An iconic Checker cab
On 18 June 1923, the first Checker Cab was built at the Checker Cab Manufacturing Company in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
The founder of the now iconic Checker was Morris Markin. He was born in Smolensk, Russia, and began working when he was only 12 years old. At 19, he immigrated to the United States and moved to Chicago where two uncles lived. After opening his own tailoring shop, Markin also began running a fleet of cabs and an auto body shop, the Markin Auto Body Corporation, in Joliet, Illinois. In 1921, after loaning $15,000 to help a friend’s struggling car manufacturing business, the Commonwealth Motor Company, Markin absorbed Commonwealth into his own enterprise and completely halted the production of regular passenger cars in favor of taxis. The result was the Checker Cab Manufacturing Company, which took its name from a Chicago cab company that had hired Commonwealth to produce its vehicles.
A ’20s Checker cab
By the end of 1922, Checker was producing more than 100 units per month in Joliet, and some 600 of the company’s cabs were on the streets of New York City. Markin went looking for a bigger factory and settled on Kalamazoo, where the company took over buildings previously used by the Handley-Knight Company and Dort Body Plant car manufacturers. The first shipment of a Checker from Kalamazoo on 18 June 1923 stood out as a major landmark in the history of the company, which by then employed some 700 people.
Above and below – ’35 Checkers in two body styles
Above – normally conservatively styled, the front of this ’39 Checker is, uh, different.
During the Great Depression, Markin briefly sold Checker, but he bought it back in 1936 and began diversifying his business by making auto parts for other car companies. After converting its factories to produce war materiel during World War II, Checker entered the passenger car market in the late 1950s, with the Superba and Marathon models.
Above: A postwar front wheel drive Checker prototype. It had a transverse-mounted six cylinder engine. Problems with the transaxle killed this project. Below: a clay model of the body style introduced in 1955 that saw Checker through to the end in 1982.
In its peak production year of 1962, Checker built 8,173 cars; the great majority of those were taxis. Over the course of the 1970s, however, as economic conditions led taxi companies to convert smaller, more fuel-efficient standard passenger cars into cabs, the 4,000-pound gas-guzzling Checker came to seem more and more outdated.
A postwar Checker sedan (above) and a ’50 wagon (below)
The Checker Aerobus was not like today’s “stretch limos” with their cut and paste mid sections – the Aerobus was built in 6 and 8 door versions on its own rugged frame.
Markin died in 1970. In April 1982 Markin’s son David announced that Checker would halt production of its famous cab that summer. Though the company still owned the Yellow and Checker cab fleets in Chicago and continued to make parts for other auto manufacturers, including General Motors, the last Checker Cab rolled off the line in Kalamazoo on July 12, 1982.
Clay model of a front wheel drive replacement for the Superba-Marathon Checkers. This project died with Ed Cole’s demise in a plane crash.
Before auto production ended in 1982, former General Motors president Ed Cole bought 50% of Checker. Development work was done on a front wheel drive replacement for the Superba and Marathon models. Cole died in a crash piloting his own plane and Markin’s son David was more interested in playing tennis than advancing Checker. Thus the plans for the new model died with Cole.
Checker soldiered on making parts for other manufacturers until 2009 when the 2008-2009 recession forced the end of parts making. Now the buildings in Kalamazoo where Checker operated for almost 90 years have been razed.
The fondly-remembered Checker may be reborn in 2018, according to an article in Hemmings.