Checker Cabs, those unmistakable vehicles of yesteryear, continue to hold a special place in our collective memory, even though production ceased more than three decades ago. These classic cabs are more than just vehicles; they are symbols of an era when transportation was both functional and iconic.
Our journey begins with Morris Markin, a young man of Russian and Jewish descent who embarked on a voyage of dreams and ambition when he emigrated to America in 1913. Settling in Chicago, he initially found his footing in the garment industry, eventually establishing his own business that produced ready-to-wear suits. However, the winds of change blew with the advent of World War I in 1917. Markin pivoted to producing army uniforms as the nation geared up for the conflict.
It was during this time that Markin’s life would take an unexpected turn. His friend and fellow immigrant, Abe Lomberg, was involved in the assembly of purpose-built taxicabs for Commonwealth Motors, complete with custom vehicle bodywork. In a pivotal moment, Markin borrowed $15,000 from Lomberg in 1920. Little did he know that this loan would lead him down a path that would ultimately redefine the American taxi industry.
As fate would have it, Lomberg’s business and Commonwealth Motors both faced challenges and would soon fold. Markin, in hindsight, might have contemplated the textile sector for one more year. Instead, he displayed remarkable tenacity by not giving up. He seized the opportunity to acquire both struggling enterprises and merged them into a single entity. He aptly named it Checker Taxi of Chicago, paying homage to the company’s largest customer.
To truly appreciate Checker Cabs, one must step back in time to an era when the taxi landscape was vastly different from what we know today. Back then, only the well-to-do could afford taxi rides, as most people relied on walking, streetcars, or buses. Markin’s Checker Cabs stood out not only for their distinctive appearance but also for the luxurious experience they offered.
The early Checker Cabs were imposing, aesthetically pleasing vehicles equipped with sumptuous cabins. Some versions even featured seats filled with down, which attentive cabbies would expertly puff up between passengers using specialized paddles. These vehicles earned a reputation for their durability, dependability, and ease of maintenance, all of which translated to low operating costs. By the late 1920s, Checker Cabs had made significant inroads in several American cities, including Pittsburgh, Chicago, Minneapolis, and New York City, where they accounted for nearly half of all cabs.
Checker’s Triumph During the Great Depression
While the Great Depression cast a pall over countless businesses, it paradoxically favored Morris Markin’s Checker Taxi enterprise. It was during this trying period that Markin solidified his position in the taxi sector. One of his main rivals, General Motors, decided to exit the taxicab manufacturing industry entirely. As a result, when the owners of the cabs Checker had sold on credit and failed to make payments, Markin found himself in a unique position. He had to repossess the cabs and employ his drivers to ensure their continued operation. By 1940, Markin had become a major producer and one of the largest taxicab operators in the country, thanks to his acquisition of these cabs. Checker Manufacturing was now assured of a steady stream of business.
In 1941, the United States entered World War II, prompting a temporary cessation of domestic car manufacturing. Checker, like many other companies, pivoted to supplying the military with essential truck parts and equipment. However, as the war came to a close, Checker swiftly resumed its core business of producing taxis.
In the post-WWII era, Checker continued to rely on older models. However, a significant transformation awaited in 1956 when the company rebranded itself as Checker Motors. The unveiling of a brand-new model, the A8, would herald a new era. This model, fondly known as the Checker Marathon, would go on to serve as the foundation for every taxi produced by the company over the next 25 years.
Comparing the Checker Marathon to the opulent cabs of yesteryears is a study in contrast. The interiors, once opulent and plush, now embraced a utilitarian design. The once-luxurious cloth ceilings were replaced with hard fiberboard, while rubber floor mats took the place of plush carpets. The days of down-filled cushions were long gone, supplanted by unpleated bench seats.
However, what truly set the Checker Marathon apart was its sheer spaciousness. The interior was roomy, almost cavernous, defying the typical constraints of a taxi cab. Rear seat passengers enjoyed a generous 46.30 inches of legroom—a virtually unparalleled luxury. With foldable jump seats and room for three on the bench seat, along with a passenger seat beside the driver, the Marathon could comfortably accommodate up to six passengers, along with their luggage. Hats could remain perched on heads, baby strollers could be maneuvered with ease, and there was ample room for passengers and cargo alike.
Revolutionizing the Taxi Industry
Checker Cabs, often referred to as “Checkered Cabs,” left an indelible mark on the transportation industry. Their impact was profound, reshaping the taxi landscape in numerous ways.
One of the key contributions of Checker Cabs was making taxi rides accessible to a broader demographic. In the early 20th century, taxi rides were a luxury primarily reserved for the affluent. However, Checker Cabs changed this paradigm by offering a comfortable and stylish means of transportation at an affordable price. This shift democratized taxi services, allowing people from various economic backgrounds to enjoy the convenience of a cab ride.
Durability and Dependability
Checker Cabs were known for their exceptional durability and dependability. Their robust construction and meticulous engineering ensured that these vehicles could withstand the rigors of daily use in the taxi industry. Taxi operators and drivers found Checker Cabs to be highly reliable, resulting in reduced maintenance costs and increased uptime. This reputation for toughness and dependability made Checker Cabs the preferred choice for taxi businesses and individual drivers alike.
Expansion of Taxi Services
The introduction of Checker Cabs played a pivotal role in expanding taxi services to cities across the United States. These distinctive cabs became a common sight on the streets of major urban centers, including Pittsburgh, Chicago, Minneapolis, and New York City. In many of these cities, Checker Cabs accounted for a significant portion of the taxi fleet, showcasing their widespread acceptance and popularity.
Checker Cabs During the Great Depression
Interestingly, Checker Cabs thrived during the challenging years of the Great Depression. While economic turmoil affected numerous industries, the taxi sector, driven by Checker Cabs, continued to flourish. The availability of affordable and reliable transportation became even more crucial during this period, contributing to the sustained success of Checker Cabs.
Influence on Competitors
Checker Cabs’ success influenced the taxi manufacturing landscape. General Motors, a major competitor, ultimately withdrew from the taxicab manufacturing industry, leaving a significant void. This decision allowed Checker Cabs to further solidify its position in the market. The absence of General Motors paved the way for Checker Cabs to become a dominant force in the taxi industry.
Legacy of Spaciousness
Perhaps one of the most enduring legacies of Checker Cabs was their spacious interiors. The introduction of the Checker Marathon, with its roomy and versatile interior, set a new standard for passenger comfort. Passengers enjoyed an exceptional amount of legroom, and the ability to accommodate six passengers comfortably, along with their luggage, was a defining feature. This legacy of spaciousness continued to influence the design of taxis and other vehicles, emphasizing passenger comfort and convenience.
A Cultural Icon
Checker Cabs transcended their role as mere modes of transportation; they became cultural icons. Their distinctive black-and-white checkered patterns and classic design made them instantly recognizable. Checker Cabs featured prominently in movies, television shows, and advertisements, cementing their status as enduring symbols of an era when taxi rides were a unique and cherished experience.
While Checker Cabs may no longer grace our streets, their spirit and legacy live on. They continue to evoke nostalgia for a simpler time when getting around town was an experience in itself. These iconic cabs may have disappeared from our daily lives, but they remain etched in our memories, reminding us that even in the ever-evolving world of transportation, some icons never fade.