Ambassador Thompson with President Kennedy

Its always interesting to find out the back stories of Checker owners.  Checker entered the consumers sales market in 1960.  For the next 22 years Checker would be sold to a wide array of eclectic buyers.  One such buyer was Mary Rockefeller wife of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller.  Believe it or not, her purchase of a Checker helped put men on the moon!

Back in March of 1961 The US State Department started to investigate the use of smaller limos for its various ambassadors located in far-away places. The Department of State was interested in transforming medium weight sedans by the addition of such “extras” as gray broadcloth upholstery, a glass partition between driver and passenger areas, and an air conditioning unit.  The goal was to present a more austere appearence in some of the more challenging volatile countries.

The goal of this transformation was to create a very presentable and rigged limousine that would prove especially useful in countries where rough roads are prevalent, where maintenance facilities are scarce and high octane gasoline is hard to come by.

US Ambassador to Russia Llewellyn E. Thompson suggested to State Department leadership that the embassy in Moscow had had considerable difficulty with the maintenance of passenger cars, one expensive make in particular assigned to him (a Cadillac).   “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 said he had learned that Mrs. Nelson Rockefeller, wife of the New York Governor, wanting such a car, a Checker Superba in which she could sit upright. She had her Checker painted black and re-upholstered in broadcloth.

According to Thompson, he understood that the Checker was “highly presentable and that its rigid construction made it practical for use on rough roads. “ He suggested that the Department “may wish to look into the possibility of a similar purchase for this and other missions having comparable conditions.”   Ironically, It so happened that the US  State Department division of Supply Management had already investigated the vehicle manufactured by the Checker Motors Corporation in the course of a long search for an acceptable automobile for assignment to chiefs of missions at posts restricted to cars that cost no more than $3800.

In short order Checkers were pressed into US Government service.  At the same time that Checkers were being placed into State Department service, another former State Department diplomat, with a different mission, had a need for a frugal limousine.  Enter James E. Webb.

In 1961 James E. Webb, was the Administrator of NASA who served under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and who is given much of the credit NASA’s rapid growth and success. During the time he ran NASA from 1961 to 1968 he was responsible for putting men on the moon.    Prior to serviing at NASA,  Webb was Under Secratary of State 1949-1952 and Director of the US Budget Bureau 1946-1949.

In his 1995 book, Powering Apollo: James E. Webb of NASA, historian Henry Lambright wrote that Webb was working with Congress for NASA funding. In asking for the massive sums needed for the Apollo mission, Webb knew that he “could help make his case that every penny was needed if he did not appear to be living luxuriously as administrator.”  Clearly Webb understood the importance of diplomacy, appearences and tight budgets, he too was looking for a cheap DC ride.  The Checker was the right car for Webb.

Although Webb was entitled to a government limousine, the canny native of North Carolina instead used a black Checker, Lambright explained. “It’s the little things that can get you into trouble in Washington,” said Webb, who had previously served as President Harry S. Truman’s budget director.

Lambright explained that the Checker helped Webb appear “the frugal country boy” when seeking funds from Congress.

This writer has always been of the position that each Checker has its own story.  Checkers may all look alike, but the eclectic owners all have a major role in these unique stories, the Webb Checker is not different, yet technically owned by the citizens of the US.  Who would have thought the lowly Checker had an impact on Foreign diplomacy and putting a man on the moon!

Source: State Department Magazine, November 1961 & How Checker Cab Help get Apollo to the Moon by Rich Gainer

Header Photo James Webb arrives at the White House in a Checker

The austere Checker