Over the years there have been many Checker stories, ideas or beliefs that seem to become standard Checker lore.  In many cases when you start to peel back the onion and try to get the real story what you find: the facts don’t pan out and in reality the story is just another Checker myth . So is the result of peeling back the onion of the Ghia Centurion designed by Tom Tjaarda.

We recently learn of the passing of automotive designer Tom Thaarda the designer this past summer.  Classic & Sports Car Magazine reported:

“Designer of the De Tomaso Pantera, Fiat 124 Spider, Ford Fiesta and dozens of other significant automobiles, Tom Tjaarda, has died at the age of 82. 

Born in Detroit to Dutch-American parents, Tjaarda spent his formative years in Motor City, later attending Birmingham High School and going on to study architecture at the University of Michigan. Though his father, John, was a successful designer in his own right, having penned the 1934 Lincoln Zephyr, Tjaarda only began to turn his focus to automotive design while at university. There he gained the support of his lecturer Aaree Latti, who suggested he design an automobile, leading to Tjaarda creating an interesting station wagon concept. While touring Europe, Latti showed pictures of the model to Ghia’s Luigi Segre, who in turn invited Tjaarda to Italy. 

Tom Tjaarda, photo source Classic and Sports Car Magazine

During his early years at Ghia, Tjaarda styled the charming Innocenti 950 roadster and then, with a little help from Virgil Exner Jr., the Fiat 2300 Coupé. But it was under the tutelage of Pininfarina’s head of design Franco Martinengo that Tjaarda began to hone his talent, styling the Ferrari 365 California and Fiat 124, which was unveiled at the Turin Auto Salon after he had returned for a second stint at Ghia”.

Indeed Tjaarda did return to Ghia, but prior to rejoining Ghia, Tjaarda worked at his friend Giorgetto Giugiaro’s new company Ital Styling.  His first assignment in November 1967 was a sub- contracted project for Alejandro DeTomaso of Ghia, the project, to design a new body for Checker Cab.  Over the years this prototype has been considered a Checker prototype commissioned by Checker as an attempt to modernize the Marathon we all know and love.

Automobile Quarterly reported in Volume 30 number 2, that “Occasionally, Checker would spring surprises, one was at the 1968 Paris Salon, where a Giorgio Giugiaro design on the Checker was shown”.

Based on press releases produced at the time, it’s very clear that the Ghia prototype although based on a Checker chassis, was not in any way a product produced or sanctioned by the Checker Motor Corp. of Kalamazoo, Mich. In fact the car wasn’t even called the Ghia Checker, it was the Ghia Centurion.

What was the Ghia Centurion? It was a show car produced by Ghia of Turin, Italy. Ghia was a small, famous automotive design studio. They produced some of the most exotic sedans and sports cars that toured the world show car circuit back in the 50s and 60s. By the late 1960s, Ghia was actually owned by an American company, Rowan Industries of Oceanport, N.J. Upon reviewing the various press releases that exist in the club archive, it appears that the intent of Rowan Industries was to market the Ghia Centurion to American limousine operators as an alternative to Cadillac and Lincoln.

The vehicle was built on a Checker chassis, but not the standard A11, it was based on the 129 inch wheelbase A12E chassis. The overall dimensions were 212.3 inches in length, 62 inches high and 74 inches wide. It was equipped with a GM-produced 283 cubic inch engine that generated 195 horsepower at 4500 rpms. Metrics and performance were consistent with Checkers of the day. In essence the Centurion was a modern custom bodied car built on top of a Checker chassis.

When compared to a Cadillac or Lincoln of the day, the Centurion would have had many of the same advantages as a Checker extended wheelbase limo did, but in theory it had one more, it had that modern 1968 styling.  A Rowan Industries press release dated April 4, 1969 made the following claim

The Centurion represents a departure from the traditional styling of Checker automobiles. The compact but roomy body has been constructed on a standard Checker Marathon chassis, with no modifications to the chassis or drivetrain”.  Over the years the automotive press was somewhat hard on the Centurion regarding that modern styling. Car and Driver magazine reported that the styling was “sinister”, having the appearance of being designed by the Mafia. Road and Track magazine wrote that the Centurion was “a great slab of a real big mutha, with excessively deep windows and heavy flanks”.

Early rendering by Tjaarda

Years later, Automobile Quarterly writer David Burgesswise observed the Giugiaro design had wheels that were too small for the body and a roofline that was designed for people wearing top hats. So much for modern 1968 styling; overall the reviews were not too good.

What happened to the Centurion? Clearly there was not enough interest in the car. Had there been, it would have gone into production. Since the chassis and drivetrain were standard Checker, Rowan Industries could have commissioned Checker Motors to actually produce the car. It was never to be. One year later in 1970, Rowan Industries sold Ghia to the Ford Motor Company. Several years later Ford would be selling the Pantera and would produce the 1974 Ford Mustang II Ghia.

Tjaarda in the Studio

Now the press release alone makes it pretty clear that the Ghia Centurion is not a Checker.  Correspondence with Tom Tjaarda in 2006 also confirms that although the project may have started out as a Checker prototype,  Checker Motors Corporation was never involved with the project.

According to Tjaarda “not once did I ever see someone from the Checker Company come over to Torino to see the progress of the car.  I remember working with Ghia when I first came to Torino which was involved with many prototype being built for Chrysler and there was a constant flow of people from Detroit coming by to check up on the progress of their prototypes before being finished up and shipped off.”

Tjaarda also confirmed that CMC never took possession of the Ghia Centurion. “Clients who spend thousands and sometimes millions of dollars always took procession of the prototype which was built for them. In the case of the prototype which was built for them.”  He further commented “Whatever happened to end the relationship between DeTomaso and Checker leaving the prototype in the hands of only DeTomaso to manage is unclear, I can only say that this project eventually never surfaced again around Ghia.  I became involved with a number of other projects and was concentrating on my current work.  To tell the truth, I did try to a few times to find out about the car from DeTomaso’s secratary and from DeTomaso himself, however in each attempt, I could never get much of an answer.”

source Hemmings Motor News

Tjaarda felt showing the car as a Ghia was a mistake, in correspondence with Tjaarda he commented

Being displayed as a Ghia car at the New York Auto Show in my opinion was not a very good idea.  This was a taxicab, designed from the beginning for a specific purpose, and it made sense. The design was not bad. But show cars back ten were mostly sports cars, the kind of cars that the public came to shows to see.  They expected to see cool cars, not a big taxi. So it was rather obvious that this show car would not generate much interest or business.  Three years later Ghia was back at the New York Auto Show, but this time with the Pantera sports car, which was a sensation for the crowd.”

There are other indicators that the Ghia Centurion is not a Checker.  New York Auto Show Historian Gregg Merksamer has verified that booth 305, noted in the press release was the Ghia booth.  Mr. Merksamer also provided photographic evidence (see blog header as Bernie Weiss photo).  Additionally, Merksamer confirmed that Checkers were displayed in a different location,  at booth #405.  One could easily assume, that if the Centurion was a Checker it would have been displayed at booth #405, with the current 1968 Checker lineup.

Perhaps the most compelling proof that the Checker had no involvement in the Centurion is an internal email correspondence between a Checker executive and a Checker employee.  The following is an email between CEO David Markin’s executive administrator Rod Walton and employee James Garrison.

From: Rod Walton

To: Jim Garrison 

Sent: Wednesday, June 20, 2007 2:36 PM

Subject: Checker Ghia

Hi Jim

Mr. Markin had me get in touch with Sab Hori who was our chief engineer here during the time of the Ghia.

He tells me that Checker was never involved with that project. We sold Ghia a Checker frame but was never involved with any of the engineering of the car. He does not recall it ever being at the NY Auto Show or ever being here at Checker. He knew about the car but Checker had no involvement. The same with David. He says the same, no involvement.

Thats the best that we can do for you.



So bottom line, the 1968 Rowan Industry press release indicates that the car is the Ghia Centurion.  Designer Tom Tjaarda maintains that the project started as a Checker Cab prototype, but CMC was not involved and Detomaso managed the final product.  The automobile was shown in a Ghia booth at the New York Auto Show and 1968 Salon de l’ Automobile of Paris.  Most importantly, David Markin and Sab Hori of CMC confirm that CMC had no involvement.  Case closed.

source Hemmings Motor News

In 2006, Tom Tjaarda wrote “I spent a lot of time and interest in this car, and was very disappointed that it practically just vanished into thin air.  I thought that I had done a rather good job to design such a massive car and make it look elegant and attractive”.  This writer agrees, its a very impressive looking automobile.

In retrospect the Ghia Centurion is a very attractive car.  The car was designed in 1967, yet many of the styling cues would end up on the 1976 and 1977 General Motors full size auto lineup.  Compare the greenhouse of the Centurion to the 77 Impala, and you see similar thin window frames and sail panels.  Look at the sculpted side top edge and you can see similarities to the 1980 Chevrolet Impala.  The thin chrome line and wheel openings foreshadow the 1976 Cadillac Seville.  So in the end, the Centurion may have not have been a Checker prototype, but it is clearly an historical large car design that impacted other automotive designers.