Big Yellow Cabbie: The Checker Marathon

checker-cab

And now for something completely different.

Perhaps one of the most iconic cars in the world; essentially America’s equivalent of the London Black Cab, this machine would become the face of New York City and was an immediate icon. Yet there is so much overlooked as to what this elegant looking car of yesteryear represented, as well as the turbulent heritage that helped define its place in automotive history. 56 years after the first ones rolled onto the streets of the Big Apple, the Checker Marathon remains an integral part of the city’s image. Despite its classic status though, you’d be more than hard-pressed to find them regularly.

To understand the origins of the Checker Marathon, you need to understand the company from which it derives its name; the Checker Motors Corporation of Kalamazoo, Michigan.

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The Checker Motors Corporation (CMC), which took its name from the prominent Checker Taxi Company of Chicago.

Founded in 1922 by Morris Markin through a merger between his own Markin Automobile Body company and Commonwealth Motors, the Checker company, like Studebaker, Hudson and Nash, was a comparatively small vehicle manufacturer when compared to the likes of the Big Detroit Three; General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. The merger between Markin and Commonwealth was brought about following the near bankruptcy of the latter company, when the owner defaulted on a personal loan of $15,000 and needed quick cash. Commonwealth, at the time, was a major provider of taxicabs across the USA, selling such models under the Mogul marque. Markin, meanwhile, provided bodies to Commonwealth from his company’s factory in Joliet, Illinois.

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The Checker C-Series, the company’s first model from 1922.

The newly merged Checker Motors Corporation (CMC) took its name from one of Commonwealth’s longtime customers, and one that provided an immediate source of income during the company’s formative years; the Checker Taxi company of Chicago. Checker Taxi had put out an order to Commonwealth immediately before its bankruptcy to supply the company with taxicabs, an order which was honoured by Markin and brought to fruition in a slew of taxi models ranging from the large and spacious Model C to the smaller but more ubiquitous Model G.

CMC expanded its remit from taxicabs to production passenger cars in 1947, but would only sell their vehicles on a limited basis. In 1960, the company introduced two brand new models that would be sold for both private consumers as well as taxi companies; the Checker Superba in February, and the Checker Marathon in September.

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The Checker Superba was largely identical to the Marathon, but only available for private owners.

The Superba was largely identical to the Marathon, but was only available for private consumers in two trim levels; a four-door sedan and a five-door station wagon. The car, however, performed poorly in the U.S. car market and was discontinued in 1963 with only minor alterations from the original design.

The Marathon on the other hand was a completely different car. Aside from it being built with the intention for use as a taxicab, the car was also marketed as the upscale version of the Superba. Like its stablemate though, the Marathon was available as a four-door sedan and five door station wagon. Aside from its role as a taxicab, the Marathon was also made available as a police car, and was used by the police department of Kalamazoo; where the CMC factory was. Specially modified Marathons were also put to work as part of the entourage for Pope Paul VI; these versions being known as the Stato Città del Vaticano-Vatican City.

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One wouldn’t be remiss to think the Aerobus was some kind of exaggerated aftermarket stretch, but it wasn’t.

From 1962, the car was also available, factory-new, in the form of the twelve-seat, eight door, 22 foot long Checker Aerobus. The Aerobus was designed specifically to be a smaller alternative to a bus, essentially the world’s first commercial limousine that ferried passengers to and from airports. The Aerobus was a truly insane machine, and could even be sold privately, but why you’d want a 22 foot long car for your own personal use is a question that begs an answer.

The Marathon was available under two designations, the A11 Taxi and the A12 Passenger. Originally, the car carried over the Superba’s designation of A9 Taxi and A10 Passenger, but this was changed following a facelift in 1963. Initially, the Marathon was powered by a variety of Continental L-head Inline-6 engines with an Over Head Valve (OHV) configuration. Power output for these engines ranged from the low-end 80hp 3.7L to the high-end 140hp 3.7L.

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A Checker Marathon is seen roaming the streets of New York circa 1970.

After 1965, the Marathon sourced small-block Inline-6 engines from Chevrolet, while also introducing Chevy V8 engines which were good for a minimum of 195hp. The highest horsepower rating was on the 5.7L V8 of 1969, which was rated at 300hp.

The A-Frame suspension was derived from 1956 Fords, and was completely interchangeable with contemporary models. This would later make for easy parts sourcing by taxi companies, who would strip these parts from mid-50’s Fords when they became life expired.

Performance wise, the average top speed of the Checker Marathon was 95mph, with a 0-60 time of 14 seconds. Handling was fairly nimble, but due to the car’s incredible weight it wasn’t as light as one would hope; even with power steering.

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The passenger version of the Checker Marathon, comparable to other 60’s sedans but didn’t have the dealer network to back it up.

The car’s life as a passenger vehicle wasn’t exactly where the Marathon found success, with an average customer output of 800 cars per annum resulting in total production figures for the passenger version of 12,722. This was compounded largely by the lack of a dealer network for CMC, with a majority of their products being sold directly to company fleets.

However, it was as a taxicab that the Checker Marathon found its legendary status, one that would put it on par with the likes of the Austin FX4 London Cab as an iconic form of on-demand, point-to-point, chauffeur-driven transportation. Most notable was the car’s association with the legendary Checker Taxi company, which had, by 1960, established itself as one of the largest and most influential cab companies in the USA; but even this firm had been subject to a somewhat turbulent formation.

The Checker Taxi company fell under the control of CMC during its turbulent formative years, when founder Morris Markin began buying up operator licenses from Checker starting in 1924; eventually taking control of the whole company in 1937 and merging it into CMC. This put him at odds with longtime rival Yellow Cab, operated by entrepreneur John Hertz. The competition between Checker and Yellow Cab was often fierce, resulting in drivers engaging in physical fights on the streets of Chicago while at one point Markin’s house was firebombed.

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Checker Cabs are seen in New York during the years leading up to the second ‘Taxi War’.

This resulted in what was known as the first ‘Taxi War’, which ended in 1929 when Hertz sold the Yellow Cab Company to the Parmelee Transportation Company. However, the sale of his truck, taxi and coach manufacturing company to General Motors gave the car builder the incentive to enter the taxi business in New York; forming the Terminal Taxi Company. Checker, meanwhile, had been bought by Parmelee in 1940; making it the largest cab company in the USA.

However, the formation of the Terminal Taxi Company brought about the second ‘Taxi War’ with Checker, the two companies going head to head on the streets of New York with violent consequences. Eventually, New York Mayor Jimmy Walker was forced to restore order by creating the New York Taxi Cab Commission (now called the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission), which issued a limited number of cab operator permits, called taxi medallions, and mandated that cabs have seating for five passengers in the rear compartment. This deal favoured Checker and the handful of other manufacturers that built automobiles which met the Commission’s requirements; and Checker ended up becoming the largest cab company in New York.

Vintage-style-taxi.-1996.
The Checker Cab, as symbolic to New York as the Twin Towers in the background of this 1996 shot.

Checker had made a name for itself with its stylish yellow taxis with black checker waistbands, while the cars designed for them were notable for their wide rear doors, large rear seats and huge bootspace. The Marathon maintained this trend, and quickly became the car of choice for New York and many other American cities thanks to its practical design, comfort, power, performance, styling and robustness; the perfect machine for surviving the harsh and unforgiving streets of the Big Apple.

The Marathon was an immediate cultural icon of New York, and would appear in nearly every film and TV show set in the city for the next 40 years. If one needed to illustrate that a story took place in New York, the simple but evocative image of a Checker Cab would be more than enough to demonstrate that point; its symbolism being just as poignant as the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge or the World Trade Center.

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A screenshot taken from the famous 1976 film Taxi Driver, wherein the Checker Cab found its claim to fame.

Perhaps the car’s most notable movie appearance was in the 1976 thriller Taxi Driver, where Robert De Niro starred as a young but mentally unstable cab driver who descends into madness; set against the backdrop of the increasing social degradation of the city as a whole.

Another notable appearance of the Cab was in 1981’s Escape from New York; where in a dystopian future the island of Manhattan has been turned into a maximum security prison due to escalating crime levels. The Checker Cab is driven by Ernest Borgnine’s character ‘Cabbie’, and is used in a thrilling escape across the mined 59th Street Bridge; whereupon it is blown in half. The car was also featured in the controversial 2001 video game Grand Theft Auto III, where aside from there being an abundance of yellow Checker Cabs, the player could also earn an achievement by finding the rare ‘Red Cabbie’.

The Marathon’s claim to fame wasn’t just as a symbolic New York taxicab, the car frequently stood in for the Soviet luxury saloon and pride of the Politburo; the GAZ Chaika 13. One such instance was in the film Gorky Park and the original Mission: Impossible television series, as the ability to procure real Chaika’s was negated by the Cold War.

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The last Checker Marathon ever built, a 1982 example which now resides at the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners, Michigan.

Construction of the Marathon ended in 1982 after 118,210 units (of which 105,488 were taxicabs), when Checker decided to exit the automobile manufacturing business and chose to focus on its taxicab arm, as well as providing parts and body stamping for the Detroit Big Three. CMC, however, was unable to survive the onslaught of the mid-2008 economic downturn and, with the Big Three facing their own potential bankruptcy, CMC was liquidised in January 2009; 27 years after making their final car.

The Checker cab, on the other hand, continued to be staple of the New York City scene, and would go on to outlive several generations of potential replacements; including the Dodge Polara, several versions of the Chevrolet Caprice, and even the strange and seldom remembered Peugeot 505 taxicab. The car’s rugged dependability, as well as its seemingly unbeatable robustness, meant it was easily able to survive the torturous everyday work of New York City in its darkest hours. While driving hundreds of miles per day through the bustling Manhattan traffic would easily best a majority of cars, the 1970’s and early 80’s, where New York essentially hit rock-bottom, only served to compound the problems faced by the Marathon; and its image would become largely associated with these sordid times.

New York By Night Around 1970
By the mid-70’s, New York had stagnated into a dangerous city filled with seedy theatres and endless crime.

By the mid-70’s, social decline due to economic stagnation and the cultural upheaval of the 60’s left this once magical city a husk of its former self; a place where crime was abundant, the streets echoed to the sound of police cars, the famous musical theatres of Broadway and 42nd street had become stained with adult cinemas, hookers were on every corner, and riots were a daily occurrence. As the ubiquitous wanderer of the city streets, the Checker cab could not escape being associated with this period of the city’s history, and became one of its many seedy symbols; not helped by its portrayal in Taxi Driver.

The Marathon would live on in New York throughout the 80’s and into the 90’s, but time was gradually running out for this age old Cab. Much like London’s Austin FX4, the car was still filling a functional role as a mode of public transport, and therefore meant it couldn’t get by on nostalgia alone. While the Checker Yellow continues to adorn New York taxis to this day, the Checker Marathon itself was in need of a replacement. By the mid-1990’s, a slew of sturdy, cheap, reliable and much better performing equivalents were now available to replace the Marathon; including the Chevrolet Caprice and the Ford Crown Victoria.

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A Checker Marathon is seen during its final years of service in the mid-1990’s. By 1993, only 10 were registered for use as New York taxis.

The curtain eventually fell on the Checker Marathon’s New York career on July 27th, 1999, when the last officially registered cab, a 1978 example, was retired after the owner found that increasing maintenance costs made it difficult to keep the car in profit. While Checker cabs continued to maintain a presence in many other American cities, and have even been exported across the globe, today they’re very hard to come by. Upon retirement, their hard working lives had made them severely careworn and thus a majority were sent immediately to the scrapheap.

However, a fair number have also become museum pieces, while others have returned to the streets of Manhattan to provide tourists with the classical New York experience; seeing one of the most vibrant cities in the world through the window of a classic Checker Marathon taxicab.

Scores

  • Looks – 10/10 – A living, breathing icon of New York, and one that truly established the yellow taxicab
  • Comfort – 5/10 – The long, smooth rear bench and spacious interior gives the passenger some real comfort, but the odd layout of the driver’s area means its not as good for those up front
  • Practicality – 10/10 – It has oodles of space in the back and a huge trunk that can carry several large cases. As the passenger versions of the Marathon bore little difference to the taxicab, it would make for a great family car
  • Features – 2/10 – The Marathon was never known for being a powerhouse of features, even by the standards of the day
  • Reliability – 7/10 – A sturdy and robust machine, but now that age is starting to set in the car will need some work
  • Efficiency – 1/10 – It does 9 miles to the gallon, which is likely why cab drivers charged so much back in the day for even short journeys
  • Quality – 4/10 – As it was a taxicab first and a passenger car second, parts had to be utilitarian and hard-wearing, but at the expense of high-quality materials
  • Speed – 1/10 – It does 0-60 in 14 seconds and will only reach 95mph; then again in average New York traffic I doubt it would reach a sustained speed of 10mph!
  • Handling – 4/10 – It could be nimble under certain circumstances, but generally it was akin to other contemporary American cars of the 60’s; straight-line driving
  • Price – 4/10 – Prices vary. While taxicabs will go for as little as £4,000, the rarer passenger Marathons can fetch prices as high as £20,000 to £25,000. Late-model examples from between 1978 and 1982 are especially sought after
  • Value – 4/10 – It’s unlikely that prices will rise significantly in the near future as these cars, while iconic, are still taxicabs at the end of the day. A love for the passenger version may see minimal increases in value, but don’t put too much money on that
  • Total – 52/110 – A humble machine that came to symbolise one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but its 60’s design is certainly starting to show its age.

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