Whenever I tell someone my favorite car is a Checker, I typically get a blank stare and the response, “the Taxi?” yes. I am sure we all first think of Checker as a maker of taxicabs, but unfortunately that singular focus tends to erase a rich automotive history. A history of achievement as wells possibilities.
One great example of lost Checker history is Checker’s involvement in van production. Many are not aware of Checker van and trailer production made up a significant portion of Checker’s revenue.
Checker first start making vans via a third party agreement in the 30’s. Checker Cab Manufacturing Company produced the panel van bodies for Hudson. Initially the bodies were produced by York-Hoover who built the panel deliveries from 1935 through 1937. Checker cab took over production form York-Hoover and the bodies during the 1938 thru 1940 period prior to the big war.
As the World War II forced American industry to support the war effort. Checker picked up a contract to produce K-35 van trailers for the US Signal Corps. Additionally Checker sealed a contract for production of Jeep trailers.
After the war Checker sealed a contract to produce van bodies for the Railway Express Agency. Much like UPS vans today, REA vans delivered parcels across the 48 continental states proving door to door parcel delivery in vans produced by Checker.
The van bodies produced by Checker would be mated to various Ford, Studebaker and International one ton cab chassis combinations. Van production for REA most likely help Checker stay in business while a new post war Checker had yet to be designed.
With a significant amount of experience in building vans bodies, one must wonder did Checker ever consider making a van? The answer is yes, not one van but two!
As the war ended, Checker was facing the challenge of designing and producing a new post war car. During this period Checker head design engineer Herbert J Snow and consultant Ray Dietrich led the charge for a post war Checker design. Snow was formerly the chief of engineering at Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg. While at A-C-D, Snow was the engineering leader who designed the front wheel drive system used on the classic Cord 810 and pioneered the use of the X-braced frame. Morris Markin hired Ray Dietrich as a consultant in May 1938, for the hefty sum of one hundred dollars a day. Like Snow, Dietrich was an experienced designer, having worked for Briggs, Le Baron and eventually Chrysler. Dietrich’s rise at Chrysler was largely based to his redesign of the Chrysler Airflow, with his resulting Airstreams saving Chrysler from the sales failure of the Airflow.
In the summer of 1945, Snow and Dietrich would take on a new project at Checker, the development of Checker Model D. Plans for the Model D called for it to be a front wheel drive vehicle with a transverse engine mounted forward of the cab. Additionally plans called for a significant number of variations to be produced, including sedans, limos, station wagons, coupes, convertibles and light trucks.
Two vans were planned, a package delivery van and a panel van. Each van would use the same front wheel drive transverse engine set up proposed for the Model D sedan. The package delivery would sit on a 118 inch wheelbase and the panel van would sit on a 119 inch wheelbase. Snow estimated that design and construction of the panel van would use 40% interchangeable parts.
Two running prototypes, a five-passenger sedan and a seven-passenger taxicab were developed. The prototypes were equipped with a transverse mounted Continental 6 cylinder engines mated to a 3-speed manual transmission.
The two prototypes were tested for well over 100,000 miles. The taxicab was tested in real taxi service, accumulating over 35,000 miles and the sedan ran in tests totaling over 65,000 miles.
Tests also indicated that maintenance cost for the more complex FWD Checker would be higher than Taxi operators would find acceptable. Additionally it was determined that significant changes would be required to the assembly line. The challenges for Taxi operators and high production costs were too much for Morris Markin and The Model D project was killed in 1946.
Ultimately Checker would develop the Model A2, this taxi would evolve into the famous Checker A9 and the rest was history.
The killing of the Model D project did not end van production for Checker. As Checker automotive sales started to shrink in the 1970’s, Checker expanded third party production.
What was one of Checker’s new projects in the 70’s? The Dodge Maxi van.
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