Kalamazoo Taxicab Makers
27 July 1999 was a bittersweet day in the history of New York City. It was the last day of operation for the only remaining legal Checker cab in that city. The cab’s driver, Earl Johnson, found himself at the center of a media circus as he took his final fares on a trip through history.
The attention should have come as no surprise, as the Checker cab had long-established itself as a New York icon. The boxy vehicle was as much a symbol of the city and its culture as any landmark or individual. However, despite the Checker’s status as a symbol of New York, the cab’s roots were based in the nation’s smallest full-scale automobile manufacturer, Checker Motors Corporation in Kalamazoo.
The cab that made Kalamazoo famous was the brainchild of Morris Markin. A native of Smolensk, Russia, Markin went to work at the age of twelve and a half. In a mere six years he was in charge of the Smolensk’s largest commission house, handling food, dry goods and produce. But Markin was not content to remain in Smolensk. Two of his uncles had immigrated to Chicago and, at the age of nineteen with only a dollar sixty five in his pocket, Markin went to join them. He soon found work as an errand boy for a tailor. Before long, he had his own shop that, in his own words, made the best pants in the world.
By 1919, Markin began making inroads into the taxi business by taking over the operations of a Chicago cab fleet. Around 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 1922 these concerns were merged into the Checker Cab Manufacturing Corporation. By the end of that year, Markin was turning out over one hundred cabs a month. He looked to expand.
From Chicago to Kalamazoo
Some sources suggest that Markin decided to move his business to Kalamazoo for expansion because the chief engineer he wanted, Leland F. Goodspell, refused to move to Chicago. Other theories propose that Markin sought to put distance between himself and the violent taxi wars being waged between rival cab companies on Chicago’s streets. Markin’s own house was destroyed by a bomb in 1923. Whatever the reason, Markin and Checker would find Kalamazoo an ideal location in which to prosper.
Besides offering desirable engineers and safe distance from cab wars, Kalamazoo had the available infrastructure for a fledgling automotive manufacturer to get off and running rapidly. In order to house the business, Markin purchased two new but recently vacated automobile plants. These were the former Dort Body plant on South Pitcher Street and the Handley-Knight plant on North Pitcher Street. Both of these companies had manufactured passenger cars in Kalamazoo from 1920 to 1923.
In 1929 a significant expansion of the plant was required in order to keep up with demand. Noted architect Albert Kahn, famous for designing most of the automobile plants in Detroit, drafted new steel and concrete buildings to the east of the existing facilities on North Pitcher. The former Dort plant was sold. As a result of this construction, Checker’s production space was vastly increased and concentrated onto one property.
The assembly line contained within Checker’s factory was a testament to industrial efficiency and design. It crossed between buildings via bridges and between floors via ramps. The complex mechanisms were likened to a Rube Goldberg design. Markin himself compared its machinery to a merry-go-round. For the next sixty years production swelled. At the company’s peak over one hundred vehicles a day and five thousand a year rolled off of the line.
Mass production and expansion were needed because demand was so high. Checker’s cabs developed a reputation for comfort and reliability. The company had an association with a number of cab operators who used Checker cabs exclusively. These operators, in fact, were Checker subsidiaries. They included the Checker Cab Company, Yellow Cab, and the Parmalee Transportation Company. In effect, Checker was its own best customer, with around fifteen hundred cabs a year being devoted to these operators. Additionally, Checker’s vehicles became a preferred mode of transportation for cabbies and passengers in cities around the nation. By 1965 over a quarter of the nation’s cabs were Checker-built.
The Depression and World War II
As with virtually all manufacturers, both the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War Two, which followed, had a drastic impact upon Checker and nearly cost Markin his business. Business slacked in the early 1930s, and the impressive assembly line lay idle for extended periods of time in 1932 and 1933. In addition to blaming the economy, Checker’s board of directors targeted Markin. The board fired Markin as Checker’s president on 4 August 1933, and he appeared on the verge of losing his company. Markin was ultimately saved by E.L. Cord, whom Markin convinced to finance his stock options and thus secure control of the company. Cord promptly reinstated Markin to the presidency.
Financial troubles continued until the outbreak of World War Two, which essentially ended civilian production at most manufacturers, including Checker. For the duration Checker produced a number of products for the army, including self-contained trailers, truck cabs, and tank recovery vehicles. While the war dragged on, cab drivers had to make do with the existing stock of Checker cabs. Stories abounded of pre-war Checkers lasting for over a million miles. Such accounts helped cement the legend of Checker’s reliability.
Birth of a Classic
For the first three decades of Checker’s existence, the company continuously improved the cab’s design and styling. New models were introduced every few years. These early Checkers often bore a strong resemblance to contemporary General Motors’ vehicles. However, despite the steady change in styling, all Checker cabs became known for their reliability and spaciousness.
In 1956 the company developed a new design that was destined to become iconic and long-lasting. The boxy design of the new Checker model A8 and its solidness remained the same, with only the occasional modest improvements, for the remainder of the company’s production run. When, in 1958, the successor model A9 was introduced, the only difference between it and the older A8 was a slightly restyled grill and headlight design. Future modifications would be even less noticeable. Such limited alterations would characterize Checker for the next twenty seven years. “Why fix what’s not broken” seemed to be the new corporate motto.
Convinced that he had a good product, Markin decided to enter the passenger car market in 1959. Beginning with the 1960 model year Checker produced the A10 Superba sedans and station wagons, in addition to its traditional cabs. This new product line represented Checker targeting new customers rather than launching a radically new product. The Superbas were merely the company’s tried and true A9 cabs with minimal modifications and appropriate styling. It was felt that a car designed to endure the harshest of driving conditions, as taxis were, would make an excellent family vehicle. Advertising literature promoted the Checker’s reliability, roomy interior, and value for the family.
Although Checker couldn’t compete with the market share of the big Detroit automakers, expansion into the passenger car market proved sufficiently successful and profitable. The Superba earned glowing reviews from Consumer Reports and other industry publications. The cars also developed a loyal consumer following. A nationwide dealership network was established.
In 1961 the Superba was renamed the A12 Marathon. All Checkers took on the name Marathon, with the model number denoting the type of vehicle. As the decade wore on, Checker’s offerings continued to become more varied.
The company continued to expand its offerings with a finely fitted limousine model starting in 1964. The limousines were similar to other Marathons but with black paint job. The inside featured such extras as gray broadcloth upholstry, air conditioning, and a glass partition so the driver wouldn’t overhear the passengers’ talk.
The U. S. State Department turned to Checker’s new limousine as more suitable transportation for some of its diplomats overseas. It purchased two deluxe limousines for use in Moscow and San Salvador. The move came about after U. S. Ambassador to Moscow Llewellyn E. Thompson wrote Washington that his existing 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. An added advantage for the Checker was that Thompson could get in and out without removing his top hat.
Perhaps the most remarkable product to roll off of Checker’s assembly line was the Aerobus, a stretched version of the station wagon. It was available in six door and eight door varieties. The bizarre vehicle proved popular as a passenger shuttle and saw extensive service with airports and hotels. Promotional literature from the time showcased an Aerobus in service with the Upjohn Company.
Another unusual and short-lived product was the Medicar. Medicars were custom limousines with a raised roof for added headroom, a rear door with ramp, and locks to secure wheelchairs and stretchers. The vehicle was aimed at the niche handicapped market, with easy conversion into ambulances.
Despite the expansion of Checker’s catalog of products, all of the new vehicles were not far removed from their taxi roots. Not only were they similar in style, but they had identical engineering as well. These similarities are what allowed Checker its newfound variety. The entire product line used many of the same parts. As a result, the assembly line could easily and quickly be retooled for production from one vehicle to another as demand dictated.
On the Big Screen
In 1978, Hollywood came to Kalamazoo to film a major motion picture, Blue Collar. The film was set in a Detroit automotive plant, but all the Detroit car manufacturers refused to allow filming in their facilities. Fortunately for the filmmakers, Checker Motors opened its doors. The use of the facility for the film, starring Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto and Ed Begley, Jr., added realism to the crime drama. In addition to Checker’s assembly lines, many local people appeared in the film as extras.
While the Checker factory had its starring role in Blue Collar, Checker cabs have starred in countless other films, especially those set in New York City. This exposure has helped cement the vehicle’s association with the city. Interestingly, Checker cabs have continued to appear in New York-based films long after they have disappeared from the city’s working cab fleet.
By the 1970s Checker Motor’s glory days were behind it. A series of events would lead to the eventual demise of the Checker cab itself, and ultimately the company as a whole. Morris Markin died in 1970, costing the company its founder. As the decade wore on, the company’s iconic vehicles become increasingly mechanically obsolete, and stylistically anachronistic. Although the vehicles remained dependable and beloved by passengers, they were becoming too expensive to effectively operate. Rising gas prices made the four thousand pound cabs impractical for taxi companies and drivers. Changing federal regulations in fuel efficiency and safety threatened to impose changes that the company could not afford. By the end of the decade, the company was selling fewer than three thousand vehicles a year.
Checker flirted with various options. One experiment included fitting its iconic cabs with diesel engines. A complete redesign of the vehicle, to conform to modern automotive design, was also pursued. However, these options were considered either too risky or too expensive. In 1982 it was decided to end taxi production. The last Checker rolled off the assembly line on 12 July 1982. That car, an apple green body, currently resides at the Gilmore Car Museum.
With the end of taxi production, more than two hundred and twenty five workers were laid off. Gradually the classic cabs started to disappear from city streets, as old vehicles became worn out and new Checkers were unobtainable. However, the company maintained a profitable business producing parts for other manufacturers, including General Motors. Checker Motors survived in this fashion for the next twenty-seven years, weathering downturns in the auto industry. The economic downturn and near-collapse of the auto industry in 2008 and 2009 proved to be too much. The company declared bankruptcy, sold its contracts and machinery, and went out of business at the end of June 2009. It put an end to an eighty-seven year history in Kalamazoo. Large sections of the plant, including the original Handley-Knight buildings were demolished in late 2010. While some structures remain, including the 1929 Kahn building, the machine shop, and test track, the property’s future is uncertain.
The Legacy of the Checker Cab and the Markin Family
Although Checker Motors has gone out of business, and its iconic vehicles have become a rarity, the legacy left behind remains strong. In its wake, Checker has left a nation-wide network of enthusiasts who remain fiercely loyal to the brand. Checkers of all types have become collector’s pieces, and owners have established a number of organizations devoted to all things Checker.
In 2004, local artists sought to honor the memory of Checker through a city-wide project called “Hail Kalamazoo.” The project was inspired by Chicago’s popular “Cows on Parade” exhibition. The Kalamazoo version featured around thirty four-foot model Checkers, individually decorated by different local artists.
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, sixteen 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 with trails and scenic overlooks in 1994. The east side was developed with camping, fishing, and other recreational facilities in 2000. 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.
Written by David Kohrman, Kalamazoo Public Library Staff, May 2012.
Based on an earlier sketch by Fred Peppel, formerly of the Kalamazoo Public Library Staff.