From time to time we like to showcase people who have impacted the hobby in a big way. Let’s meet Joe Pollard. Joe has been in the Checker Cab hobby for well over 40 years, having purchased his first Checker in 1978.
He’s pretty much the last man standing in the Checker parts business. He didn’t buy is way into the hobby like others, he became an anchor of the hobby by a serving all Checker owners from the beginning, when Checker stopped producing cars. If Checker owners needed help keeping there cars on the road after Checker Motors exited support in the late 1980’s, Joe was there for all of us.
Let’s pay tribute to Joe, and thank him for all the good things he has done to keep our Checkers on the road. The following article written by Chris Ruben, appeared in the Los Angelis Times on March 28th 2002.
Devotion to a Car Goes the Distance
What if somebody made a car that was virtually indestructible, one that could survive the mean streets of New York (and the potholes and other dangers in all the major cities of the U.S.), the less-than-perfect driving of cabbies from around the globe, and heavy loads of passengers and luggage?
Somebody did: Checker.
From the first day of production in 1922 until the assembly line in Kalamazoo, Mich., shut down in 1982, Checker created some of the longest-running, most reliable cars ever manufactured in the United States.
Now, even 20 years after the last one was made, Joe Pollard has a hard time containing his enthusiasm for the vehicles. “Checkers are good for 1 million miles, with just a little maintenance,” he says. “They’re incredibly durable–they’ll run forever.”
And Pollard, 58, should know. Among collectors, he’s known as “the Checker King.” He owns about 120 of the cars, with a dozen or more, in various states of renovation, encircling his Chatsworth home. When you see a Checker in the movies–and the movies love Checkers–often as not, it’s one of Pollard’s.
Best known for their bulbous, oversized taxi cabs, the company also manufactured other models, including the massive Aerobus (an eight-door airport shuttle model), a somewhat smaller four-door wagon and the Marathon–the civilian version of the taxi, which debuted in 1960.
Only 3,000 or so Checkers are still around, Pollard estimates, and most are owned by collectors–very few are still in use as taxis. In all of Southern California, there are only about 100 of the cars on the road.
Pollard’s first contact with his beloved vehicle came on a trip to the Bay Area in 1974. He was working as a session drummer at the time, playing with the Beach Boys, Wilson Pickett and others, and was met at the San Francisco airport by a musician friend driving a Checker. When they went to load up gear, Pollard was impressed that three passengers, a full drum kit and a Hammond organ all fit quite comfortably. “Amazing,” he says with a laugh.
The friend who owned the Checker referred Pollard to a Bay Area dealer. There was a waiting list five years long, though, as the dealer was only allotted two new cars each year. Pollard put his name down, eventually purchasing a new Checker, in 1978, after another guy on the list died while waiting.
He sold the car in 1984. “I was driving on the 405 to meet a friend,” Pollard remembers, “when a guy waves me over and tells me he wants to buy the car. I asked for a lot of money, and he said, ‘OK.'”
Pollard, who knew little about cars at the time, got double what he had paid for the Checker, and figured he had just made a great deal. “I thought I’d just get a new one,” Pollard says a bit wistfully. But it wasn’t going to be that simple. “I found out the factory had stopped making them.”
Checker rolled its last car off the assembly line in 1982. The design of the classic Checker, which resembles a ’55 Chevy, didn’t change significantly from 1960 to 1982. Even experts have to look closely to figure out when one of these cars was made.
New, the cars sold for $2,600 in 1960 and, by 1982, about $11,000. Today, a fully restored vintage Checker brings from $25,000 to $75,000.
Why did Checker stop manufacturing such a classic car? “We couldn’t carry on,” says Rod Walton, assistant to the president at Checker Motors Corp. “It was no longer profitable to build the car. [Environmental Protection Agency] and safety standards were difficult for small manufacturers to meet, and the country was in a deep recession, which hurt our sales.” And the company found a better niche: sheet metal stamping and sub-assembly for other car makers–the business that continues today.
Even if there would be no new Checkers, Pollard was virtually addicted to the car for its reliability and spaciousness and he set out to find another. A friend found a Checker wagon in a wrecking yard in Duarte. The owner, tired of hunting for parts, was happy to sell.
Pollard drove out to see it, and left with it for $100. “I put in a battery and gas, and it ran and ran.” Which came as no surprise to Pollard. “The cars originally came with a 250,000-mile warranty,” he says.
Later he would find and buy vehicle No. 1,982 out of a total run of 2,000 from the final year of Checker production. A factory propane model, it’s very rare, and Pollard believes it is the last car off the Checker line that’s still around.
It’s also one of his daily driving vehicles–the other a Checker wagon. (His wife drives a Saturn–the only other car besides that long-ago Checker that Pollard ever bought new.)
While Checker engines may last forever, many other parts don’t. At first, Pollard purchased another Checker to cannibalize for parts, but that wasn’t enough.
A tinkerer by nature, Pollard started to make his own parts–like windshield gaskets. It wasn’t that much of a stretch, as he had previously developed products in the world of music–drumheads and sticks, cases used to haul instruments and gear, and electronic drums.
He began to offer Checker parts for sale on a word-of-mouth basis. “I didn’t yet know about the Checker Club of America,” Pollard says of the nationwide club of Checker enthusiasts. “I found the local club and began to sell parts through it, and soon connected to the national club.”
And once connected, he made an impression.
“Joe has one of the largest collections in the country,” says Bob Welsh, president of Checker Car Club of America, Inc. “He’s on the board of directors [of the national club] and he’s one of the leading parts vendors on the West Coast.”
Pollard is the man people come to when they catch the Checker bug. When John Baer, 45, a technical writer from Santa Cruz, wanted to replace his 1956 panel truck, he searched the Internet–and ended up at Pollard’s door. “I wanted a utility vehicle,” says Baer, a car enthusiast who also owns a Volvo 850 for daily driving, “but not a suburban utility vehicle.”
After finding Pollard on the Internet, Baer flew down and purchased a Checker wagon, then drove it back to Santa Cruz the following day.
The exterior of the car was already restored, and Baer has been working on the interior since he took it home. “Everyone on the street loves it. People turn their heads. My girlfriend, though, is a little sick of hearing me talk about it,” Baer admits. “She has declared her room a Checker-free zone. But, to me, Checkers rule!”
Despite his considerable investment of time and money in the cars, Pollard doesn’t count on them for income. “Checkers are a hobby,” he says, “not a living.”
Pollard has owned a couple of hundred Checkers over the years. His current collection of 120 sits mostly in the Mojave Desert, a rust-free environment where airlines store their out-of-service craft. While many of the cars are used for parts, about two dozen are reserved for movie rentals.
Pollard owns one of the cars featured in “Taxi Driver,” Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film starring Robert De Niro. He purchased it from Sylvester Stallone, who owned it when it was used in another film, 1984’s “Rhinestone.” Pollard’s cars also appeared in the 2000 movie “Almost Famous” and will be in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming “Catch Me If You Can.”
Angelenos who want to see a Checker up close can visit the California Checker Club’s show, held annually at the Los Angeles County Arboretum in Arcadia on the last Sunday of July.
Show organizer Kathryn Bassett, a former Checker cab driver for San Gabriel Valley Cab, is loyal to the cars, even though her powder blue Checker, nicknamed “Sherman,” caught fire on the Foothill Freeway years ago and has not yet been restored.
“I worked on restoring it slowly for a few years, but it’s not in working order,” Bassett says. “I will keep it forever, and I hope to get it running again someday.”
Maybe with a little help from the Checker King.
A great article, here’s a great video produced by Bloomberg News about Joe.
Here’s a link to Joe’s website