Checker Motors: Taxicab Makers

Checker cab, 1982

                         Checker cab, 1982

The last legal Checker cab in New York City in 1997 was driven by Johann Struna, a 63-year-old Slovenian immigrant who had been a cabby for almost two decades and wanted to make it just two more years. In it's heyday, the warhorse of taxicabs numbered 5,000.

Drivers and riders alike mourned the cab's demise. One driver said, "I won't drive one of the other ones. They're small and cramped up, and they can't carry anything." Indeed, one advertising photo shows a sheep standing in the trunk of the vehicle. It was the size and shape of the 4,000-pound Checker cab that enabled it to take the constant starts and stops of city driving. Individual vehicles were known to last for over 300,000 miles of this punishing use. Its weight, however, made it less economical to run as gasoline prices soared in the 1970s. Sales of the Kalamazoo-made vehicle began to plummet.

Morris Markin

Morris Markin

Early History

The cab that made Kalamazoo famous was the brainchild of Morris Markin. A native of Smolensk, Russia, Markin went to work there when he was 12-1/2 years old. After six years he was in charge of the city's largest commission house, handling food, dry goods and produce. He then set his sights on Chicago, where two uncles had emigrated. At the age of 19 and with $1.65 in his pocket, Markin traveled to Chicago. At first he busied himself with odd jobs and eventually answered an ad for an errand boy who could speak Russian and who was interested in learning to be a tailor. Before long, he had his own shop that, in his own words, made the best pants in the world.

Getting into the Taxi Business

By 1919, Markin began making inroads into the taxi business by taking over the operations of a Chicago cab fleet about the same time he opened a body plant called Markin Body. Three years later, Markin acquired a chassis company in Joliet, Illinois from a financially troubled friend. In May of 1922, the Checker Cab Manufacturing Corp. began production and by the end of that year was turning out 100-plus cars a month. He looked to expand.

It is said that Markin purchased a pair of vacant plants on north and south Pitcher streets in Kalamazoo for his expansion because the chief engineer he wanted for his motor company wouldn't move to Chicago. The plants had been the former site of production of the Handley-Knight automobile.

Checker cab, 1926 model

Checker cab, 1926 model

Mass Production

For the next 60 years the cabs rolled off the assembly line at about 100 vehicles a day. The boxy design of the car and its solidness remained the same for years. "Why fix what's not broken" seemed to be the motto. By 1962, the plant had turned out a good share of the nation's taxicabs. The cab's reputation for durability kept the company going, despite reversals of fortune during the Depression and sales slumps in the 1970s.

Checker Cab logo

World War II - 1970s

During World War II, Checker, like many local firms, used its workforce and facilities to help the war effort by making artillery trailers and parts for other defense contractors. After the war, Checker moved into building private passenger cars and introduced the Superba sedans and station wagons in 1960. These vehicles were only a half step away from the design of the taxi. They became quite popular and are now collector's items. In 1964 the company introduced the Checker Town Custom Limousine.

Foreign Service

The U. S. State Department turned to Checker Motors for more suitable transportation for its diplomats overseas. It purchased two four-door sedans in the Marathon deluxe series for use in Moscow and San Salvador. The move came about after U. S. Ambassador to Moscow Llewellyn E. Thompson wrote Washington that his big limousines were "...not suitable for the cobblestones and rough roads encountered in the Soviet Union." It also was hard to buy high-octane gas for them. Another advantage was that Thompson could get in and out of the Checker limo without removing his top hat. The new limo looked like a cab painted black, but the inside featured such extras as gray broadcloth upholstery, air conditioning and a glass partition so the driver wouldn't overhear the passengers' talk.

Parmalee Transportation

Markin not only built taxis and limousines, he provided vehicles for Parmalee Transportation company, of which he was chairman. Parmalee operated limousine service between Chicago's many railroad stations and to the Chicago airports. It also controlled taxi operations in Pittsburgh and Minneapolis. At one time Parmalee operated cabs in New York City, but it sold its licenses there for $8 million in the 1960s.

On the Big Screen

In 1978, Hollywood came to Kalamazoo to film a major motion picture, "Blue Collar." The film was set in an auto assembly plant, and all the Detroit car manufacturers refused to allow filming in their facilities. Checker Motors opened its doors, and the film, starring Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto and Ed Begley, Jr., made the crime drama a reality. Many local people appeared in the film as extras.

The Legacy of Checker Cab and the Markin Family

Although the last Checker Cab rolled off the assembly line on 12 July 1982, the company is still in business manufacturing parts for other automobile makers.

The Markin family has left more than memories for Kalamazoo, however. David Markin, Morris' son, and an avid tennis player, donated the monies to erect the Markin Racquet Center on Kalamazoo College's campus. It serves as indoor practice and performance space for tennis teams and houses the United States Tennis Association (USTA) office and the Western Tennis Association Hall of Fame.

Another legacy is Markin Glen Park, the former homestead of Morris Markin. Upon his death in 1970, 16 acres of his property became a city park called Maple Glen Park. The city hoped to develop Maple Glen into a year-round municipal park with an emphasis on winter sports, but due to budget constraints and vandalism, the city closed the park in 1977. Later the City of Kalamazoo sold the property to the county, and a group that became known as the Parks Foundation commissioned a master plan for the park. The park's west side was developed and opened in June 1994. In April 1997 Maple Glen Park was renamed Markin Glen Park to honor the history of the land and the Markin family's continued support of the park.

Sources

Articles

"Checker Cabs Make Their Last Stand"

  • New York Times, 27 March 1997 copy in History Room Subject File: Checker Motors Corp.

"Checker Motors president dies" 

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 8 July 1970, page A1, column 2

"Checker Took Kalamazoo for a 60-year Ride" 

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 19 June 1999, page S17, column 1

"Compact Limousine Eyed for Diplomats"

  • Chicago Sun Times, 2 September 1961 copy in History Room Subject File: Checker Motors Corp.

"Morris Markin Keeps Firm Hand In Checker Operations"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 4 November 1962, page 8, column 1