Cars We Remember: Those lovable Checker taxis, Horn & Hardart and TV memories
Q: Greg, I remember fondly going to Horn & Hardart food luncheonettes with my parents many times in New York in the 1960s and we always took a Checker Cab to get there. I also remember seeing those Checker Cabs on the hit TV show, “Taxi,” which featured Andy Kauffman as the mechanic who worked on them. Whatever happened to the company that built the Checker cars?
Judy N., Owego, New York.
A: Judy, I, too, have enjoyed the Horn & Hardart Automat Cafeteria in NYC and my dad also took my brother and I to the restaurant in a Checker Taxi while visiting the New York World’s Fair in 1964. Who knows, we may have crossed paths.
As for your question about the taxi cabs, the Checker Motor Company was a very busy manufacturer at one time with a long history of building everything from complete taxis to frames and body stampings for the major auto companies. Surprisingly, Checker was still in the auto stamping business in 2009, but the major auto depression was too much for Checker to survive.
Known throughout the auto world as the “Taxi Cab Company,” Checker’s founder was Morris Markin, who oversaw the company’s growth from its birth as Checker Motors Corporation in 1922. At the time, Markin built bodies for several manufacturers and would continue to do so throughout the history of the company.
The nostalgic “New York Taxis” we all miss were constructed in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and centered solely on passenger transportation instead of glitzy design. With a boxy motif, large trunk and lots of rear seat room the “roomy” blueprint was Checker’s overall business philosophy. To fill demand, Checker also built a station wagon and then a 12-passenger extended Aerobus wagon for airport passenger service. Checker’s looks never won any awards, but proved more than worthy for the companies that relied on them for many decades. Checker’s rear seat easily accommodated three full size adults, and if the front seat was needed you could add another two.
Checker built the taxis from 1922 to 1959 exclusively, and beginning in late 1958, entered into the everyday consumer car business. Checker put together a network of dealers and introduced its new 1959 Checker Marathon model to the general public. Although adding a few convenience touches, the Marathons were near identical to the taxi sans the livery lettering and paint. General public sales topped 8,000 in 1962, and averaged about 7,500 yearly over the life of the independent dealers.
As for engines, in the 1950 decade Checkers relied on a flathead style six-cylinder engine called “the Continental.” The company then moved over to General Motors Chevy engines in 1965, including the inline-230 six-cylinder and then the 283/327 small block V8.
As the decade moved through the 1970s, Checker experienced sales decreases as Ford, with its roomy Crown Victoria style four-door, offered better fleet discounts and sales began to fall. In 1982, the last Checker car was built although thanks to the good relationship with General Motors, Checker operated as an automotive subcontractor providing body stamping for the GMC/Chevrolet truck lines and chassis components for the Cadillac. David Markin, son of the founder, continued to act as Checker’s Chief Executive Officer.
However, on Jan. 16, 2009, in the midst of the aforementioned auto depression, the 87-year-old company filed for bankruptcy in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Raw material prices kept escalating as did union labor costs, and Checker sadly came to an end.
You mention the TV show “Taxi,” which aired on ABC from 1978 to May of 1982 and then NBC from September of 1982 to 1983, winning 18 Emmy awards in the process. I also enjoyed the show as those Checker cabs you noted indeed dotted the garage where mechanic Latka Gravas (Kauffman) repaired them. To this day, I also enjoy the older TV comedies and 1940 through 1980 movies that give tremendous glances into the history of the automobile, including all those Checkers. As for Horn & Hardart Automats, (see photo), they first opened in Philadelphia in 1902 and expanded into New York City. The last Horn & Hardart Automat on 42nd Street near Broadway closed in April of 1991.
Thanks for all the memories, Judy.
— Greg Zyla writes weekly for More Content Now, BestRide.com and other Gatehouse Media publications. He welcomes reader questions on old cars, auto nostalgia and old-time motorsports at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, Pennsylvania 18840 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.