HomeLifestyleHuman InterestMotorHeadline: The checkered history of Checker Cabs

MotorHeadline: The checkered history of Checker Cabs



(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Augusta Press.) 

Most everyone over the age of 40 has likely ridden in the backseat of a Checker cab at some point, and while the manufacturing company is no longer manufactured, the iconic and now rare Marathon model is beginning to grab the eyes of collectors.

To say the company that built the classic yellow boxes on wheels had a checkered history may be a bit of an understatement, and there is no doubt that the company, which began on the gritty streets of Prohibition Era Chicago, produced a vehicle that became a part of American culture.

When I use the word “checkered,” I am referring to the game of checkers, the oldest game known to humankind.

The founder of the Checker Motors Corporation, Morris Markin, immigrated from his hometown of Smolensk, Russia in 1913, barely escaping conscription as World War I began and the Russian Revolution loomed on the horizon, according to the late Kalamazoo, Mich. Public Library historian Fred Temple.

An early Checker cab. Photo courtesy Kalamazoo, Mich. Public Library

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The 19-year-old Markin, who spoke no English, arrived at Ellis Island with $1.65 in his pocket.

An uncle arranged a job for Markin working in a small clothing factory, and within a couple of years, Markin owned the company.

While the car industry was burgeoning in 1920, most start-ups did not make it. The Ford Model T had reached dominance. However, Markin had a unique plan that required him to take one step at a time.

Markin decided to start a cab company and build his own cars.

By merging a body fabricator company with an engine and frame manufacturing facility and a cab company, Checker Cabs, with the unique checkered pinstripes, became as popular as pizza in Chicago.

However, to say that cabbing in Chicago was competitive in 1922 is also an understatement. Competition was so fierce that rival Yellow and Checker cabbies openly brawled in the streets.

After his house was firebombed, Markin decided he had had enough, Temple writes, and he moved his operation from Chicago to Kalamazoo, and from there, Checker Cabs grew like kudzu.

The automobiles that Checker produced were solid and utilitarian. They also provided plenty of headroom for passengers, and because the vehicles were cabs, the company did not have to change the body styling from year to year, which saved untold amounts of operating capital.

Starting in 1956, the company began developing the boxy icon that remained a big player in movies for over four decades.

The Checker Marathon that was released in 1961 may well have inspired Johnny Cash to write his hit song about building a car “one piece at a time.”

The front end of the car looked like an Edsel without the “horsecollar,” the back end had a mishmash of early Soviet Mosckvich and Cord styling. Engine parts were sourced from Chevrolet, and the car would keep virtually the same design for 22 years.

“They were simple to work on, they didn’t have much horsepower, but that’s the way they were designed. They were cabs with plenty of room inside and in the trunk,” Larry Chavis, owner of Regency Tire and Auto, said.

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Long bodied Checker cab. Photo courtesy Kalamazoo, Mich. Public Library

According to Chavis, who has owned his business on Gordon Highway for 41 years, the cars were well known to exceed 200,000 miles on the odometer when cars of that era were considered aged at 50,000 miles.

According to a 1999 New York Times article, the last Checker Marathon registered as a cab in the Big Apple, the location where the model appeared in hundreds of films, had over 900,000 miles on the dial when it was retired.

The fact the car was so durable may have finally sealed its demise as the Big Three began to see the fleet market the same way that Markin did generations before and began marketing their modified vehicles at a much cheaper price.

Now that the Marathon model has been totally out of production for 40 years, collectors are beginning to pay attention to what was once thought as a simple utilitarian vehicle and, according to Hagerty, a decently restored model can fetch $19,000.

See you on the road!

Scott Hudson is the senior reporter for The Augusta Press. Reach him at scott@theaugustapress.com 

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  1. Our family car was a black Checker Marathon. It was a great car, and we all loved it! I loved sitting in the jump seat. On trips, there was plenty of room for us to play games on the floor…in the days before seat belts.

  2. cabs also came with diesel engine’s in the early 60’s, also in the 70’s checker started making retail cars for the public dressed up a little nicer, this was to try to stay in business. the uaw is what killed the car. when ask to take a pay cut to stay in business uaw voted no so company closed putting thousands out of jobs.

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