Updated blog regarding the history of the last Checker automotive project. This blog has been historically corrected to reflect new learnings of General Motor’s Fisher Body Division’s involvement in the development of a new Checker in the late 1970’s. The information in the blog corrects Chapter 7 The Galva Projects, of the book Checker The All American Taxi by Ben Merkel and Joe Fay
By the 1970’s the Checker cab design was several automotive generations old. As the decade started the Checker A11 design had been in production for close to twenty years. A11 design elements could be attributed to a 1950 clay design. Some chassis components had ancestral linkage to the 1939 Model A design. Clearly, it was time for Checker to consider developing a modern taxi that would allow Checker to produce cars into the next century.
Several projects were executed in the 1970’s in the attempt to develop a new Checker. In 1974, US Steel and prototype builder Autodynamics of Madison Heights, Michigan proposed a new Checker idea called “Galva” to CMC. The plan was to design a new Checker using newly developed manufacturing techniques to produce a vehicle with a reduced amount of tooling. Unfortunately, the project never got off the drawing board; Checker management was happy and profitable. Checker would continue to produce the A11 and various other specialty cars.
By the mid-seventies Checker would revisit the idea of producing a new Taxi. In March of 1977, Ed Cole, former GM president, and Victor Potamkin, one of the largest car dealers in the US, bought control of Checker Motor’s taxi subsidiary: Checker Taxi Co. now operated Checker fleets in Chicago, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh.
Ed Cole was the former general manager of the Chevrolet Motor Division and president of General Motors. In the early 50’s, Cole was the lead engineer in charge of the development of a new Chevy engine built to replace the Stovebolt Six; this new engine was Chevrolet’s small-block V8, a massive success that remained in production into the twenty first century.
Victor Potamkin was a popular New York car salesman who used a combination of sales discounting and aggresive advertising to transform a Manhattan Cadillac agency into the flagship of his $1 billion-a-year automotive empire.
At the time, Checker generated net income of $274K on $87 million dollars of sales. The magic formula of Potamkin’s deep financial pockets along with his sales and marketing know-how combined with Cole’s automotive engineering capabilities and GM connections were the perfect combination required to transform Checker. It was an exciting time at Checker! Expectations were high that the new partners would revitalize Checker’s future, new models would be introduced and the company would grow.
At the onset of the transformation was the desire to build a new Checker. Cole and Potamkin partnered with Jim McLernon, President of Volkswagen of America, to explore the feasibility of stretching the VW Rabbit 21.0 inches in order to create a VW based Checker. The hoopla was significant; the US automotive world was watching Checker when tragedy struck. Just weeks into the new partnership, Ed Cole was killed in a plane crash while flying his private plane to Kalamazoo. Despite the death of Cole, Checker soldiered on with the transformation plan.
Three months after Coles death in August of 1977, Checker unveiled plans for the new Taxi to the public in a Forbes magazine article. The new Checkers would indeed be based on a stretched Volkswagen Rabbit.The plan was to stretch the Rabbit 21 inches in the rear passenger area. Modifications would be made to the roof in order to improve headroom. To reinforce the overall strength of the Rabbit design, Checker anticipated adding 300 pounds of weight to the body as structural panels, for a total weight of 2300 LBS. The new taxi would use the same VW transmission used in the standard Rabbit. Added weight required new power options. Three power plants were considered for the new VW based Checker: Perkins, Mitsubishi or Oldsmobile diesel engines.
The VW based design would have been a serious departure from past Checkers. The passenger compartment would have had two rear passengers facing two forward passengers for a total capacity of four passengers, one less than the 5 person rear capacity of the current A11. This layout is highly questionable as passengers would have to compete for opposing knee room.
Ed Cole’s plan assumed sales via GM’s dealer network of 50,000 units a year. After his death, Checker CEO David Markin reduced the sales plan down to 30,000 units. The bodies would be produced by VW and shipped to Kalamazoo for final assembly.One test mule was created and field tested. The test encompassed the placement of 500 pounds of sandbags in the rear passenger area of a stretch Rabbit. The vehicle was driven from Kalamazoo to Chicago. In Chicago, the test mule was put into loop traffic and monitored for performance.The resulting test was disappointing. Upon its return to Kalamazoo, the mule was parked and the project was killed as it was decided the VW based concept wasn’t suitable as a taxi. For the rest of the decade, Checker would continue to produce the A11.
By 1980 the US had gone through two energy crisis’, one in 1973 and one in 1979. Clearly it was time for Checker to consider developing a modern fuel efficient taxi that would allow Checker to produce cars into the next century.In the early 80’s, via a series of financial transactions, David Markin monetized CMC. Potampkin and Cole’s widow were paid out and both exited the company. Markin had total control of CMC again and the funds available to produce a new Checker. Moving beyond the Rabbit/Golf project, Checker’s next attempt at a new taxicab was initiated via a partnership with General Motor’s Fisher Body division.
In 1980 General Motors introduced the X-Car line. The GM X-car line was a major departure from GM traditional design. It was a front wheel drive platform with a transverse engine, similar to the BMC mini concept. The new Checker was to be front wheel drive, ironic as this concept was first tested by Checker in the mid 1940’s with the Model D project. The planned partnership would have Checker purchase Chevy Citation “bodies-in-white” and then Checker would assemble them for taxicab use. The project did produce one prototype Citation test mule, but the project was short lived.
Reported in the July 16, 1981 “Coachman”, Fisher Body’s divisional newsletter, GM could not assure Checker a continued supply of Citation bodies for a time period that met Checker’s requirements. Remember by 1981, Checker had used the same body for 25 years. GM’s planned obsolescence policy would exit the Citation by 1985 model year. Checker planned on the Citation/Checker taxicab to be introduced in 1982. Clearly Checker could not spend significant dollars on a design that would be obsolete in three years. After the Fisher Body projected ended the Citation prototype was commandeered by CMC CEO David Markin for family use. According to John Morris Markin ” We had the stretch Citation at our house. My mom used it to take us to school when she didn’t feel like driving her Checker”.
Checker’s final attempts at introducing a new cab came in early 1981. CMC signed a contract with Autodynamics to develop a new Checker. The project was called Galva II, an extension of the project originally positioned back in 1974. Autodynamics developed a design that would use the latest GM components developed under the GM X car program. If successful, Checker could retrofit GM components as developed on a Checker built body, Checker would not have to rely on the Citation body.
Fisher Body was also involved in the Galva project. Plans were made for Fisher to supply various body components: door locks, windows regulators, door hinges and door handles.
Consistent with the original Galva 1974 project, the new Checker would be based on limited tooling. Paul E Newman of Autodynamics was quoted in Automobiles Quarterly; “We had a particular build concept for them (Checker). It involved a low cost tooling and break form panels”.
Howard E. Kluasmeier of Autodynamics was quoted in Automotive News; “The intent is to standardize componentry and simplify tooling and manufacturing as much as possible. The only curved glass will be the windshield. All other glass is flat. In addition, the components provide easy replacement for repair and maintenance using simplified attachment systems.”
In November of 1981, Sab Hori describes more details of the new Checker for automotive writer John Melrose. ’We’re going to try and do everything we can to make the cab easy to service’. ‘We’ll have bolt-on fenders, possibly of plastic, and we’re considering bolt-on door panels made from either RIM (reinforced injection molding) or SMC (sheet molding compound) plastic because if a panel is damaged it would be easier to replace. The fenders will be friendly, flexible type, like those on Oldsmobile’s new sport Omega. We’re also thinking about plastic hoods, rear hatch doors and facias because the tooling costs are lower. As a low-volume producer, we have the advantage of not worrying about the slow cycle times needed in making plastic parts. And what we’re trying to do is go as far as possible with proven technology. Checker is so small that we can’t afford to be the leaders; we’ve got to be followers”.
The new Checker would have a fully independent rear suspension. The design was based on a Firestone developed system called the Marsh Mellow. A Marsh Mellow spring is a fabric reinforced rubber cylinder. A striking solution for Checker, the Marsh Mellow spring was known for reliability, corrosion resistance, low cost, and basic simplicity. Best of all from Checker’s point of view, unlike a conventional rear leaf spring, if a Marsh Mellow spring fails, the cab would not have been taken off the road immediately. This feature would endear it to taxi fleets. Surely it could handle the pot holed streets of New York City.
At the time of design, Head of CMC Engineering Sab Hori was quoted in Automotive News, “The New Generation of taxicab design will be a four door hatchback designed with identical bumpers, glass, lighting, engines, transmissions, and front/rearend styling. All four models will have surround-type frames, extended for longer vehicles”, indicating like CMC models of the past, several variation of wheelbase and configurations would be available.David Markin was also quoted in Automotive News. Markin stated that “The new vehicle will be sold to both fleet operators and private individuals”, Plans called for three different wheelbases; 109.0 in. for six passengers. 122.0 for eight passengers and 128.0 for seating nine and a raised-roof paratransit vehicle with wheelchair capabilities .
There was a lot of excitement, Great press was generated, but ultimately, the new Checker was never put into production.
Regarding the decision to kill the new Checker, Sab Hori was quoted in Automobile Quarterly: “We were at a crossroads whether to continue to offer the Taxi or discontinue and go into contract work. To stay in the taxi market required a large expenditure of money. At the time, the whole automobile industry was in a downturn. We didn’t feel it was worth the expenditure of several million dollars. There was still a lot of uncertainty. It would be a tremendous gamble.”
Newman, of Autodynamics, was also quoted in Automobile Quarterly. According to Newman, “We had a lot of engineering competed. There were several variations of clay models and a seating buck. We looked at production engineering. David Markin was relatively young and was quite ambitious for the type of vehicle he was building; but the project died. Partially because it was based on the GM X-car. It had its limitations due to the technology of the time”.
As Paul E Newman stated, production and engineering were well along. Clay models were completed, a step typically just ahead of tool and die creation. Design bucks were fabricated. This project moved far beyond the drawing board.
Upon review of the design buck and prototype photos, it’s very clear that a new front drive Checker would still be a very big car. The design buck utilized many existing Checker components. The front seat of the buck was actually the same front seats used in the production of the Checker A11 providing over 60 inches of hip room.
The buck is not really much smaller than a standard Checker. The overall reduced size was mainly derived from a smaller front clip utilizing a transverse engine and the elimination of the rear trunk. Based on this framework, it’s safe to say that the passenger compartment would have yielded comfort similar to Checker’s past production cars.
The production 1982 Checker hovered at about 4000 LBS. Assuming that the use of plastics and reduction of vehicle size would have eliminated 800 pounds, an educated guess puts the proposed FWD Checker at 3200 LBS. Given the Chevy X car weighed approximately 2300 LBS, one has to question whether the new Checker concepts could rely on powertrains designed for vehicles close to 1000 LBS lighter than the proposed FWD Checker and still produce acceptable performance? Add into the equation larger Checker versions at 122 and 128 inches in wheelbase with 8 and 9 passenger capacities, one can only imagine that the X Car powertrain would be significantly challenged in moving passengers from point A to point B.
Given the financial investments required, the state of the economy, the effort required to change production and designs, Checker truly was at the cross road of their future. Checker Motors had always run a third party production business that served the US automotive industry. As far back as the 1930’s, Checker had produced bodies for Hudson. In the 1950’s, Checker produced trailers for the US Army and Sears Roebuck. During the early post war era, Checker supplied the Railway Express Agency with truck bodies used to deliver parcels door to door.
During the time that Checker was debating new car production, Checker was producing the Dodge truck cabs for Chrysler Corporation as well as the Camaro chassis for Chevrolet. Clearly, David Markin had options in terms of making investments either continue to produce automobiles or expand third party production. At the same time that CMC was developing the new Checker, CMC was in tough contract discussions with the United Steel Workers. The dynamics at the time made it clear that Checker would not only not produce a new Checker, but ultimately, Checker ended all car production in June of 1982 in order to focus on third party production.
Funds to be directed for the new Checker were diverted to a new strategy of Third Party stamping and production. The expansion kept Checker in business well into the 21st century. Although it’s romantic to think about the possibilities of what a new FWD Checker could have achieved, it’s safe to say that the decision not to move forward was clearly the correct decision.