By Rob Warren Gazette Business Editor
Cold steel becomes an automobile. At only one place in the United States does the marvel of manufacturing occurs under a single roof – Checker Motors Corp of Kalamazoo.
More than 3000 pounds o steel and many man hours go into each automobile that rolls off the Checker production line. And Checker’s 700 employees, sharing a $4 million payroll, this year will make more than 8000 taxis and passenger models.
Checker’s production operations at 2016 N. Pitcher Street begins with raw steel and ends with two trips around a short test track.
The first step is blanking the steel, or cutting it to the proper shape and size to form door panels, hoods, decks, tops or floor pans. The parts are shaped with stamping presses, some of which exert up to 1200 tons of pressure.
A Checker body is made from the same weight steel that is used in other American car, but the Checker frame is heavier.
Company president Morris Markin, 72, has insisted since he founded the company 44 years ago that sheet steel should be used to line the interiors of Checkers. Many manufacturers cut corners here by using plastic.
The body components, minus fenders and grille, then are welded together on jigs. Before the body is bolted to a double-channel X-Frame made in the Checker plant, employees “drop” a six-cylinder standard engine or optional V8 into the frame.
All of the engines, equipped with Borg-Warner transmissions, are made by Chevrolet division of General Motors Corp. to Checkers specifications.
Any rough spots in the assembled body are buffed out before the car is painted. Each car receives four coats of paint, Checker offers 75 colors including 18 shades for “yellow’ cabs.
Windows, seats and dashboards are installed before the front fenders, which are painted separately, are attached to the car. Checker shapes and chrome plates its bumpers and one-piece grilles.
The Checker gets a factory lubrication and inspected before the test run. From raw steel to finished car, the time lapse is four days.
A manufacture of cabs for nearly 45 years, Checker is its own best customer. Its subsidiary transportation companies in Chicago, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh consume some 1500 commercial models each year.
Of 135,000 taxis on the nations roads, some 35,000 are Checkers. The largest cab market of course is New York. And presently Checker is attempting to capture a larger share of this market by equipping a car with a “James Bond Switch” that triggers flashing light distress signals and shuts the driver compartment off from the passenger compartment with a sheet of bulletproof glass. The slaying of several New York cab drivers in recent years prompted Checker to develop these features.
Hack drivers for years have known the Checker cab as the “Iron Brute”, A Checker passenger model is the “brutes” refined blood brother. Though the body style remains the same year after years, mechanical changes are made continually.
Checker produced its first “civilian model” in 1959. Today family cars, with extra comfort features account for almost 40 percent of the company’s production.
In passenger cars sales, Checker’s market is aimed at men over 45, particularly men in professions. “A women more conscious of style is a Checker’s salesman’s chief adversary”, according to David Markin, 34, vice president in charge of sales, and son of the company founder.
To end this, Checker has each year has pumped more style and comfort into its roomy interiors. “We’re trying to build more style into the car without sacrificing any of the other desirable characteristics”. Markin said “actually, the passengers car is a far cry form a cab”.
A Checker Marathon four-door family car sells for $3,777 c.o.b. Kalamazoo with optional 327-cubic inch engine, automatic transmission, power steering and brakes. Air conditioning, radio, tinted glass and whitewall tires.
Checker started advertising on a small scale in 1961, and its volume has been increasing steadily. This year Checker will spend $500,000 on a national campaign.
The ads emphasize Checker simple unchanging body style, durability, roominess, and 25 miles per gallon (six cylinder) economy. Often a Checker is good for 100,000 or more miles with regular servicing.
Furthering the image, the nation’s press has paid Checker lavish compliments, “if yearly model changes, cramped interiors and dynamic obsolescence are for you – maybe a Checker isn’t”, commented Motor Trend magazine.
Time said the Checker is “constructed to take twice as much punishment as the ordinary car” and ”Checker’s passenger car have become so prized by those who prefer reliability and easy maintenance to style, that they are even beginning to appear where only Cadillac once dared.”
The Checker ranks with the Mack truck, the Jeep and the Sherman Tank as a glowing example of what the American automotive industry can do when it concentrates on building a vehicle to do a job,” a Coronet article said.
And, slowly, the image that Checker projects seems to be getting through to buyers. Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, New York World’s Fair President Robert Moses, the first Mrs. Nelson Rockefeller and many U.S. ambassadors are among Checker owners.
In the Checker retail showroom here (Kalamazoo) last week, a proud new Marathon owner gleaming with enthusiasm; “Checker built this car around the driver and the passenger. Other cars look like they were made to be sleek, and somebody stuck in the passenger compartment as a afterthought.”
Shackleson underside of frame tightened by Elwin Holtz in Chekcer Motors Plant in North Pritcher Street, Checker’s sturdy X-Frame is heavier than frames of any other automobile made in the United States