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Old 01-15-2010, 10:00 AM
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Iconic Checker Cab Company Shuts Down

It has been more than a decade since the last old Checker cab disappeared from the city’s taxi ranks and nearly three decades since the last new cab rolled off the production line.

And yet, as a quick visit to any shop peddling tourist trinkets will confirm, that boxy yellow taxi with the cartoonish styling and a passenger cabin the size of a Manhattan living room remains an enduring symbol of New York.

Even after the Checker cars were gone from city streets, the company that made them, the Checker Motors Corporation, lived on. In fact, the company demonstrated surprising staying power as it quietly evolved from one of the country’s best-known independent carmakers to a manufacturer of car parts for General Motors and other companies.

But no more. This week, about a year after it declared bankruptcy and about 28 years after it made its last car, Checker Motors formally moved into the past tense with the sale of its headquarters in Kalamazoo, Mich.

“It’s finished,” said David Markin, 78, president of the company that his father founded in 1922. “Our family is very distressed about the closing of the company,” Mr. Markin said. “But it became inevitable.”

Even if it caused little surprise in the passionate community of Checker cab aficionados, the passing of the company was marked with sadness.

“It’s iconic,” said Bobby Lowich, who favored the Checker during his 37 years as a New York taxi driver and still drives one for personal use today. “It should have been saved.”

One of the cars’ leading collectors, Ben Merkel, who estimated that he owns about 25 Checker cabs and has sold or scrapped 300 more (he guessed that 500 to 700 survive today), lamented the loss of the buildings that had produced the vehicles.

“We always had the factory,” said Mr. Merkel, who lives in Ohio. “It was kind of the last connection to the car.”

Checker’s founder, Morris Markin, was a Russian immigrant who built the company into one of the dominant producers and operators in the taxi industry, employing about 1,000 people and producing about 5,000 cars a year at its peak.

For years the vehicles enjoyed a near monopoly in New York – where Mr. Markin held about 4,000 taxi medallions – and the cars were dominant in Chicago, Pittsburgh and Minneapolis, as well. But when New York authorized the use of smaller cars to be used as taxis in 1954, Checker steadily lost ground as drivers shifted to cheap and fuel-efficient vehicles from spacious and durable – and Mr. Markin sold his taxi medallions.

When the last cab rolled off the line on July 12, 1982, the headline in The New York Times read, “Checker Taxi, 60, Dies of Bulk in Kalamazoo.” All that bulk provided sturdiness, though, and the last Checker cab in New York did not retire until 17 years later, on July 26, 1999.

The company scrapped its unprofitable taxi-making business to refocus on parts supply, and eventually the bulk of the business came from General Motors. When the auto giant started to falter, revenues plummeted. Last January, the Checker company declared bankruptcy.

Checker sold its manufacturing contracts and much of its equipment to pay off debt – donating other materials to the nearby Gilmore Car Museum in Michigan - and laid off nearly all of the remaining employees.

Jim Garrison, who worked at the company for 32 years, said there was an atmosphere of quite resolve on June 25, 2009, when production finally halted. “In those last days,” he said, “people pretty much understood the position Checker was in.”

On Tuesday, Checker sold its property for just under $3 million to a holding company, the Jones Group, which will sell off the assets and clear the 72 acres, said Terry Jones, the owner of the holding company.

“In some ways it’s kind of sad; in other ways it was kind of inevitable,” said John Weinhoeft, secretary of the Checker Car Club of America, who drove cross country last summer in an antique Checker cab. “The company basically died in 1982 when they quit building the cars.”
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Old 01-15-2010, 10:01 AM
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Join Date: Mar 2009
Location: Philadelphia
Posts: 5,659
500-700 survive today? I feel like it is quite a lot more than that.
Current stable:
- 2004 Mazda RALLYWANKEL
- 2007 Saturn sky redline
- 2004 Explorer...under surgery.

Past: 135i, GTI, 300E, 300SD, 300SD, Stealth
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Old 01-15-2010, 11:57 AM
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Join Date: Jan 2002
Posts: 18,355
The movie Blue Collar was filmed at the old Checker factory.
1977 300d 70k--sold 08
1985 300TD 185k+
1984 307d 126k--sold 8/03
1985 409d 65k--sold 06
1984 300SD 315k--daughter's car
1979 300SD 122k--sold 2/11
1999 Fuso FG Expedition Camper
1993 GMC Sierra 6.5 TD 4x4
1982 Bluebird Wanderlodge CAT 3208--Sold 2/13
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Old 01-15-2010, 02:05 PM
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Join Date: Apr 2005
Location: Rockville MD
Posts: 833
I had a 1971 Checker for a few years. I remember freaking out because I couldn't get it through inspection due to a missing license plate light, and then finding out a Trak Auto "utility light" snapped perfectly into the hole. LOL The whole car was like that - standard Chevy running gear and low tech off the shelf parts. Despite their tank-like reputation though, the cars were not built to last a long time. Rust was the major problem.
1985 380SE Blue/Blue - 230,000 miles
2012 Subaru Forester 5-speed
2005 Toyota Sienna
2004 Chrysler Sebring convertible
1999 Toyota Tacoma
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Old 01-15-2010, 06:59 PM
89 300E
Join Date: May 2008
Location: Long Island, NY
Posts: 80
Back in school, one of my profs was contracted to discover why Checkers built after 1973 just broke in half when in service for three to five weeks.

The problem was that to accommodate the converter, the line workers would just take a saw to the frame, without welding any additional reenforcement.
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