checker would also serve consumers with special needs, case in point: utility magnate Samuel Insull ordered a bullet-proof seven-passenger limousine with a landau top on a 1931 Checker Model M chassis. British-born Insull had been an assistant to Thomas Edison, he had relocated to Chicago in the twenties and built an electric utility empire that was eventually valued at $3 Billion. After the market crash, Insull’s once valuable utility network became worthless resulting in death threats, hence the Checker was order to protect his family.
In 1939 Checker would retain noted luxury car designer Raymond Dietrich as a design consultant. Raymond Dietrich studied at the Andrew F. Johnson Technical School in Manhattan to learn body design and advanced drafting, graduating in 1917. Upon graduation he signed up for a job at Chevrolet as assistant body engineer. One year later in 1918 Dietrich joined Brewster Coachbuilders as a designer. In 1920 Dietrich and Thomas L. Hibbard left Brewster to open their own firm, Le Baron Carrossiers, in Manhattan.At Le Baron, Dietrich would establish himself as on of the United States premier luxury car designers.
In 1947 while at Checker, Dietrich would design Checkers first trues expansion of a market outside of the taxicab market. By the late forties, the taxicab was no longer associated with high end luxury. One can only imagine the condition of million mile taxicabs driven during the World War II era, Checker stop producing cars in 1940 and transitioned to military production. By 1947 most taxicabs in use were pre-war units that had served far longer than normally expected.
Checker would continue to produce taxicabs, but they would also venture into the “pleasure car” market with the introduction of the Checker Model A3. The brochure would describes the Model A3 as follows:
The luxurious beauty and smart performance of the Checker Limousine makes it stand out in any hotel, resort, airline or undertaking service.
The Dietrich designed Checker took many styling cues for both Chrysler and Cadillac. The A3’s pontoon fenders that flowed from the front end to the doors were clearly inspired by Cadillac. The bumpers for the 1950 Model A5 appeared to be lifted directly from Cadillac. It’s pretty clear that the new post ware Checker was designed for new high end cliental.
Unfortunately, the attempt to enter the pleasure car market was not successful. Few model A3 were sold. Today there is only one known survivor and it was actually produced for taxicab service. The front bench seats of A3s increased Checker seating capacity beyond the capacity of the Model A2 Taxicab. It’s highly likely that the majority of Model A3s were put into cab service as opposed to actual pleasure car service.
Despite this failure, Checker would still use Cadillac (the standard for the world) as a benchmark. From deep in the club archives we have found blueprints that compare the Checker to the Cadillac. The blueprint is not dated but the prints depicted the 1950 Checker Model A4 cabin compared to the 1951 Cadillac.
Based on the comparison, it appears the driver comfort would be better in the Cadillac. The Checker driving position is very close to the windshield and dash board. The Cadillac appeared to provide a far more open experience when compared to the Checker. That said, the steering wheel seemed better positioned allowing for more upright placement of the wheel. Based on the comparison, one could assume that the blueprint comparison was commissioned by Checker in the design of the 1956 Checker A8 which would have been planned and designed in the early 50’s.
Checker would soldier on in the 1950’s looking for other markets to prosper in, but they would never break into the luxury car market with introduction of the Model A5 pleasure car in 1950 or the Model A7 in 1953.
Checker would not introduce a pleasure car with the new generation Checker launched in 1956. That said, the Model A8 did sport many appearance similarities with luxury Packards of the day, but no luxury features or interior details were offered. Power seating was offered, but that was marketed as a taxicab driver comfort feature as opposed to luxury. A pleasure car brochure was published, but the content focused on Checker economy as opposed to luxury.
Checker would again attach the luxury car market, but this time with the help of the US Government. The Department of State essentially developed a Checker limousine. It was done by transforming a new Checker Marathons sedan with the addition of such “extras” as gray broadcloth upholstery, a glass partition between driver and passenger areas, and an air conditioning unit .The result was a very presentable and rugged limousine that proved especially useful in countries where rough roads were prevalent, where maintenance facilities are scarce and high octane gasoline hard to come by.
The idea came from Russian Ambassador Llewellyn E. Thompson, who reported to the State Department that the embassy in Moscow has had considerable difficulty with the maintenance of passenger cars, one expensive make (Cadillac) in particular assigned to him. “These cars,” he said, “are not suitable for the cobblestones and rough roads encountered in the Soviet Union. While they can be used in Moscow and its environs they are not suitable for any long distance travel, and there is always the problem of obtaining a high octane gasoline which they require.” The Ambassador reported that he had learned that Mrs. Nelson Rockefeller, wife of the New York Governor, wanting such a car in which she could sit upright, had purchased one of the new Checkers. She had it painted black and re-upholstered.
Checker was back in the luxury car business. By the fall of 1961 Checker was actively marketing that the Checker was a viable luxury car. In October of 1961 Purchasing Week magazine published by McGraw Hill ran a comparison between luxury cars Imperial, Lincoln, Cadillac and Checker! Yes, Checker! The article would be leveraged by CMC and integrated into their luxury car campaign. The campaign “Now Look At All Four!” literally copied the Purchasing Week magazine content!
By 1962 Checker would introduce a new Town Custom Limousine. The A12E, the “E” stands for extended wheelbase, Introduced for 1962, this limo version of the Marathon was built for the high end professional car market. Differences between the A11 Taxi, Marathon and Superba were the extended wheelbase at 129 inches and limo attributes such as driver divider, in seat radio, foot and arm rests. Some models were equipped with vinyl roofs and opera windows.
In 1964 Raymond Dietrich would be retained by Checker to develop a custom build Checker Limo for non other than Bishop Scheen. Ultimately the Town Sedan was a failure, Checker could not convince the buying public that it was a true luxury car. The Town Custom name was removed in 1964, but the car continued in production known just as a long wheel base Checker Marathon A12E without the luxury appointments till 1982.
The last attempt at linking Checker to luxury was done outside of CMC control. Fort Lauderdale Checker dealer Marvin Winkoff was very successful selling gussied up Checker A11 taxicabs to the Palm Springs jet setters.
Winkoff would procure standard Checker A11 Taxicabs and modified the cars with two tone paint jobs, glue-on chrome trim, vinyl roofs. For extra luxury. the cars were fitted with opera windows and moon roofs. By today’s standards, these bolts on items appear cheap and gaudy but in the late seventies, they did boost Checker sales. For a short time, it was quite a fad, many Winkoff Checkers are still cruising the Florida scene.
In the end, it’s clear, Checker will always be perceived as taxicabs despite their luxury car heritage. For most Checker owners we’re sure that’s ok, anyone who owns a Checker today are very familiar with how popular a Checker can be at a vintage car show