Checker History

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How It All Began...

By Rod Walton
(From Checker Headlights News Bulletin)

In 1908 a man named William A. Schaum produced an odd two-cylinder high-wheeler named the Seven Little Buffaloes. This car was the first link in a complicated chain eventually leading to the formation of Checker Motors Corporation in 1922. The ''Seven Little Buffaloes'' was a big enough seller to encourage Schaum to relocate into a larger factory. With the help of a group of investors, a new facility was found in Normal, NY   The company name was changed from the Deschaum Motor Car Co. to The De Schaum-Hornell Motor Car Co.

In 1910 the company moved again, this time to Ecorse, MI where they made new four and six-cylinder cars called Suburbans. In September 1911 the Deschaum-Hornell Co. became the Suburban Motor Car Corp. In 1912 a Mr. Palmer became involved with the corporation.

The Suburban Motor Car Co. became the Palmer Motor Car Co. and a new seven passenger six-cylinder touring sedan was manufactured in 1913. Not having a good dealer network, Palmer went into partnership with Partin cars thereby creating another new company called the Partin-Palmer Manufacturing Co. Two years later the Partin-Palmer Manufacturing Co. became the Commonwealth Motor Co. and moved to Joliet, IL in 1919. That is when the first links with Checker were formed.

American manufacturing boomed during this period, and so did the taxicab industry. There were many small operators of cabs during this time, but bigger companies, such as Checker Taxi of Chicago, soon bought out most of the ones in the Chicago area. Checker was buying up so many of these smaller cab companies that they soon found that their only rival was Yellow Cab of Chicago.

Morris Markin in front of a Checker CabAs the need for more durable and longer lasting cabs grew, Checker went shopping for a stronger chassis to fit their requirements. In 1920 Checker awarded the Commonwealth Motor Co. a contract to assemble taxicabs using bodies supplied by another Joliet based company called Markin Auto Body Corp. owned by Morris Markin. Morris Markin became involved with the company after lending $15,000 to a friend who ran a small taxicab body plant. Later, to protect his investment, Mr. Markin took over the Company, which became the Markin Auto Body Corp. He merged with the faltering Commonwea1th Motor Co. at the end of 1921, and by May of 1922 the Checker Cab Manufacturing Co. was born.

In 1922 when the Checker Cab Manufacturing Co. was founded and located in Joliet, IL, production was set for three taxicabs a day and held there for several months building the Model "C" By January of 1923 production was up to 112 cabs a month, working the staff seven days a week. By the end of March more than 600 Checker cabs were on the streets of New York. Checkers were beginning to be recognized. To help in sales and to provide service, the Mogul-Checker Cab Sales Co. was created in New York City.

With growing pains and lack of room, Checker moved to Kalamazoo at its present location in April of 1923 taking over the old Handley-Knight Co. and Dort Body Plant. On June 18, 1923 the first Checker rolled off the assembly line in Kalamazoo. It was a banner day for Checker, which now employed 700 people.

In 1924 Checker production was increased to 4,000 units for the year. New Series "E" was introduced with a 40 HP rating. There were two models. The Landau sold for $2,440 and the limousine for $2,340. As the spring of 1925 came, production was at an unprecedented high of 75 units per week.

The new Series "F" was unveiled which sported a slanting windshield, distinctive only for this series. 1926 was spent strengthening Checker's marketing position and sales organization, so the cars remained the same.

The big news for 1927 was the addition of a 6-cylinder engine, and the cars were now known as the ''G-4'' and the "G-6". They looked like all the big sedans of 1927. The Series "E" model stayed on a little while longer to keep some of the old customers happy. By the end of 1927 there were 18 manufacturers of automobiles. The competition was stiff and the demand for more style for the customer's money was evident. The company had a bad year and a drastic change was needed.

In early 1928 Checker went to the drawing boards again to design a look completely different from anything the country had ever seen in the cab industry. On October 4, 1928 the new series ''K'' rolled off the assembly line. It was a real traffic stopper, and that day was proclaimed as glorious as the big day in 1923 (the day the first Checker rolled off the assembly line in Kalamazoo).

In January the Company acquired control of Checker Cab Sales Corp. in New York. This company handled all the Checker business in and around the New York City area. By the end of January, 1929 there were 21,000 taxis in New York City, and, of this total, over 8,000 were Checkers.

1929 was the most profitable year yet for Checker. Repeat orders were streaming into the factory and the new Series ''K'' was being proclaimed as the finest car ever built. Equipped with four-wheel hydraulic brakes and shatterproof glass all around, they were still priced at $2,500, but had now grown to a big 127-inch chassis.

In 1929 Checker took over Yellow Cab Co. in Chicago, and a very substantial contract came from Philadelphia for a fleet of completely enclosed cabs, on the Model "K" chassis. By June production was sold out and Checker bathed in another very profitable year. Happy days were here again! Unfortunately, these days were short lived.

Blue Monday came with the advent of 1930. A downward trend started for Checker and every other manufacturer in the world. Cash became tight and every Series "K" sold was paid for by C.O.D. By the summer of 1930, with cash in the bank, negotiations started on a nationwide basis to get the Company into the nation's marketplace. By September that year, Checker acquired the Parmelee Transportation Co. There were 7,500 vehicles in this fleet of cabs, trucks, and bases located in the nation's largest cities. Along with this deal went the Motor Cab Transportation Compound, which had 2, 100 vehicles under it's control. All of this was consummated by the end of October 1930, in time for the new cab announcement.

Yes, we were ready to do it again!

The new Series ''M'' was introduced at the end of 1930. This model was as unique and breathtaking as the Model ''K'' was beautiful. The front fenders flared up a bit and pointed straight forward. The headlamps and grille had a distinguished rectangular shape, high and narrow. The disc wheels were smooth cones. The design remained as a Checker feature for a number of years until after World War II. The seat cushions were filled with down, and when a passenger would leave, the cabbies would reach in and fluff them up with a special little paddle that they carried.

In February of 1931 Checker took another big step and formed the Empire Cab Association in an effort to improve the cab wars that were so predominant in New York City. Composed of Independent Operators of Checker cabs, the Association was intended to give the small operators an opportunity to continue with their business unmolested.

Along with the turmoil of the cab wars was the horrible money situation caused by the Depression. This was one of the toughest times the country faced. The profit picture by the end of May 1931 consisted of a grand total of $665. Now, this doesn't look good for a going business, but when almost everyone else in the auto industry was using red ink in their ledgers. This was a remarkable accomplishment. It looked so good, in fact, that the other companies, such as General Motors brought their new General Cab into the New York City area to try to break up the Checker stronghold. These cabs were offered to all takers at $360 down and no firm contract to pay the remainder. These policies hurt Checker, but it was very short-lived. Checker management watched as predictable things took place. Cabbies on the program were not making payments. No place to make them. Nor were they fixing or replacing vehicles. No place to do that either. The cabbies drove the new vehicles until they broke down completely or wore all the tires out, then gave them back to General Cab. Within hours, the cabbies were back into Checkers once more. This was a very expensive lesson for such a large manufacturer.

In June of 1931, the line was expanded to include a new station wagon-type vehicle. It was more like a utility truck that could be converted into a package delivery vehicle, or even an ambulance. A little over one thousand of these vehicles were produced over two years.

In November of the same year, Checker received a contract for one thousand new cabs from Chicago Yellow Cab. The profit by the end of 1931 was a little over $400,000, quite a difference from the $665 in May. The only other auto company to show a profit for that year was the Auburn Automobile Co. This is a point of interest, as you will see a little later on.

After Checker made record profits for nearly two years, the company fell on hard times in the fall of 1932. The plant was shut down for many weeks during 1932. Even through these difficult times, however, a new car was introduced. It was a remodeled Series ''M'', but carried the new designation of Series ''T''. It had a full running board, a trimmed rear side window, landau irons, and a new Lycoming straight eight engine. The Suburban, as the station wagon type was called, and a truck were in production at the same time.

The new Series "T" caught on and by January 1933 500 men were called back to work. In June, the board members were reduced from eleven to seven, In August, E. L. Cord, of the Cord fame, bought control of Checker.

A new reorganization took place and Cord was made Chairman. A three-man executive committee was formed, including Morris Markin. Mr. Markin was then elevated back to the presidency of the new firm. At this point, there were more than 18,000 Checkers on the streets in the nation and the company still controlled the Parmelee system. They bought out Saf-T-cab from Auburn Motor Car Co., who had been building them for years.

The Engineering Department had been working on a new model during these depressed years, and it was shown in late 1935 as the Series ''Y''. It was an attractive vehicle with sloping front and rear windshields. The hood treatment was similar to the 1935 Ford V8. The new cars sold well. During the first quarter, 980 were built. One thousand two hundred and fifty were projected for the second quarter, and a new long wheelbase vehicle, which could be called the grand daddy of the Aerobus, was developed. They were built initially for the Parmelee Company and could be purchased in six and eight door models. They were used extensively for transportation between depots, airports and hotels. Production was booming again and men were being called back to work. Business improved in 1936 and into 1937. Between January and March 1936, Mr. Markin was able to regain control of the company. If he had not done so at the time, Checker would be but a memory. In August of 1937, E. L. Cord decided to retire and put all his holdings up for sale. By the end of 1937, Stutz, Marmon, Pierce-Arrow, Peerless and many other of the finest names in automobiles were gone by the wayside. At Checker, the Model ''Y'' stayed on as the mainstay of production, and the company diversified a bit. In 1938 and 1939 they built bodies for Hudson Motor Car. They also built a few large trucks and buses. Cab production was low but steady. Then in 1939 a new project came about.

A new Series ''A'' was started. It was a very critical one as it actually was to carry the company into the final design used. The Series "A" came out in 1940 and continued through World War II. The car had many new safety features and was one of the roomiest Checkers ever built.

When Checker wasn't building cabs during this period of time, they were building trailers for Sears-Roebuck, truck cabs for Ford and an Army jeep. There were only four jeeps made, all to government specs. All were four-wheel drive and four wheel steer. Checker still has one and it looks as new as it did in 1940. Among other Army vehicles made were tank retrieval trailers, tank recovery vehicles, all types of trailers, both semi and otherwise, Signal Corps. bodies and petroleum trailers.

There were many projects for future reference that had to be laid aside for the war effort. Once the war was over, Checker was ready to resume its manufacturing of taxicabs. Checker might have been way ahead of the times if the Model "B" series would have ever gotten off the ground. It was a rear engine, rear-wheel drive vehicle. There were only two built and were still being tested by the end of 1945. Not much information exists except they were not accepted well in the cab industry.

The Model ''C'' never got off the drawing boards, and was over-shadowed by the Model ''D''. This car took to the road in 1946 and looked like nothing else in the industry. There were big plans for this model. Fourteen different versions, to be exact. Some of them were to include a coupe, convertible, ambulance, pick-up, and panel trucks. The most unique feature was the front wheel drive and a cross-mounted six-cylinder engine. This whole project was kept fairly quiet and little was known about the car outside of Checker.

There were many problems, mostly with the front-wheel drive unit. The production would have had to be completely changed for one. There was a great need for new cabs after the war, and Checker felt the time involved for changeover would tax them too heavily. The decision was made to go back to the more conventional Model ''A''. They combined the pre-war car with the New Model "D" designs and came out with the Model A2 in February of 1947. This car stayed around until the end of 1955.

In 1956 the A8 was introduced and very well received. It was very different from all previous Checker designs. The I-beam front axles were replaced by coil suspension with ball joints. The chassis was redesigned for added durability and additional front-end protection. Power steering, power brakes, and automatic transmissions were available as options. The glass area was increased to give the drive better vision. This basic design is the one that remained, except for a few minor changes, until the end, in 1982.

In October of 1958 the A9 was unveiled. These were the stretch models commonly called the "Aerobus." They came in two models, nine and twelve passenger vehicles on 154-1/2 and 189-inch wheelbases, respectively. The vehicle was in immediate demand all over the world for airport and motel-hotel use. This version was not a taxi stretched out, but a completely new vehicle with extremely sturdy box frame members. Each passenger seat had it's own door, and the rear luggage compartment had stainless steel strips that held bags firm so they would not scrape the windows. The nine-passenger stayed in production until 1969 and the 12-passenger stayed in production until 1974.

The private passenger car came on the scene in 1960 and was called the "Superba". Two models were introduced, the four-door sedan and the station wagon (like the one owned by founders Bev & Don McHenry). Each model came in two series, the regular and the Special. The latter one had side script on the body and the same additional trim along with better decor inside. The difference in price was around $100. The sedan held eight passengers and the station wagon held six. The wagon's rear seat folded down to form a very large cargo area. In fact you could haul a sheet of 4' by 8' plywood with the tailgate closed.

In 1961 the Superba Special was changed to the ''Marathon''. An overhead valve, six-cylinder engine was made standard in the station wagon. In 1963, a new luxurious sedan was introduced as the Checker Town Custom Limousine. It was built on a 129-inch wheelbase and had all power equipment standard, including a partitioned driver compartment.

From 1964 through 1982 the Checker went through more dramatic changes. In 1964 Checker dropped the Superba name and all cars designate as A12's were called ''Marathons''. The different models were identified by a letter suffix to the A12. For example, the wagons were A12W's and the extended wheelbase limos were A12E's. The cabs became A11's with the extended version the A11E. The Continental engines were dropped also in 1964 for the Chevrolet 230 Six, and the 283 V8. In 1965 the Chevy 327 V8 was offered, and in 1968 the engines were the 230 in-line six, the 307 and 327 V8's.

In late 1969 the Medicar was introduced. It was an odd looking vehicle with it's roof raised ten inches and the rear doors opening to a full 180 degrees. It was built on a 129-inch wheelbase and could accommodate up to three wheelchairs with the right hand front bucket seat removed. Only 100 of these cars ever made it off the production line, and in late 1970 it was discontinued.

In 1973 the chrome bumpers were removed to make way for the new sturdy all aluminum bumpers along with the side lights replacing the reflectors. These two changes were the last major changes of body style that Checker made.

When the 1974 model year was over, the eight-door Aerobus was discontinued. It was reintroduced in 1977 in a different configuration. It was an eight-door stretch of the A11E Taxi with room for 15 passengers. That too was short lived with the last one rolling off the assembly line at the end of that model year. Again, Checker was back to four models, never again to introduce another new one.

After the recession that started in 1979 and lagging sales, coupled with a change in the taxi industry, and ever imposing new government regulations, Checker closed the doors on the sixty-year-old assembly line. The Checker Cab was considered the Rolls Royce of the taxis in it's hey day. It was a sad day on July 12, 1982 when that last iron horse rolled off the assembly line in Kalamazoo, bearing the green and ivory colors of Checker Taxi of Chicago. Sixty years prior to this, the first cab bearing the same color scheme, rolled off the same assembly line and onto the streets of the big cities, proudly carrying it's passengers to their destination. It will not be long though before the cumbersome cab with all that room inside will be nothing but a fond memory to many people as they squeeze into the little compact with their suitcase on their lap reminiscing about the good ole' days.

The company in still in existence, expanding it's outside contract work, mainly in the sheet metal stamping and sub-assembly work for the automobile industry.


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