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As we are all aware, Checker Motors Corporation is famous for the taxicabs they manufactured from 1922-1982. Many are not aware that Checker was more than just a taxicab manufacturer, Checker was a specialty car manufacturer. Over the course of 60 years, Checker would produce many non-taxi vehicles. Among the vehicles produced, the Utility Sedan/Wagon of the early 30’s, the Aerobus and probably most surprising police cars.
Yes, police cars, but could a Checker ever be taken seriously as a police car? Judging by the photo in the header of the blog, the answer is clearly no. Just take a look at the Arizona police officer in full uniform, smiling, wearing a “Yellow Cab” hat! Despite the obvious humor in the photo, Checker did indeed make a serious attempt to serve the nation’s peace officers.
Based on doing a research for this article, this writer was surprised to learn that Checker produced police cars from 1961 – 1982 well over 20 years. The first photograph found was a promotional photo sourced from law and Order magazine. The Chicago squad car appears to be a 1961 Model A9, no chrome nameplates for Superba or Marathon can be seen on the Checker’s fenders. It begs the question: are Checker police cars different from Checker A11 Taxicabs?
Checker historian Ben Merkel believes that the Checker police car is essentially a Checker A11. In a recent email Ben stated “As far as I know, the only difference between a regular A11 and a cop car is that the cop car might have a perkier alternator.“ Leece-Neville pioneered the use of the alternator on municipal vehicles such as fire trucks, police cars, and buses, it highly likely the Checker police cars may have been equipped with Leece-Neville alternators.
According to Ben Merkel’s research the Chelsea, Massachusetts police department order four Checker model A11 police cars. The Chelsea squad cars were order with the Checker code 217 option. Code 217 was a heavy duty option sold primarily to NYC taxi fleets. For more information on the NYC taxis check out our recent blog.
Growing up in the area, this writer can remember the four Chelsea blue and white police cars well. There was much controversy regarding the four squads when it was reported in the Boston Globe that Chelsea was now prosecuting anybody who flagged down one of the city Checker police cars by waving a hand and yelling “taxi”! the charge: Obstruction of Justice.
The fact is, not only were Checker police car not taken seriously, police across the country hated the Checker squads. In 1980, the Valley News of New Hampshire reported that the Claremont Police were not happy with their Checker police cars. Reporter David Ludlum wrote “they say that the six cylinder engines don’t let them keep up with running vehicles, or get them across town as fast as the Dodge Aspens the department bought over the past few years.”
One Claremont officer claimed that there was no pickup in a Checker from a standing start. Zero to thirty took 30 seconds in a Checker squad car! Apparently the officers in Claremont claimed that the cops could not chase the robbers while using Checker squad cars.
The City of Saugus, Mass used Checkers for several years. According to retired lieutenant Ronald Witten, the Checkers did have some benefits. According to Witten “We didn’t like these (Checkers) mainly because of the ribbing we got from everyone. However, they were good for two things- you could stuff about 6 people in the back, good for cleaning out loud house parties and also they were great in police chases as they could be used like a tank to force the other vehicle to the side of the road.” The Saugus units did have issues while in service, some of them burned because undercoating was applied to the exhaust system.
Police rely on a concept of presence, surely if citizens are making jokes about Checker police cars or perps know they can outrun a Checker squad car, it’s not good for police business and clearly indicates that police presence is not being taken seriously.
Checker did offer an array of options to power the Checker squad car. High output Chevrolet 350 cubic inch engines were available in the late sixties, but by the 70’s that option was eliminated. Post the 1973 oil embargo, US automotive buying habits changed in favor of four and six cylinder engines in order to save on gas.
In the case of the Claremont, New Hampshire squad cars, it appears that economy was given a higher priority over performance. According to Claremont Police Chief Joseph Devine, the Checkers were ordered with six cylinder engines for economy, additionally the expectation that the heavy duty bodies would provide for longer service outweighed the price paid for the Checker’s when compared to the Dodge Aspen.
The Checker price differential when compared to the Dodge was $1400.00 higher, but the expectation was that the Checkers would last twice as long as the Dodges. Devine was quoted as follows “money is a greater concern for the city than speed”.
Checker sold about 50 police car in the New England market between 1978 and 1980. Checkers were sold to many police departments across the county. Photographic evidence of marked Checker spans both coasts from New England to the Mexican boarding in Chula Vista, CA. It’s fair to say that driving a marked Checker was not fun for cops in any part of the country. That said, Checker’s most productive police service was most likely as undercover police cars.
For many years Checkers were used in undercover police work. The city of New York has long used taxicabs as undercover vehicles and Checker undercover service was clearly exploited. Unsuspecting perps could easily be caught in the back seat of a Checker cab making a drug deal in the back of perceived taxicab.
The Checker cab on the ICTA home page was a former undercover unit used in NYC. Today the car is owned by Dieter Losskarn and has been exported to South Africa. Other Checkers Police cars survivors include the Florida Monroe County Sheriff Dept. Interesting to note that the Monroe County car was originally sold by the Winkoff Checker dealer famous for the faux luxury Checkers of the late 70’s. Clearly Winkoff, pushed the envelop in every automotive niche market.
In summary it’s pretty clear that using a Checker in any municipality was challenging to any officers ego. So just remember, next time you’re maneuvering your Checker through a field of antique cars at a classic car show, when someone yells “Hey Taxi”, just remember, in the old days that prankster could have been arrested for such a act!
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Special thanks to Jenny Reyes source of the header photo. For additional information please check out this cost saving opportunity considered back in 1982