Would you believe that Checker was the first US auto manufacturer to introduced the sale of diesel powered automobiles on an annualized basis in the US? Believe it and here’s the whole story.
Immediately after World War II, and throughout the 1950s and 1960s, diesel-powered cars began to gain limited popularity, particularly for commercial applications, such as ambulances, taxis, and station wagons used for delivery work. Most were conventional in design. Pioneered in Europe, Mercedes-Benz offered diesel-powered taxis, beginning in 1949 with their 170D powered by the OM-636 engine.
As in Europe, stateside in the US, the diesel engine did start to build a following. British concern Perkins aggressively sold diesel conversion kits to many US taxi operators.
F. Perkins Limited, was founded on June 7th 1932 to design and manufacture high-speed diesel engines by Frank Perkins and Charles Wallace Chapman.
Before Chapman and Perkins, the diesel engine was a heavy and slow revving workhorse, lacking performance. Chapman’s concept was the high-speed diesel – an engine that could challenge gasoline as the primary motive power. The world’s first high-speed diesel engine was Perkins’ four-cylinder Vixen, which made its debut in 1932.
In October 1935 Perkins became the first company to hold six world diesel speed records. Sales were strong and by the time of WWII the company made two series of engines, P4 and P6. Soon after the war, the company went public and established a number of licensees for local manufacturing and sales.
In the US in April 1938 General Motors formed the GM Diesel Division, the origin of today’s Detroit Diesel Corporation. The first model was the series 71 two-cycle engine. During World War II GM’s diesels were used in many applications: tanks, landing craft and road building equipment. By 1943, GM Diesel produced 57,892 engines. In 1955, GM began selling diesel engines to customers other than GM.
The first known Checker to utilize a diesel engine was fitted with a 97 horsepower diesel engine produced by Detroit Diesel division of General Motors. The test unit for GM was put into real live taxi cab service operated by Detroit Checker Cab in the Spring of 1960. Perhaps GM was interested in expanding its diesel business like Perkins in the US taxicab market, CMC was not involved with this project, Detroit Checker Cab was a franchise taxi operator.
Beyond the GM experiment of mating a GM Detroit Diesel to a Checker, the little taxicab producer itself was experimenting with other power plant options as a potential replacement for the Continental engines found in standard Checkers for over 40 years. In 1958 Checker experimented with AMC engines and in 1961 Checker started to equip Chrysler 318 V8s in the Aerobuses. In 1964 Checker would abandon the Continental and opt for a full line of Chevy six and V8 engines for the Checker line. The big news in power plants options for Checker would happen in 1967.
In 1967 Checker would produce 90 Checker Model A11 diesel conversions for export. The customer was N. Feldman & Son, Checker’s agent in Israel, over the next 15 years Checker would have many success and failures with the Haifa, Israel based company selling diesel taxicabs.
The Israel cabs featured the Perkins Model 4-236 engine which featured a high-strength, cast-iron, cylinder block, which was cast with heavy-duty ribbing and a deep skirt that extended below the crankshaft centerline for additional strength. This block utilized cast-iron, dry-type cylinder liners that were pressed into the block. The inline mill featured direct injection of the fuel into the toroidal chamber in the piston crown to ensure faster starting and maximum fuel economy very important for Taxicab service
The mill used a high-strength, cast-iron, case-hardened, precision-ground camshaft. The timing gear was of the helical-gear type. The unit drove the camshaft and the fuel-injection pump. The intake manifold was cast aluminum, with the exhaust manifold made of cast iron. The 4-236 utilized a rotary distributor injection pump. The pump provided what the company called “precision fuel delivery to each cylinder, with smooth performance covering idle to the full power range.” Automatic advance and retard mechanicals ensured faster starting, acceleration, and, most importantly, quiet operation in this passenger-type application.
For 1968 Checker would introduce the Perkins diesel to the US consumer car market. The Checker flyer would herald that the Checker Diesel was the first and only American built diesel powered car. Technically this was not correct as Studebaker did sell some Larks equipped with Perkins diesels in 1963.
The diesel brochure highlighted many aspects of the Checker diesel: powered by the Perkins 4.236 diesel engine, was designed and engineered to be among the most economical American-built cars on the road.
The Checker Model D had a maximum brake horsepower of 88 @ 2800 rpm. Total displacement of 235.9 cubic inches and weighed 700 LBS with all accessories.
In 1968 and 1969, Checker produced 175 and 149 diesels respectively. That said, Checker would end consumer car sales of the diesel in the US after 1969, but the end had yet to come for diesel equipped Checkers.
Despite exiting the US market, Checker would still produce the Checker diesels, but solely for export out of the US. Between 1970 and 1972, Checker exported 200 diesels to N. Feldman & Son for taxi service in Israel.
In 1975 Checker would take another stab at producing a Perkins equipped Checker. At least one prototype was produced and it is currently in the hands of Checker collector Todd Harroun in Kalamazoo. According to Harroun the prototype is equipped with a Perkins 6.247 Perkins mated a 400 turbo transmission. The fire wall and floor pan was modified to place the large engine in the engine bay. The prototype was painted Chicago livery Green and Cream, making it highly likely that the prototype was tested in the Chicago loop under the supervision of CMC’s Chicago taxi unit. The use of the Perkins never developed beyond the prototype phase, but again, Checker would give the diesel one more try.
In the late 70’s as a result of the energy crisis, General Motors would develop new power plants that utilized diesel fuel. Between 1978 and 1985, GM produced three versions of a diesel engine: a 5.7 litre V8 1978-85, a 4.3 litre V8 in 1979, and a 4.3 litre V6 1982-1985.
In May of 1979, Checker Engineering Memo announced that for the 1980 model years Checker would again offer a diesel powered Checker. The memo also indicated that four prototypes were in production to fulfill production order number 681 thru 684. In calendar year 1979 Checker produced 139 taxis as 1980 models. In calendar year 1980 Checker reduced diesel production to only 77 units.
GM diesel production peaked in 1981 at approximately 310,000 units, which represented 60% of the total U.S. passenger vehicle diesel market. However, this success was short-lived due to the decline in gas prices and difficulties resulting from large volumes of diesel fuel containing water or foreign particles being sold in the US fuel marketplace.
The Oldsmobile diesel subsequently gained a reputation for unreliability and anemic performance that damaged the North American passenger diesel market for the next 30 years. It would also have a major impact on Checker.
In July of 1981 Feldman, the dealer and distributor for Checker in Israel, was seeking damages amounting to $7 million from Checker and $6 million from General Motors.
Feldman claimed that Checker and GM both represented the 350 cubic inch, 5.7 liter diesels made by GM to be in good condition and free of defects. At the time this representation was made, Feldman claimed, both companies were aware that the engines were identical to those in the Oldsmobile taxis previously sold in Israel which were acknowledged by GM to be defective.
Feldman said he bought 17 such taxis in 1979 and 1980 for $280,000 and resold them in Israel mostly to disabled Israel war veterans. As of May of 1981, Feldman claimed, the cabs have cost him $75,000 in repairs, and Checker has reimbursed him for only $10,000.
Angry cab drivers, Feldman claimed, are seeking support for their cause from the Israeli government. Needless to say, the end of the diesel as well as the Checker was near.
On December 8th 1981 CMC Engineering Memo 433 announced the discontinuation of the GM Diesel V8. We don’t have access to 1981 production records so its unclear as to how many were produced.
Among our club members overall diesel survival is low. Recently several 60’s era Checkers have appeared on Craig’s list or Ebay. Regarding GM based diesels any were converted to gasoline power. That said club member Mark Jamieson is the luck owner of the prototype Checker produced on order 682.
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