The Lomberg Auto Body Manufacturing Co. of Joliet, Illinois was organized in the late-teens by a Russian immigrant named Abraham (Abe) Lomberg (1883-1951) to manufacture automobile bodies for the region’s numerous automobile manufacturers, primarily the Commonwealth Motors Corp.
The history of Commonwealth can be traced to the DeSchaum Motor Syndicate of Buffalo, New York which was founded by William A. Schaum in 1908. The firm’s ‘Seven Little Buffaloes’ 2-cylinder high-wheeler became the DeShaum Motor Buggy in 1909. After an announced relocation to Hornell, New York the firm was reorganized as the DeShaum-Hornell Motor Car Co. However DeShaum, changed his mind and relocated to Ecorse, Michigan in 1910 where he began making a new vehicle called the Suburban. The following year the firm was reorganized as the Suburban Motor Car Company, but following a 1912 scandal involving missing funds, Schaum resigned and was replaced by Randall A. Palmer, the former secretary of the CarterCar Motor Car Corp. Palmer reorganized the firm as the Palmer Motor Car Company in 1913, and the following year entered into a partnership with the Partin Mfg. Co. of Chicago, Illinois, becoming the Partin-Palmer Motor Car Co. Its products were now called Partin-Palmers and the firm relocated to Rochelle, Illinois. Unfortunately the numerous reorganizations and renamed products culminated in the firm’s 1915 bankruptcy.
Charles C. Darnall, Partin-Palmer’s former sales manager, gained control of the firm and reorganized it as the Commonwealth Motors Corp. Darnall had been long associated with the automobile industry. In the early 1900s he had served as general manager of the Palmer-Darnall Co., a Bloomington Illinois auto manufacturer that was founded by his brother, W.C. Darnall, and two other investors; J. A Cooper and H. M. Palmer (unrelated to Randall A Palmer). To differentiate the Commonwealth from the hundreds of other low-priced assembled cars, Darnall came up with the phrase ‘The Car with the Foundation’ and set about beefing up the vehicles nickel-alloy steel chassis using 5” flanges and heavily gusseted crossmembers. Darnall’s marketing scheme proved successful and the firm gained a foothold with their $995 Commonwealth 40hp touring.
Commonwealth relocated to Joliet, Illinois in 1919 and the car’s sturdy reputation resulted in sales to a number of Chicago taxi operators. Later that year they introduced their Mogul Taxi, a purpose-built vehicle utilizing the sturdy Commonwealth frame and purpose-built bodies provided by another Joliet firm, the Lomberg Auto Body Mfg. Co.
The Lomberg Auto Body Manufacturing Co. was organized in the late-teens by a Russian immigrant named Abraham (Abe) Lomberg (1883-1951) to manufacture automobile bodies for the region’s numerous automobile manufacturers. In order to produce the number of bodies needed by Commonwealth for their new Mogul taxi, Lomberg was forced to seek additional capital, which was supplied by another Russian immigrant named Morris Markin. Markin was a successful Chicago clothier who had amassed a small fortune providing uniforms to the US Army during World War I.
Markin was born into poverty in the western Russian city of Smolensk in 1893. After a minimal public education he found work in a local clothing factory and by the age of nineteen had become foreman of a trouser manufacturer’s sewing department. Faced with a bleak future in Czarist Russia, Markin accepted an invitation from an uncle in Chicago to emigrate to the United States. He used his savings and booked passage on a steamer bound for New York’s Ellis Island, arriving in 1913.
Upon his arrival in Chicago, he found work as an assistant tailor and soon became a skilled tailor. Following the death of his employer, he was put in charge and eventually purchased the business from the tailor’s widow. Within the year, he had accumulated enough spare earnings to finance the emigration of his immediate family to the United States, and found them positions in Chicago’s growing garment industry. He eventually entered the ready made suit and pants business with one of his brothers and by the time World War I rolled around, he received a lucrative contract to supply uniforms for the US Army.
When the war ended, Markin was flush with capital, and began to invest in a number of Russian-owned local businesses, one of which was Abe Lomberg’s Auto Body Company to which he loaned out $15,000. Unfortunately for Lomberg, the expected sales of Commonwealth’s Mogul taxis fell far short of expectations and by the end of 1920, Lomberg could no longer keep up with the monthly payments and surrendered ownership of the firm to Markin.
As the nation fell into the post-war recession of 1920-21, things looked bleak for both Lomberg Body and Commonwealth, and production fell to less than 10 completed vehicles per week. Luckily Commonwealth received a substantial order from the Checker Taxi Company in late 1920 just as Commonwealth’s creditors were closing in. The order kept the receivers at bay for a number of months, but by late 1921, Commonwealth Motors Corp. was finally forced into bankruptcy.
The shrewd Markin completed a number of legal maneuvers in rapid succession in order to protect his body building investment. In late 1920, he had reorganized the Lomberg Body Company into the Markin Body Company, and following Commonwealth’s bankruptcy, had made an offer to exchange shares in the Markin Body Corporation for the assets of the now bankrupt auto manufacturer.
Markin had somehow managed to get the assets of the Markin Body Company assessed for $182,703 which was most likely many times greater than the firm’s actual value, which gave him an extraordinary share of the firm’s stock. However, it looked good to Commonwealth’s receivers, and as it was the best, and most likely the only, offer presented to for Commonwealth’s assets, it was accepted in October of 1921. After waiting a few months for the dust to settle, Markin merged the two firms, and reorganized them as the Checker Cab Manufacturing Company in May of 1922.
Markin subsequently offered 25,000 shares of stock to help raise operating capital. As a consequence of that stock offering, Markin and Michael Glassberg, Checker Cab Mfg. Co.’s treasurer, were jointly indicted in 1924 by the criminal court of Cook county for violating Illinois’ ‘Blue Sky’ law.
In an attempt to boost the value of his Checker Cab shares, Markin purposely overestimated the value of the firm’s assets and failed to list all of its debts. Although both men were initially convicted, fined $2,000, and sentenced to 30 days in prison, the ruling was reversed on appeal and they were acquitted.
For a few more months, Checker produced Mogul taxicabs and Commonwealth passenger cars side by side, but Markin had confidence that Checker’s future lay in taxis, and focused all of his efforts on the introduction of the Checker Model C taxi, which was introduced to Chicago’s fleet operators on June 18, 1922.
The Commonwealth was an assembled car as were all subsequent Checkers and the firm’s first cab, the Mogul Checker Model H was little more than a standard Commonwealth passenger car with a heavy-duty clutch and suspension. When Markin took over the firm he added a checkerboard patterned beltline and logo, and even installed little checkered lenses on its parking lamps.
In 1922 Markin shut down production of the Commonwealth passenger car and began searching for a plant outside of Chicago that had room for expansion. During the winter of 1922-1923, Markin inspected the former Mitchell Motors plant in Racine, Wisconsin as well as two plants in Kalamazoo, Michigan; the Dort Auto Body plant and the 3-year-old plant of the Handley-Knight Company.
The Dort plant was no longer needed by the recently reorganized Flint, Michigan automaker and the modern Handley-Knight facility was seriously underutilized by its owner James I. Handley. Another factor in Kalamazoo’s favor was the city’s hundreds of skilled auto workers and body craftsmen that had lost their jobs during the previous year when a number of Kalamazoo-based automakers had gone out of business.
In addition to its skilled labor force, Kalamazoo also had a handful of skilled automotive engineers, namely the Barley Motor Car Company’s Leland F. Goodspeed and James Stout. The pair had helped develop the Barley-built Pennant taxicab and were directly responsible for much of Checker’s early success in the field.
Markin met with the city fathers as well as the owners of both firms and successfully negotiated a plan where he would purchase the former Dort Body plant from its owner and would assume control of the Handley-Knight plant providing that he would allow Handley to continue to use it for the production of Handley-Knight Motor Cars. Unfortunately, the production of that vehicle ended with the death of James I. Handley later that year, so for all practical purposes, Markin now had use of the entire facility.
At that time Chicago’s Teamsters, Chauffeurs and Helpers Union was vying for control of the unrelated Checker Taxi association, and on June 6, 1923 union organizer Frank Sexton was shot and killed by gunmen opposed to unionization. The United Press wire reported:
The following day Morris Markin’s home was bombed as reported by the Associated Press:
Agents representing the State’s Attorney General rounded up Jack Rose, Sexton’s alleged shooter, and thirty other suspects, all believed to be involved in the conflict. Markin believed he was targeted as he had refused to “play ball” with the Teamsters and their violent criminal elements.
During one of Rose’s preliminary court hearings, Patrick Sexton, Frank Sexton’s father, shot and killed Rose as he was being led from the courtroom:
The increasingly untenable situation had already prompted Markin to look for a new manufacturing facility located as far away as possible from Chicago. At the time of the bombing Markin was in the process of relocating his cab manufacturing operations to Kalamazoo, Michigan and the first cab rolled out of the former Handley-Knight automobile plant at 2016 North Pitcher St. on July 15, 1923.
Markin also established a Manhattan sales office called the Mogul Checker Sales Co. and late in the year an improved version of the Checker Model H, called the Model H2 was introduced to much acclaim and orders started pouring in from Chicago, Detroit and New York City.
While Yellow Cab's John D. Hertz’ influence peddling was largely done behind closed doors, the outgoing Markin didn’t shy away from personally bribing trial witnesses, a scheme that backfired in early November, 1923 as reported by the Associated Press:
The model E that debuted early in 1924 was a further continuation of the original beefed up Commonwealth Mogul taxi although it now included a pair of jump seats and was also available with a landau roof that could be folded back for open air sightseeing.
Markin had increased production from less than ten cabs per week to over seventy-five per week in less than two years, and the two Kalamazoo plants employed as many as 700 hands. Although Checker’s factory was now located in Kalamazoo, the firm’s main office remained in Chicago as Markin remained active in other Chicago-based business ventures and also preferred to live there.
In 1926, the Model F debuted, again another cab based on the original Model H, although an angled windscreen replaced the previous model’s vertical unit. Also new was an optional landaulet roof for the passenger compartment that included an enclosed driver’s compartment.
The following year, Checker introduced the Model G, which was just another facelift of the firm’s first cab, although a new long wheelbase version premiered with a standard 6-cylinder engine.
On June 16, 1928 Checker Cab Manufacturing issued new stock that was underwritten by the NY banking and brokerage house of J.A. Sisto & Co., 68 Wall St., one of Manhattan’s most respected brokers.
The firm’s first all-new cab in almost a decade debuted in October of 1928. Priced at $2,500, the new vehicle was christened the Model K, and it featured modern coachwork equipped with safety glass all around, a six-cylinder Buda engine, disc wheels and 4-wheel hydraulic brakes fitted to a lengthy 127” wheelbase. A town car version was available and the long list of standard amenities included a heater, an automatic windshield washer, illuminated instruments and chrome-plated bumpers.
On December 26, 1928 Checker Cab Manufacturing purchased their New York-based distributor, the Checker Cab Sales Corp., the successor to the Mogul-Checker Cab Sales Co. a firm organized by the firm’s original Manhattan distributor on September 22, 1922. Included in the December acquisition was the Fisk Discount Corp, a Manhattan-based taxicab finance company.
In 1925 John D. Hertz sold the Yellow Cab Manufacturing Company to General Motors Corporation, who merged it with their truck manufacturing operation and reorganized them as the Yellow Truck & Coach Corp. Although its corporate headquarters remained in Chicago, all manufacturing was subsequently relocated to Pontiac, Michigan.
The sale to General Motors did not involve the Chicago Yellow Cab Company, nor the Yellow Taxi Corporation of New York, two totally separate firms controlled by Hertz that operated taxicabs in their respective communities.
The Yellow Cab Company of Chicago was a subsidiary of the Chicago Yellow Cab Company, a public holding company that also included a maintenance subsidiary and insurance company. The shares of Chicago Yellow were equally divided amongst Hertz, Parmelee and a small group of other investors.
For a number of years Ernest H. Miller had been partners with Morris Markin and two others in a scheme to slowly take control of the independently-owned Checker Taxicab Company of Chicago.
By 1928 Hertz had grown tired of having to deal with Chicago mobsters and wanted out of the taxi business. He was aware that Markin was interested in acquiring it and as Miller was a friend of Markin’s he asked him to try and put together a deal. Chicago attorney Paul C. L'Amoreaux, a business partner of Miller and Markin’s, was asked to come up with a business plan that would suit all interested parties which would have to include Charles A. McCulloch, the head of the Parmelee Transfer Company. (Although their last names were similar, Parmelee’s McCulloch was unrelated to Checker Cab’s criminally-minded McCullough brothers.)
While L’Amoreaux worked out the details, Markin began looking for the money that would be required to finalize the transaction. He turned to the New York investment firm of J.A. Sisto & Co., the underwriters through whom Checker Cab Manufacturing had recently effected its second public issue of stock.
After weeks of preparation L’Amoreaux presented a complicated plan that was eventually approved by all three principals. It involved a carefully planned sequence of events whereby the minority shareholders of the four firms wouldn’t be alerted to the ultimate goal of the transaction until after it had occurred, thereby keeping the value of the various shares as stable as possible.
Hertz and McCullough were longtime friends and business partners. Both were early investors in the Chicago-based Balaban and Katz movie theater chain and in 1929 had helped form the Manhattan-Dearborn Corp., a real estate investment firm. McCulloch was also an early Yellow Cab investor and John D. Hertz had similarly invested in Parmelee stock.
At the time of the acquisition, McCulloch was vice-president of Chicago Yellow Cab and both men owned approximately 30% of each other’s shares. McCulloch was also friends with Markin and had been investing in shares of Parmelee’s preferred stock since the mid-twenties.
L’Amoreaux presided over lengthy private negotiations amongst Miller (representing Hertz), McCulloch, Markin, and J.A. Sisto & Co. and it was decided that the first transaction would involve the sale of Hertz’ share of Yellow Cab to McCulloch, whereby McCulloch would become Yellow’s chief stockholder. That transaction didn’t take place until April 12, 1929 but was publicly announced on January 7, 1929 in the hopes of ending the violence that had recently been directed towards Hertz:
Checker Cab Mfg. also acquired control of Checker Cab Sales Corp. in New York in January of 1929. This company handled all the Checker business in and around the New York City area. By the end of January, 1929 there were 21,000 taxis in New York City, and, of this total, over 8,000 were Checkers.
By April J.A. Sisto & Co. had finished arranging for the financing of the Yellow-Parmelee deal and in conjunction with L’Amoreaux had finalized the financial and operating structure of Parmelee.
One of the subscribers to Checker’s 1928 stock offering was John J. Raskob, the current head of the Democratic National Committee and the financial chairman of DuPont and General Motors. Raskob had been an early investor in General Motors and had engineered DuPont's ownership of 43% of GM, purchased from the financially troubled William C. Durant.
Raskob had supported Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith in the 1928 election, and Smith invited him to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Sloan, a supporter of Herbert Hoover, insisted Raskob resign either from GM or the DNC. He left GM after the board supported Sloan, sold his GM stock, and used the proceeds to build the Empire State Building.
Raskob began acquiring stock in Checker Cab Mfg. in 1928 and by 1930 he held a reported 200,000 shares. Although he claims he acquired Checker stock as an innocent personal investment, as early as 1930 Business Week reported that skeptics believed that he was trying to force Markin out.
Raskob sold DuPont 8,000 shares of Checker Cab Manufacturing Co. stock on December 12, 1929. DuPont confirmed the sale in a letter to Raskob on January 6, 1930 (8000 shares Checker Cab at 31 = $248,000). Dupont had recently purchased other shares of Checker stock on November 15, 1929 through a broker.
Ernest H. Miller was elected president of the newly organized Parmelee Transportation Co. (aka Parmelee System) in April of 1929, serving as President for the next two years. He retained his interest in Newark’s Yellow Cab Co. until February 20, 1930, when he sold his majority share of the firm to the Public Service Co-ordinated Transport Co.
Miller passed away on December 24, 1932, and was succeeded as Parmelee president by attorney Paul C. L'Amoreaux, the architect of Markin’s takeover of Parmelee and Yellow Taxi. Unfortunately L’Amoreaux served less than a year in office, passing away the following September (September 2, 1933). Levin Rank, Parmelee Transportation’s secretary and treasurer, became its next president.
Three weeks before the upcoming Parmelee - Checker Cab Mfg. merger was publicly announced the AP reported:
According to published accounts, of the estimated 21,000 cabs operating in Metropolitan New York during 1929, 8,000 of them were built by Checker, and in January of that year, Markin acquired a controlling interest in the Checker Cab Sales Corp. of New York, the firm’s largest retail outlet. A large order from Philadelphia’s largest operator later that year helped to make 1929, Checker Cab Manufacturing Company’s most profitable year to date.
The second phase of L’Amoreaux’ plan was publicly announced on April 5, 1929, although the Checker Cab Manufacturing’s involvement was significantly overstated:
The Parmelee Transportation Company, a Delaware corporation, was organized in 1929 to acquire a controlling interest in the shares of the Parmelee Company, similarly a Delaware corporation doing business in Chicago.
On April 12, 1929, a new corporation was organized under the name of Parmelee Transportation Company and its common stock and debenture bonds which were later listed on the New York Stock Exchange were sold to the public. All of its preferred stock was sold to Checker Cab Manufacturing Corporation. With the funds provided by the sale of these securities the Parmelee Company, then operating, was purchased as a nucleus of an integrated transportation system to furnish taxicab and limousine service in some of the larger cities. In 1934, Chicago’s Parmelee Company was liquidated into the Parmelee Transportation Company.
The Parmelee Transportation Company was formed April 12, 1929, with a capitalization of $10,600,000, consisting of $5,000,000 of debentures, $1,000,000 of preferred shares and 250,000 common shares of the value of $4,600,000. Only the common shares possessed voting power. The $5,000,000 of debentures and the 250,000 common shares were publicly issued through J. A. Sisto & Co. and White Weld & Co. as underwriters. The $1,000,000 of preferred shares were purchased by the Checker Cab Manufacturing Co.
In purchasing the $1,000,000 of Parmelee preferred shares, Checker Cab Manufacturing hoped to receive, in addition to a profitable investment, the continuing good will of Parmelee as a potential customer for cabs. Checker Cab declined, however, an offer to purchase common voting stock rather than the non-voting preferred shares because they desired a safer investment.
The formal announcement was made in a short press release on April 18, 1929:
Since Parmelee’s first incorporation in 1919, McCulloch had been investing his profits into a large number of transportation businesses outside of Chicago. He owned the Motor Cab Transportation Co. of New York, which operated about 2,000 in an around Manhattan. He also held a controlling interest in the Transportation Management Corp., a holding company whose subsidiaries included the Deluxe Cab Co. of Cleveland, the Yellow Cab Co. of Pittsburgh, the Yellow Taxi Co. of Minneapolis, and the Pittsburgh Transportation Co., a transit bus operator. McCullogh also supplied his own fuel through the Parmelee Motor Fuel Co., and self-insured all of his vehicles through the Transportation Adjustment Co.
Shortly after its formation, Parmelee acquired 26 per cent of the stock of Chicago Yellow, 68 per cent of the stock of Yellow Taxi Corporation, New York, and 96 per cent of the stock of the Parmelee Company. In connection with Parmelee’s formation and the preceding negotiations, Markin, aside from discussions concerning Checker Cab Mfg. Co.’s purchase of Parmelee’s preferred shares, acted in his personal capacity. Markin personally bought for himself and an associate 6 per cent of Parmelee’s common shares. He also entered into an employment contract with Transportation Management Corporation, a newly formed and wholly owned subsidiary of Parmelee, to act as an advisor to Miller, president of Transportation Management Corporation. Markin’s salary as such adviser was $25,000 per year and Miller’s salary as such president was $50,000 per year.
Subsequent to Parmelee’s acquisition of stock of Yellow Taxi Corporation, New York, and Chicago Yellow, Parmelee acquired the stock of two Pittsburgh taxicab operating companies, and later organized as a wholly owned subsidiary a Minneapolis taxicab operating company. These Pittsburgh acquisitions occurred in 1929 and neither Markin nor Checker Cab Mfg. Co. participated in them. The organization of the Minneapolis taxicab operating company occurred in 1931 and followed the receivership of a prior Minneapolis taxicab operating company owned by a local street railway company. Parmelee supplied $16,305 to purchase the receivership assets which subsequently were transferred to the Minneapolis corporation organized by Parmelee.
Parmelee held control of Chicago Cab Company, the Parmelee Company and the Yellow Taxi Corporation of New York. It later acquired interests in the Yellow Cab Company of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Transportation Company. In 1930 the New York law firm of Cravath deGersdorff, Swaine & Wood represented it in a transaction under which control of its stock was acquired by the Checker Cab Manufacturing Company, which in turn transferred to Parmelee Transportation control of companies operating taxicabs innumerous cities, including Motor Cab Transportation Company, operating more than 2,000 cabs in New York City.
Parmelee’s ambitious plans for expansion were announced two weeks later:
Although the third and final step of L’Amoreaux’ plan was slated to take place in the fall of 1929, the stock market crash postponed the merger until the following September.
Between October, 1929, and June, 1930, Parmelee acquired all the taxicab companies operating in Pittsburgh; it now operates the cabs through two wholly owned subsidiaries. Early in 1931, Parmelee formed a company to operate cabs in Minneapolis; a wholly owned subsidiary now operates 125 of the 214 cabs licensed in that city. Beginning early in 1929, Parmelee acquired certain companies operating cabs in New York City; it later consolidated them in a wholly owned subsidiary now holding 2,000 of the 13,000 licenses outstanding in that city.
Formed in 1929, the Black Beauty Cab Corporation was a short-lived Parmelee System subsidiary headed by Samuel Katz (unrelated to John D.Hertz’ Chicago business associate, Samuel Katz, president of Paramount Publix Corp.) Their fleet of 250 jet-black taxis featured a red speed stripe down the side and Black Beauty Cab Co. lettered in red on the door. Black Beauty’s Manhattan garage was located at 613 East Thirteenth Street, New York, NY.
Another little mentioned Parmelee subsidiary was the Hamilton-Peters Operating Company, Inc., a New York City-based firm that operated approximately 250 cabs in and around Harlem. The firm catered to well-to-do African-Americans and was staffed by 750 African American employees.
Hamilton-Peters dates back to 1916 when William H. Peters and Samuel Hamilton started a taxicab and car rental company, beginning with two Packard automobiles, one for rental and one for taxi service. By the mid twenties Hamilton-Peters was credited as being “the largest Negro taxi-cab operators in the United States” and employed “a working force of more than 550 persons” who operated “around 150 specially built taxi-cabs”.
The entire operation was purchased by Parmelee in 1930 and reorganized as the Hamilton-Peters Operating Company, Inc. At that time it was reported that ‘Their business is said to represent a half million dollars investment. The firm has 250 special built taxi cabs and a working force of more than 750 persons.’
A period account describing the dinner given by Parmelee in honor of the event follows:
Hamilton-Peters survived the early stages of the Depression but was forced into bankruptcy in March of 1937. Black Beauty had been long out of business by that time.
“New York, Feb. 14, 1930 - Checker Cab Manufacturing Corp. has obtained a five year contract from Checker Taxi company of Chicago for the latter's cab requirements.”
Haveron, a trained accountant was also a director of J.A. Sisto & Co.
In 1930, Checker's pedestrian-looking Model K was replaced by the outrageous-looking Model M Checker. Although it was based on a shortened (by 5”) Model K chassis, it looked totally different and was easily identifiable from a distance due to its rectangular Woodlite headlamps and unusual scooped front fenders which had been designed to reduce the incidence of dented front fenders. The awkward-looking front fenders immediately became a Checker trademark, and weren’t abandoned until 1948 when the firm’s first post-war design, the A2, debuted. Other novel features included checkerboard lensed parking lights and foreshortened running boards that started at the B-pillar, serving only those paying customers riding in the rear tonneau.
Two little known Checker commercial vehicles also debuted in early 1930. The first was a 1-ton cab and chassis that came with a stake body, the second, a station wagon-style utility vehicle that could serve double duty as a passenger vehicle or delivery van. Early versions were built using leftover Model K bodies and chassis, but midway through the year, production shifted over to the new Model M chassis and bodywork.
Designed by S.H. Hunter Kuenzel, the Checker MU6 Utility Vehicle retailed for $1,795 and was available in two wheelbases. The innovative vehicle could be modified for a great number of purposes and preceded the similar Checker A8 Station Wagon and Aerobus by almost 30 years. The stock-appearing limousine body featured four side doors and a clamshell rear tailgate, just like a station wagon. The MU6 had a listed capacity of one ton and could be used as a closed delivery vehicle by simply removing the rear seats and pulling up included window shades over the rear windows. The short wheelbase version included seating for six passengers, the long wheelbase edition could seat nine.
A 1931 issue of Automotive Industries included a Checker ad that advertised the Utility Car’s versatility, "All the fine appearance and riding qualities of a nine-passenger car - quickly convertible into a spacious ton-plus station wagon." The advertisement stated that a number of the vehicles had been sold to funeral homes for use as combination hearse and ambulance.
The Checker Truck was also available in two wheelbases, but proved less popular then the Utility vehicle and was discontinued in 1933 after selling only 550 examples. The Utility Vehicle was available through 1934 and records indicate that at least 1,000 examples were built between 1930 and 1934.
Although Checker began to build production bodies for Hudson and others starting in 1939, they were never regarded as a custom body builder, despite the fact the they occasionally produced custom-built vehicles for special customers. One limousine built for Chicago utility magnate Samuel Insull certainly qualifies as custom. Insull ordered a bullet-proof seven-passenger limousine with a landau top on a 1931 Checker Model M chassis. Early on, the British-born Insull had been an assistant to Thomas Edison, and when he relocated to Chicago in the twenties, he started building an electric utility empire that was eventually valued at $3 Billion. His rapid expansion had been funded by mostly middle class stockholders, and Insull’s once valuable utility network became worthless following the crash of 1929. By 1930, Insull rightly feared for his life and despite a much publicized 1934 trial and subsequent acquittal on fraud charges, he immediately left the county and moved to France.
Checker/Commonwealth’s Mogul taxicabs were forever immortalized in the 1931 12-chapter Mascot Pictures serial called The Galloping Ghost which starred pro-football star Harold ‘Red’ Grange. The typical crime drama concerned the Mogul Taxi Company, which was in reality a front for a criminal gambling ring that specialized in fixing football games. Grange was unwilling to cooperate, and their numerous fisticuffs were documented in the series’ twelve chapters. At the time, the former University of Illinois football star was as popular as ‘Babe’ Ruth and Jack Dempsey, and the serial was made to cash in on his fame.
The Checker Model M continued unchanged into 1932, but in 1933 a new 8-cylinder Lycoming-powered cab, the Model T, was introduced. Based on the Model M, it featured full-length running boards, traditional headlights and unusual circular inserts over its otherwise traditional hood louvers. The stake and suburban utility bodies introduced in 1930 were also available on the stout Model T chassis and proved popular with small businesses. Lycoming was one of E.L. Cord's companies, and beginning in 1933 Markin began to convert the Checker line over to engines produced by the Williamsport, Pennsylvania manufacturer.
9-8-1930 NY Times:
9-11-1930 NY Times
The September 22, 1930 issue of Time Magazine reported:
In the latter part of 1930 Markin’s ownership of Parmelee shares declined to less than 1 per cent and his ownership of Checker Cab Mfg. Co. shares to 5 per cent, which contrast with an ownership of Checker Cab Mfg. Co. shares of more that 34 per cent by the Raskob-duPont group.
The Checker-Parmelee acquisition was one of the last offerings underwritten by J.A. Sisto & Co. before they declared bankruptcy on September 30, 1930. Emil C. Walzer, financial reporter for United Press reported:
As a direct result of the depression that followed the October 1929 stock market crash, J.A. Sisto & Co. was in serious financial difficulties and was left holding $1,442,000 of Parmelee debentures plus some Parmelee common shares and warrants. As the sale of the securities to an outside investor was unlikely, it sold them at a discount to the Checker Cab Mfg. Co.
Parmelee was also incurring substantial losses relative to the Depression as well as a lengthy strike in Pittsburgh where its National Transportation Co. subsidiary dominated the surface transportation business.
Markin personally owned substantially all the stock of the Motor Cab Transportation Corp. whose New York City subsidiaries operated a large fleet of taxicabs that were manufactured by Checker Cab Mfg. Co.
The Raskob-duPont group requested that Markin dispose of his Motor Cab stock so that he would not be, through this corporation, in competition with other New York City customers of Checker Cab Mfg. Co.
Parmelee suggested that its financial strain would be eased if the $1,442,000 of debentures and the $1,000,000 of preferred shares of Parmelee then owned by Checker Cab Mfg. Co., carrying a current burden of interest charges, sinking fund requirements and cumulative preferred dividends aggregating over $330,000 yearly were exchanged for Parmelee common shares.
As a result of ensuing negotiations Markin, on the insistence of the Raskob-duPont group, transferred his Motor Cab stock to Checker Cab Mfg. Co. in exchange for shares of Checker Cab Mfg. Co., and Checker Cab Mfg. Co. transferred this Motor Cab stock plus all Checker Cab Mfg. Co.’s holdings of Parmelee debentures and preferred stock plus some incidental securities, to Parmelee in exchange for 422,787 Parmelee common stock.
In consequence of this transaction, Checker Cab Mfg. Co. in the later part of 1930 became the owner of a majority of Parmelee’s common stock. Checker Cab Mfg. Co. owned 61.75 per cent of the stock of Parmelee, and Parmelee owned 29½ per cent of the stock of Chicago Yellow and all the stock of three subsidiaries which respectively operate cabs in New York City, Pittsburgh and Minneapolis.
Following Parmelee’s acquisition of Yellow Cab, they stopped buying cabs from Yellow Truck and Coach and began buying its cabs from Checker. With its cab business gone sour, General Motors tried to make a deal with Markin, and event that was discussed in an article in the October 29, 1930 issue of Business Week entitled ‘Once Lowly Taxi Now Wooed by Great Motor Companies’:
General Motors had earlier made a much larger mistake when they failed to act on the advice of John J. Raskob, a shareholder in both General Motors and Checker Cab Mfg. In the late 20s Raskob had tried to convince Alfred J. Sloan jr. and the GM board to purchase Checker outright, but was rebuked by the Fisher brothers, who believed GM’s taxi building business would improve.
As a direct result a group of GM directors headed by Fred J. Fisher spearheaded the formation of the Terminal Cab Corp. of New York. They hoped to take control of the New York City operating market from Parmelee, thereby creating a new captive market for GM’s taxicabs. Although Terminal controlled close to 4,000 New York City taxicabs for a short period, the ensuing collapse of the stock market resulted in Terminal’s November 1933 bankruptcy and the subsequent end of General Motors bespoke taxicab manufacturing business.
Additional problems arose because of the harsh economic conditions and the resumption of brutal taxi wars that swept many major cities during the 1920s. Simply put, more cabs were on the streets of most cities than could be operated profitably which meant fierce competition. As the industry was largely unregulated, many independent operators used their personal cars decked out with homemade signs and, in some instances, fought violently to protect their zones of operation.
Although Markin’s Checker Cab Manufacturing Co. had been supplying taxicabs to Chicago’s Checker Cab Company, he had not been involved in the firm’s operations since he had moved his taxicab building operations to Kalamazoo in 1923.
At that time his suburban Chicago home had been bombed by persons unknown, and since 1926 it had been common knowledge that Chicago Yellow Cab’s management had been controlled by persons closely affiliated with Chicago’s mobsters.
Shortly after Checker Cab Mfg Co. purchased a controlling interest in Parmelee, the Yellow and Checker cab companies held 77% of the taxicab licenses in the City of Chicago.
In 1929 there were 5,289 taxicab licenses outstanding in the City of Chicago. Yellow Cab Co. had 2,335 medallions and the Checker Cab association had 1,750. As the economy worsened, the City implemented a moratorium on new licenses and eventually requested that Yellow and Checker reduce their outstanding medallions to a combined total of 3,000, after which Yellow held 1,500 licenses and Checker 1,000.
At that time Markin was president, general manager, and controlling shareholder of Checker Cab Mfg Co. as well as the active manager and sole shareholder of Cab Sales and Parts Corp., an independent taxicab operator who was an associated member of the Checker Cab Co.
Checker Cab Mfg. Co. owned 62% of the capital stock of the Parmelee Transportation Co. which in turn held a controlling interest in the Chicago Yellow Cab Co. a holding company which owned all of the capital stock of Yellow Cab Co.
At the time Markin and his associates controlled 15% of the New York City market, 58% of the Minneapolis market, 86% of the Chicago market, and 100% of the Pittsburgh Market.
Checker originally was a cooperative company, the stockholders of which were the various owners of 'Checker' cabs. In February, 1930, as part of a settlement of litigation between it and Checker Cab Mfg. Co., Checker agreed that its drivers would purchase all of their taxicabs from Cab Sales for a period of five years at $2,350 per cab. At the same time, Checker Cab Mfg. Co. appointed Cab Sales as exclusive agent for these sales and agreed to sell its cabs to Cab Sales at $1,906 per cab. During the five-year life of this agreement, Checker drivers bought a large number of cabs from Cab Sales at prices about $400 above those at which Cab Sales bought them from Checker Cab Mfg. Co. As these drivers defaulted in their payments from time to time, Cab Sales would foreclose and take over the ownership and operation of the cabs. Since 1941, it has owned and operated all of these cabs.
By 1932, Cab Sales had acquired over 97% of the stock of Checker. Markin caused this stock to be sold to certain of his associates in 1942.
For many years Checker Cab Manufacturing and its sales division, Checker Cab Sales Co. had been financing taxicabs to the Chicago association, which in turn had been receiving time payments from their members for the taxicabs.
The association’s payments to Markin had always been on time, however the association started falling behind soon after the stock market crash. Some of their members were significantly behind on their cab payments, not to mention the monthly dues that were collected for insurance, dispatching and maintenance.
Coincidentally, for the past year or so, Morris Markin, Ralph E. Oakland, and two associates, Paul L’Amoreaux and Ernest H. Miller had been surreptitiously operating their own fleet of taxis within the Association. The partners started with an initial group of thirty-five repossessed cabs and slowly started buying up the association’s larger owner-operators and within a number of years held a controlling interest in the association.
As the economy got worse, the partner’s fleet enlarged and it was ultimately absorbed by the Cab Sales and Parts Co., a Paul C. L’Amoreaux –owned firm that eventually held 500 Chicago operator licenses. Cab Sales was formed in 1930 as a method of compensating L’Amoreaux, Checker Cab Mfg. Co.’s attorney in the Checker Cab Mfg. Co.- Checker litigation. Michael Sokoll, the longtime secretary of the association was given the job or running it and the violence of years past soon faded from memory.
Markin also obtained a substantial interest in the DeLuxe Motor Cab Company, which was the third largest cab operating company in Chicago in 1929 with 400 licenses. He caused all of its stock to be sold to Parmelee. It was then consolidated into a new company; in 1932 Cab Sales bought a controlling interest in this consolidated concern and caused it to suspend operations. Thus, by the end of 1932, Markin had gained control of the the three largest taxicab companies operating in Chicago and, through Parmelee, had substantial footholds in the taxicab business in New York City, Pittsburgh and Minneapolis.
In 1931 Checker's president desired to withdraw from Checker and suggested the sale to Cab Sales of the majority of Checker’s stock. Cab Sales thought this a good purchase and obtained for this purpose a substantial sum from Markin personally and loans from subsidiaries of Yellow.
Parmelee president Ernest H. Miller passed away on December 24, 1932, and was succeeded L'Amoreaux. Following Paul C. L’Amoreaux’ untimely passing on September 2, 1933, Levin Rank, Parmelee Transportation’s secretary and treasurer, became its next president. Upon L’Amoreaux’ passing, Markin assumed control of Cab Sales and Parts, and with it control of Chicago Checker Cab.
Markin’s New York City taxi operations which were operated by a holding company, the Motor Cab Transportation Company, was not immune to labor disputes. On May 6, 1930 one of its subsidiaries, the Black Beauty Cab Corp., experienced a mass walkout after management at its Brooklyn garage fired two dispatchers, resulting in the walkout of 700-800 Black Beauty drivers. The affiliated cabbies of Brooklyn’s Checker Cab Service joined in the walkout and by May 10, 1,800 of Motor Cab Transportation’s drivers had walked out.
The drivers demanded the dispatchers’ reinstatement as well as the recognition of a cab drivers’ union. On May 11, 300 Black Beauty drivers working out of its East Thirteenth Street garage followed suit bring the totally number of Motor Cab Transportation Co. drivers on strike to 2,100. On May 17 Motor Cab’s Bronx cabbies had joined the strike, bringing the total number of strikers to 4,000.
The strike was ended on May 19 after the company agreed to the strikers demands, which included the organization of an independent association by the drivers: installation of a weekly wage system; installation of shop stewards; increase in the number of mechanics in the garages; and group insurance at the expense of the company.
Another group, the Empire Cab Association, was formed on February 9, 1931 by the Checker Sales Corp. with the goal of safeguarding struggling independent Checker cab operators by giving them access to affordable group insurance and other benefits.
On March 4, 1931 Checker released their 1930 earnings reports:
Earnings fell off during 1931 which Checker Cab Manufacturing reporting a net profit of only $70,000 for the second quarter. Earning were flat for the rest of the year, although 1932 started off on a high note with the following good news issued in a short press release dated February 5, 1932:
On May 13, 1932 New York’s Mayor, Jimmie Walker became involved in a scandal directly related to the formation of the Board of Taxicab Control, an industry sponsored regulatory body that sought to decrease the number of taxicab licenses in the metro New York City market:
General Motor’s Terminal Cab Company was implicated in a similar scheme involving John Hastings, a Walker ally, and the resulting scandal forced Walker’s resignation and the disbanding of the Board of Taxicab Control.
Abe Lomberg, Markin’s former business partner, kept a low profile following the failure of his body company, and remained in Joliet, eventually establishing his own car dealership. However his quite life changed forever in 1933 when his daughter Diane became involved with a small-time Russian bootlegger and gangster named Sammy Taran who was active in an around St Paul, Minnesota during Prohibition. Taran came to the attention of the public following a daring April 4, 1933 holdup of the First National Bank of Fairbury, Nebraska which netted him $150,000 in cash and securities. Taran and his henchmen exited the bank shielded by six hostages and escaped behind with their Tommy guns blazing.
While Taran was hiding out in Chicago, he met Abraham Lomberg’s daughter Diane, and the two were married on June 4th 1933, and Taran was apprehended the very next day. Joseph Simon, the husband of Diane’s sister Kate, had been followed after cashing one of the stolen $1,000 Liberty Bonds, which led police to a Chicago hotel were the two men were staying with the Lomberg girls.
Taran was extradited to Nebraska and eventually convicted of the $150,000 robbery, as well as kidnapping the six hostages and firing upon officers of the law. Following his release from prison, Taran relocated to Florida where he formed Taran Distributing Co., the firm that fronted for the mobs ‘juke box’ rackets in the late 40s and early 50s.
A three day strike that occurred earlier in the month resulted in a February 11, 1934 New York Times article called, ‘Taxi War a Result of Lower Profits’. The author, Margaret Hess, surveyed the reason for the walk-out and included a recent history of the city’s taxicab business.
At that time an estimated 22,000 taxicabs operated within the five boroughs of New York City, the three largest fleet operators being Parmelee (Motor Cab Transportation), General Motors (Terminal Cab Co.) and Keystone Transportation Co., Inc. who operated from 3,000 to 4,000 cabs a piece. Approximately 8,000 cabs were owned by independent owner-operators and the remaining 2,000 were operated by small fleets who owned from between 5 and 200 taxis a piece.
Founded in 1929, Keystone declared bankruptcy in 1933, Yellow Cab in 1935. Mayor LaGuardia finally acted on New York City’s overabundant taxicab population in 1937 with the introduction of the Haas act, which put into place a medallion system that severely limited the number of taxicabs operating within the five boroughs. 13,595 licenses or medallions were allowed under the law, which prohibited the issue of new medallions, and also required that existing medallions be turned in to the city when their owner withdrew from business and by the end of the decade, only 11,787 medallions were extant.
1931 Business Week:
At the beginning of the decade almost 95 per cent of all New York City cabs were owned by small fleets and individual owner-operators. Of the 27 fleets that owned 50 or more taxicabs, only 5 owned more than 250. The six largest operators were Yellow, Checker, Black Beauty (all controlled by Parmelee) Terminal (controlled by General Motors), Paramount/Five Boroughs (controlled by Allie S. Freed), and Keystone.
Although John J. Raskob and Pierre S. duPont had both been investing in Checker since the late 20s, newspaper reports hinted that the pair were seeking a substantially larger stake in the firm. Coincidentally the pair also sat on the board of General Motors and were two of its largest investors. On July 21, 1932 the Associated Press reported:
DuPont and Raskob spearheaded a recapitalization of Checker’s stock that was announced on August 11, 1932:
Ernest H. Miller, a friend of Markin’s as well as a large stockholder in and former president of both Parmelee and Yellow Taxi, passed away unexpectedly on December 24, 1932 of a massive stroke.
The Checker Cab boardroom must have been an uncomfortable place for Markin as Miller was now dead and the board of directors was controlled by Raskob and duPont. The firm’s Kalamazoo factory was idle for much of 1932 as none of the firm’s affiliated drivers or owners were in any position to purchased new taxicabs.
Checker employees returned to work in early 1933 after the factory received a number of new orders:
Checker Cab’s 1932 earnings, or lack thereof, were issued on April 13, 1933:
Markin made a bold move midway through 1933 by purchasing options to buy 60% (58,837 shares of 108,362 issued) of Checker Cab’s stock from the estate of R.W. Ellis and Pierre S. DuPont and John J. Raskob at a price significantly below its current market value.
The sale was made with the almost certain knowledge that Markin was unable to come up with the cash. Checker was trading at just under $17 per share at the time, and Markin was unable to raise the approximate $1 million needed for the transaction.
At Checker Cab’s June 1933 board meeting the directors voted to reduce their numbers from eleven to seven directors. Immediately after four of the remaining seven directors; Pierre S. du Pont, J.A. Sisto, Matthew Robinson and John J. Raskob, forced Markin out as president, replacing him with C.A. Weymouth, a Cornell-educated manager.
Unbeknownst to Checker’s directors was the fact that Markin and the newly wealthy E.L. Cord were friends, having met during the early twenties when Cord was a Chicago car salesman. It was no coincidence that Checker Cabs were equipped with Lycoming engines, and Markin hoped Cord would return the favor by backing him in his bid to return to power at Checker Cab Manufacturing.
At that time Cord was flush with cash, and he agreed to help out his old friend. Markin signed over duPont and Raskob’s options to Cord and within two weeks Cord had exercised the options, duPont and Raskob were gone, and Morris Markin was back in charge of Checker Cab. Cord was represented on the Checker board by trusted associates Lucius B. Manning and Raymond S. Pruitt.
The acquisition was announced to the press on August 15, 1933 by Manning:
Paul C. L’Amoreaux, the architect of Markin’s acquisition of the Checker and Yellow Cab fleets passed away in September of 1933 after which his 97% share in Cab Sales reverted to Markin.
Checker Cab Manufacturing’s next quarterly statement was released on August 17, 1933:
An article on the Cord takeover in the August 19, 1933 issue of Automobile Topics revealed that there were more than 200 Checker-built cabs operating in Minneapolis, Minnesota; 325 in Cleveland, Ohio; 500 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; 3,000 in Chicago, Illinois; and 8,000 in the five boroughs of New York City.
Cord’s Auburn Automobile Company had been building taxis for Cleveland’s Saf-T-Cab Corporation, since 1926. The firm’s founder, B.D. DeWeese, aggressively marketed the vehicles to metropolitan fleet operators, some of whom operated firms with Saf-T-Cab, or Safe-T-Cab in their titles. The firm’s products were popular in the Midwest, and could regularly be seen in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, Minneapolis and St Paul.
As was the Checker, the Saf-T-Cab was purpose-built using heavy duty components and the firm advertised that many of their vehicles had exceeded the 100,000 mile mark. Soon after Cord took control of Checker, production of the Saf-T-Cab was transferred to Checker. Auburn was in the process of relocating all manufacturing operations to Connersville, Indiana and the move benefited all parties involved.
Cord’s takeover of Checker coincided with the preparation of the Checker Model Y, which not only looked like the current-model year Auburns, but was also powered by the same 115hp Lycoming eight when it was introduced in 1935. The trademark scooped fenders continued and a new stretched six and eight door version of the Model Y debuted which was specifically designed for transporting passengers to and from airports and train depots.
E.L. Cord was noticeably absent from his automotive and aviation empire during 1934 and 1935 as he and his family fled to Great Britain in March of 1934 following a kidnap scare at their Beverly Hills home. He returned to the county early in 1936 to face charges of charges of stock manipulation which were triggered when he sold back his controlling interest in Checker Cab Co. to Morris Markin, which attracted the interest of the Securities & Exchange Commission.
In April of 1937 Cord was admitted to a Chicago, hospital for exhaustion and a few months later Cord sold 342,000 of his 500,000 shares in the Cord Corporation to Victor Emanuel & Co. and Schroder, Rockefeller & Co. Inc two New York investment houses. The remaining 148,000 shares were sold to his friend, Lucius B. Manning, the president of Aviation Corp.
Time Magazine reported on Cord’s SEC difficulties and the breakup of the Cord Corporation in an article called “Cord Out of Cord” which appeared in the Aug. 16, 1937 issue.
The bankers subsequently liquidated all of Cord Corp’s automotive assets and reorganized its aviation subsidiaries as the Aviation and Transportation Corp. (ATCO). In the next few years Victor Emanuel & Co. rebuilt ATCO and AVCO into a money-making organization which delivered it first dividends in 1941.
Although a few Auburn subsidiaries such as Central Manufacturing and Columbia Axle, were still profitable, its parent company suffered major losses during 1935, 1936 and 1937 and Auburn Automobile Co. filed for bankruptcy protection on December, 11, 1937 in U.S. District Court in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Luckily, Checker fared much better that Auburn, and under Markin’s leadership the firm returned to profitability.
During 1934 most of the Parmelee System’s 2,200 New York City taxicabs were equipped with radios and in the following year automatic buzzers were installed that alerted pedestrians that the taxicab was put in reverse.
By 1935 fleets of 100 or more cabs accounted for approximately one third of the city’s 12,578 taxicabs. Parmelee-controlled firms, Checker and Yellow, now dominated the city’s landscape, even more so now that Terminal Cab and Keystone were bankrupt. The only firm that would make a noticeable dent in Checker and Yellow’s domination was the Sunshine Radio System, whose popular Desoto Skyliner Taxicabs were introduced in 1937.
In 1934 Parmelee Corporation’s board of directors shut down its 79-year-old Chicago subsidiary, the Parmelee Company, liquidated its assets, and assumed all of its contracts with the Chicago railways.
Between 1931 and 1935 Checker continued its previous form of individual owner-driver operation. During this period, however, large arrearages accumulated in the service charges owing by the drivers and the drivers also defaulted on purchase installments of their cabs with the result that cabs were abandoned or Cab Sales was required to repossess them.
By 1935 Cab Sales and Parts operated a fleet of 500 cabs within Chicago’s Checker Cab association. This was a minority of the total number of cabs operated within Checker but Cab Sales operated these 500 cabs as a fleet while the individual drivers of Checker operated their cabs individually.
Between 1935 and 1941 the individual drivers gradually dropped out as a result of their difficulties of operation and their inability or unwillingness to pay their service charges and purchase installments on their cabs, so that by 1941 all Checker cabs in Chicago were operated as a fleet by Cab Sales, which was owned almost exclusively by Markin.
In the late 30s Parmelee’s chief competitors in the New York City market were the Bell Transportation Co. (aka Bell System) and the GM-controlled Terminal Cab Corp. Founded by Nathan Levine, by 1937 the Bell System was New York City’s second largest operator, employing a reported 1,000 drivers and mechanics. It is estimated that the Bell and Parmelee systems operated 17 per cent of all the cabs in New York City before the Second World War. Although the Sunshine Radio system was much smaller, their distinctive sunroof-equipped Desoto Skyliner taxicabs are fondly remembered today.
July 30, 1937 - The Transport Workers Union, C. I. O. affiliate, announced yesterday that it had signed contracts with forty-nine operators of taxicab fleets employing a total of about 10,000 drivers and mechanics. The agreements include all of the large fleets except the Parmelee Transportation System, which has 3,200 employees.
Yellow and Checker subsequently made agreements to reduce the number of cabs in operation and to induce the city to lower the number of licenses outstanding to 3,000, of which Yellow would hold 1,500 and Checker 1,000. On December 22, 1937, the City of Chicago passed an ordinance providing for a method of voluntary surrender by licensees of a sufficient number of the licenses to reduce the number outstanding to 3,000.
It also provided that if the number of authorized licenses should later be increased above the 3,000 figure, such additional licenses should first be issued to the original licensees in proportion to and up to the number which they had surrendered. Yellow and Checker then made an agreement to implement this ordinance; Yellow agreed to surrender 571 licenses (leaving it with 1,595) and Checker agree to surrender 500 (leaving it with 1,000); both parties promised to attempt to secure for Yellow 60% and for Checker 40% of any licenses in excess of 3,000 which the city might later issue. As a result 3,000 licenses were left outstanding.
Markin responded to the insurance requirements by creating his own insurance company, the General Transportation Casualty and Surety Company.
On June 24, 1938, Edward S. Moran Jr., the former Democratic Assemblyman from the Park Slope section of Brooklyn was indicted on charges that between 1935 and 1937 he took $36,000 in bribes from officials of the Terminal and Parmelee Transportation Systems who suggested he introduce legislation in the State Senate favorable to the operations of the two New York City fleet operators. His trial took place the following June and on June 9, 1939 Moran was found guilty on two bribery counts and sentenced to two and a half to five years in prison.
Also implicated, but not charged were the presidents of the two taxicab companies, Burge M. Seymour, president of the Terminal System, Inc., and Levin Rank, president of Parmelee Transportation Co. At Moran’s sentencing Judge James Garrett Wallace issued a scathing denouncement of the two businessmen, and by the end of the year both men had been forced to resign their posts. Levin Rank was succeeded as Parmelee president by Lewis W. Landman, the former traffic manager of the New York Central Railroad.
Levin Rank’s new position was president of Markin’s insurance company, the General Transportation Casualty Company, organized on March 16, 1938 under the laws of New York State. Paid in capital $300,000; surplus $200,000. Original capitalization was increased to $550,000 on July 26, 1939. Its name was to General Transportation Casualty and Surety Company on Oct. 13, 1939. A further name change, to the General Fire and Casualty Company, took place on March 10, 1952. Its entry in the 1952 Cyclopedia of Insurance follows:
Levin Rank passed away on April 2, 1951 at the age of 60. After a reshuffling of the board, General Fire and Casualty’s officers became: President, Edward C. Lechner; vice-president, (underwriting, producing and advertising) Clarence A Cole; secretary, Joseph S. Catalano; treasurer, Milton H. Cassidy; assistant treasurer, Robert H. Wilson, assistant secretary, Donald Sheldon.
On January 1, 1939 New York City’s 26 largest taxicab fleet operators (with fleet of more than 25 drivers) were as follows: Ark (155); Atlantic (171); Bell (650); Better (47); Cornell (167); Crystal (114); Dynamic (174); Elmhurst ( 73); Embassy (94); Hub (17); Laurel (155); Level/Nera (67); Lowell (32); Lyric (126); Marlin (158); Mural (161); New Yorker (162); Pacific (94); Parmelee (2,990); Peerless (179); Phoenix (33); Ruart (88); Sunshine & Radio (171); Sun Ray (149); Terminal (836); Town (450); Tudor (71).
The four largest firms were Parmelee, Terminal, Bell, and Town.
A handful of unusual-looking snouts appeared on American vehicles during the late thirties but none matched the monstrosity that premiered on the 1939 Checker Model A. The equally bizarre Sharknose Graham is the only other vehicle that could hold a candle to the Model A.
Checker designer John H. Tuttle is credited with designing the Model A’s bodywork from the cowl back, but the identity of the person who designed the front end is the subject of much debate. Ray Dietrich served as a consultant to the firm starting in the late 30s, however he emphatically denied any involvement with the firm’s taxi designs rig up until his death.
Tuttle’s name also appears on the patents for the cars optional rear landaulet roof, and it’s probable that he also worked on the front end, however it’s entirely possible a third designer, perhaps even Morris Markin himself, designed the front end, whose main claim to fame was that it so ugly, you could see it coming from up to half-a-mile away.
The headlights were modern oval units mounted to the front fenders in the typical fashion, however those beams were surrounded by massive chrome-plated art-moderne shields unlike any seen on any other vehicle. Body colored louvered valances provided cooling to the radiator which was hidden behind the solid beak that extender downwards from the center of the hood.
The short wheelbase Model A included a purpose-built 124-inch wheelbase chassis with a traditional solid front and live rear axles supported by longitudinal leaf springs. The independent front suspensions found on other manufacturer’s vehicles were easily knocked out of alignment and were far too fragile for taxicab use.
The Model A included a number of more practical innovations such as an automatic signal that alerted pedestrians when the cab was put into reverse, padded finger guards on the rear door edges and rear seats that were stuffed with synthetic rubber cushions.
The Model A was introduced mid-year and was powered by a Continental Red Seal Six, an engine that would become standard equipment until 1965 when the firm adopted a General Motors powerplant. The John H. Tuttle-designed sunroof and landaulet rear top were optionally available on either of the two available wheelbases.
A period review called the Model A:
The model A was the last prewar Checker taxicab, and only a single survivor, a long-wheelbase model equipped with the landaulet roof, exists. At the start of the war Markin donated the Model A’s body dies to melted down for the war effort, necessitating a redesign of the body when hostilities ceased in 1945.
In the late thirties Checker began manufacturing utility trailers for Sears and body stampings for other automakers. They supplied box van bodies to both Dodge and Ford and also built the streamlined commercial delivery bodies used by Hudson.
When famed automotive designer Ray Dietrich left Chrysler in May of 1938, he was hired by Markin as an engineering consultant to Checker at $100 per day. His first commission involved the redesign of Checker’s welding jigs, later ones included redesigning the Kalamazoo plant’s assembly lines and overhead conveyors.
At the start of the war, Checker created a Special Projects Division that produced specialized truck bodies, ¼-ton T-1 / CCM-12 Bantam Jeep trailers and K-35 communications trailers for the US Army Signal Corps. Dietrich helped the division design Checker’s famous tank retriever, a huge 16-wheel heavy-duty trailer designed to remove disabled tanks from the battlefield.
Checker also contemplated producing Jeeps for the war effort, and went so far as purchasing three Bantam BRC40 prototypes to review in early 1941. For many years it was thought that Checker had produced the vehicles on their own, but further investigation by Bantam historian William Spear and others has uncovered that the two remaining ‘Checker’ Jeeps, one in the Classic Car Club of America Museum in Hickory Corners, Michigan, the other, purchased from the estate of Checker engineer Jim Stout and now in California, are actually Bantams with some Checker badging and ID plates.
A surviving contract between Checker and Bantam dated February 11, 1941 indicates that the two firms planned on placing bids for production of the BRC40 and would share in its production if either party was awarded the contract. A review of the bids reveals that although Checker had the lowest bid, the Army felt that they would take too long to gear up for production and awarded the contracts to Ford and Willys. Checker did receive contracts to build the Bantam-designed ¼ ton trailer and truck cabs for Ford.
Checker commissioned former Auburn chief engineer Herbert J. Snow to come up with designs for the post-war Checker. Snow used a clean sheet and came up with a rear-engined, rear-wheel-drive taxi. Known as the Model B, the car’s basic design had been used year earlier on the Czech-built Tatra and Tjaarda-designed Sterkenberg, and after extensive testing of two prototypes, the configuration was nixed due to its inherent instability during cornering caused by its rear weight bias.
Snow’s second design, which was called the Model C, didn’t make it to the prototype stage, however his third, the Model D, was a transverse-engined, front-wheel-drive design that resulted in the creation and testing of two prototypes, a 5-passenger sedan and a 7-passenger taxi. Herb Snow had worked on the Cord 810/812 and was well aware of the potential drivetrain problems that resulted from the configuration, and set about to fix them. The Model D’s were tested into 1946, but the tooling required to produce it in quantity proved to be too costly and it was abandoned in favor of a conventionally laid-out drivetrain based on the pre-war Model M chassis.
Ray Dietrich assisted Checker’s Herb Snow and Jim Stout on the design of the firm’s prototypes and had a hand in the design of the Checker A2, their first post-war production model. Dietrich’s body design for the front-wheel-drive Model D prototype was slightly modified for use on a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive chassis which was introduced in the December 15th, 1946 issue of Automotive Industries.
Production of the $2370 vehicle commenced in early 1947 and surprisingly it did not include a trunk although a rear-mounted luggage rack was available. The rear end was reminiscent of GM’s torpedo fastbacks, and car’s front end was clearly influenced by the 1941 Cadillac and even included a rectangular version of its egg-crate grill.
On January 16, 1946 the city of Chicago authorized the issuance of 250 licenses to war veterans. Yellow was notified that 234 of its licenses, representing that number of cabs which had not been in operation, would be canceled. Checker was given a similar notice as to 87 licenses. Yellow and Checker then brought suit in an Illinois court to enjoin the city from issuing the new licenses and from canceling any of the ones issued to them; they claimed that economic conditions prevented them from procuring taxicabs to replace those which had become inoperable.
The Illinois courts held that the 1937 ordinance created a contract between the city and the licensees and that the city could not issue licenses to the war veterans without first replacing the licenses which Yellow and Checker had surrendered; it was further held that no monopoly existed, since the number of licenses and the rights of the licensees were subject to the control of the city. (See Yellow Cab Co. v. City of Chicago, 396 Ill. 388, 71 N.E.2d 652.)
A motion by the appellees to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief might be granted was sustained by the trial court. 69 F.Snpp. 170. The United States took a direct appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States.
The government’s attorneys claimed that the facts outlined within gave rise to an illegal combination and conspiracy on the part of the appellees (Yellow, Chicago Yellow, Parmelee, Cab Sales, Checker, Checker Cab Mfg. Co., and Markin) in violation of the Sherman Act.
The case was argued on May 7, 1947 and the courts decision, which ruled against the government’s assertion, was delivered on June 23, 1947 (United States v. Yellow Cab Co., 332 U.S. 218). The justices denied the appeal, ruling that because the transportation business of the defendants (Yellow, Checker, Markin etc.) did not involve interstate commerce, it was not covered under the Sherman Anti-trust Act.
Justice Frank W. Murphy delivered the majority opinion of the Court as follows:
The United States brought an action against Yellow, Chicago Yellow, Parmelee, Cabs Sales, Checker, and Checker Cab Mfg. Co. companies as well as Morris Markin. The Court stated that these types of combination and conspiracies fell within the ban of the Sherman Act. Further, the Court stated that in reference to this combination, the Sherman Act was never construed to sanction such a conspiracy to restrain interstate commerce. The Court also addressed the defendants’ argument that vertical integration removes the defendants from the purview of the Sherman Act. The Court stated that the fact that cab companies’ restraints occurred in a vertically integrated setting does not render the Sherman Act inapplicable. Rather, the focus is upon whether or not there exists an unreasonable restraint on interstate commerce and this restraint can come from corporations integrated under common ownership or from corporations that are independent. Also, the type of corporate interrelationship does not determine if the Sherman Act applies to actions. Based on the foregoing reasons, the Court held that the common ownership and control of the various corporate defendants in this case “are impotent to liberate the alleged combination and conspiracy from the impact” of the Sherman Act.
The suit was launched in response to a well-publicized march on the US capital by a group of 150 ex-servicemen who were denied taxicab licenses in Chicago due to Checker’s monopoly of the city’s cab stands.
Dec 6, 1949 – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Despite the government’s lawsuits, Markin was ultimately successful in gaining control of 10% of the nation’s fleet operators, guaranteeing Checker Cab Manufacturing a steady market for their taxicabs, a plan that had proved equally successful a decade earlier for John D. Hertz.
Checker’s 1948 Brochure advertised that the car’s body was “monocoque constructed in that the frame, girders, sides, top and floor were all welded together into a single unit.” The fact that it could be converted to a normal passenger car in less than two hours was also highlighted as was the ease by which commonly damaged body parts could be replaced:
By 1948 Checker was up and running at 100%, even surpassing it’s pre-war sales levels. The Checker A2 was well received and in that year the firm built 4,500 cabs, 1,000 truck bodies and 300 bus bodies. By that time Ray Dietrich left to pursue more challenging work, such as assisting Preston Tucker and Alex Tremulis with engineering the 1948 Tucker. In 1949 he opened up a small design and fabrication firm of his own in Grand Rapids, Michigan, called Raymond Dietrich Inc. But abandoned the firm in 1953 and returned to being a consultant for both Checker and the Ford Motor Co.
An 8-passenger version of the A2, called the A3 limousine, debuted in August 1948, and a face-lifted and re-engineered A2, dubbed the A4, arrived in 1950. The A4 and its companion A5 limousine featured a tighter turning radius, wraparound bumpers, new rocker panels, revised front doors, a fully functioning trunk, easy-to-clean vinyl interior, and an enlarged windshield that rose higher into the roofline for better vision.
The two Checkers received a new horizontal grill when they were reintroduced as the A6 taxi and A7 limousine in 1953.
Swiss coachbuilder Fritz Ramseier et Cie (aka Carrosserie Worblaufen) of Worblaufen bei Bern built a nine-passenger Checker A3 convertible sedan for display on the Checker stand at the 1950 Geneva Auto Salon. Also exhibited where a standard Checker Sedan and two Checker limousines.
In 1948 Checker started producing bus chassis for the Dearborn, Michigan based bus distributor, Transit Buses Inc. The firm had been organized in 1941 as a selling organization for the rear-engine Ford Transit Bus, whose bodies were built by the Union City Body Company of Union City, Indiana.
When the war ended, Transit and the Ford Motor Company couldn’t reach an agreement on the vehicle’s future, so Transit designed an updated 31-passenger model and hired Checker to produce the pusher chassis which was powered by a transverse-mounted Continental Red-Seal engine.
The buses were assembled at the Union City plant and sold through Transit’s Dearborn-based distribution network. Sales started off well, over 500 of the vehicles were built during 1948 and 1949, 300 of which were purchased by the City of Detroit. However sales of the new vehicles were far-below Transit Buses expectations so they sold the entire operation to Checker early in 1950.
Checker introduced their Series E Buses in the summer 1951 and although the firm was now owned by Checker, the bodies continued to be built by Union City and marketed by Transit Buses Inc. The City of Detroit ordered 450 units in 1950, however sales fell off dramatically in 1951 and 1952. Between 1950and 1953 less than 500 are thought to have been built, and that number included the 450 units purchased by Detroit. In the meantime Checker engineers had designed a new series of 28 to 42 passenger buses, however the entire project was scrapped and all bus production ended in September of 1953.
During the Korean War Checker won a portion of a $22 million Army contract to build 1 ½-ton M-105 trailers, which were commonly mated to GMC’s XM211 6x6 2 ½-ton truck. By 1952, Checker was rife with cash and Markin embarked upon a major expansion program which included a new office building, test track and two new cab manufacturing and assembly facilities.
Herbert B. Lazarus (b.1907-d.1988), a Yale-educated attorney, married Morris Markin’s daughter Josephine in 1951, launching his career as a director in a number of Markin-controlled enterprises. After graduation from law school Lazarus worked for Paramount Theatre chain as an attorney starting in 1934. He stayed with the firm through several reorganizations, emerging in 1956 as vice-president and secretary of American Broadcast-Paramount Theatre Inc. In December 1957 he resigned to open a private law practice and in 1958 was elected president of Parmelee Transportation. In 1955 he became a Parmelee Transportation Co. director, becoming its president in 1958. He was also a director of General Fire and Casualty Co. (1955), Chicago Yellow Cab (1956) and Checker Motors Corp. (1961). Lazarus is remembered today for his amazing collection of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century boxing prints, books and memorabilia, which was willed to Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Manuscript Library upon his death in 1988. His wife Josephine M. Lazarus, an interior designer and Checker Motors director, predeceased him in 1976.
On July 23, 1945, Markin created the Continental Air Transport Company for the purpose of taking Chicago airline passengers to and from Midway Field. At that time O’Hare was a small ex-military facility known as Orchard Field Airport. It was renamed O’Hare Field in 1949, and didn’t start regular passenger service until 1955.
In 1953 Continental had a fleet of 38 specially constructed airport buses/limousines, and by 1958, Continental‘s livery fleet made 194 daily round trips from the Chicago Loop to Midway and O’Hare airports at a cost of $1.95 per passenger.
A similar Markin-controlled operation, the Airline Transportation Co., offered the same service from downtown Pittsburgh to the Greater Pittsburgh Airport with a fleet of 7 buses and 21 airport limousines.
A 1953 article in Railway Age states that Parmelee’s Chicago operations utilized 90 limousines and 48 baggage transfer trucks. National Transportation Co. operated 1,660 taxicabs in New York City; the Yellow Cab Co. of Pittsburgh operated 425 taxicabs and service vehicles, the Yellow Taxi Company of Minneapolis used 138 taxicabs and also ran an airport shuttle service to the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Airport with a fleet of 8 airport limousines.
At that time the majority of Markin’s trusted executives had been with the firm for close to 30 years. Their names follow:
Other Parmelee, Yellow and Checker executives that were instrumental to Markin's success included the following:
Parmelee Transportation Co. also owned approximately 40 per cent of the stock of the General Fire & Casualty Company, which underwrote public liability, workman’s compensation and other insurance for the Checker organization.
Parmelee’s long term service arrangement with Chicago's railroads ended in June 1955 when all 21 railroads serving Chicago abruptly ended their contracts with Parmelee and went with the Railroad Transfer Service, a new firm organized by trucking magnate John L. Keesbin, the owner of Keesbin Motor Express Co. and a long-time business associate of John D. Hertz. Despite a lengthy legal battle that revealed Keesbin had given bribes and payouts to numerous railroad and government officials, Parmelee was denied the contract, and its assets were merged into Continental Air Transport Co.
Prior to 1953 the National Transportation Co. Inc., a Checker subsidiary, controlled in excess of 1600 of the total of approximately 11,000 taxicab medallions in New York City. Markin kept the New York operation until 1954, when he began selling his fifteen hundred New York City medallions.
The City of New York began strictly regulating taxis in 1929 and starting that year, one of the requirements was that any vehicle used for livery or taxi service in the borough of Manhattan had to be able to carry 5 passengers in the rear compartment. Prior to World War II, most manufacturers produced long-wheelbase 9-passenger limousines that met the requirements. After the war, the number was greatly reduced and only Checker, Desoto, and Packard manufactured vehicles that included the required space and requisite jump seats.
The law was finally changed and in July of 1954 the previous 5-passenger standard was eliminated and standard four-door Detroit-made sedans became eligible for taxi cab service in Manhattan. The long-wheelbase cars that were previously embraced, were now outlawed as a new maximum wheelbase of 120” was implemented. Although all involved denied it, lobbyists for Ford and General Motors were likely behind the new regulation as they were tired of being shut out of the lucrative Manhattan market.
Although Markin probably didn’t realize it at the time, the July 1954 regulation started a sequence of events that would eventually put Checker’s automobile manufacturing division out of business. Prior to the 1954 regulation, 9,000 of the estimated 12,000 taxis operating in New York City were Checkers, but by 1965 only 2000 Checkers remained.
In December of 1956, Checker announced the new Checker A8, a vehicle designed to meet Manhattan’s new wheelbase regulation. Not only did the car have a 120” wheelbase, it also featured Checker’s first independent front suspension, power assisted steering and brakes plus a totally new body with easily removable fenders and two-piece doors skins designed for quick repair.
The new vehicle offered a number of modern options including an electrically adjustable driver’s seat, backup warning alert and a remote opening passenger-side rear door. More typical options included an automatic transmission, heavy duty suspension and a roof rack. Cab customer’s could specify what brand and type of tire to be installed and the Continental engine could be custom-ordered with a choice of heads, an overhead valve head for maximum performance, a standard L-head design and a special low compression head for use with low octane fuel.
Checker Motors Corp. built 5,765 Superba cars and taxi-cabs in 1959, a 76.4 percent boost from the 3,267 cabs turned out during 1958.
Founded in 1959, International Controls Corporation is the holding company of Checker Motors Corp. and Great Dane Trailers Inc. When Checker Motors was purchased by International Controls, the Chicago-based Checker Taxi operation was sold off.
Between 1958 and 1960 Armbruster & Company of Fort Smith Arkansas converted a number of Checkers A8/A9s into six- and eight-door limousines for export to the Middle East, particularly Turkey. The vehicles included large roof-mounted luggage racks and were commonly used as jitneys, airport coaches and inter-city buses.
The A8 was modified in 1958 with a new grill, dual headlights and another designation, A9. Less obvious changes included a larger rear window and a slightly lower roofline. The A9's revised sheet metal included all-new stampings, although the mounting points were kept the same so that much of the A8's sheetmetal could be used on the new model if necessary. The A9's cowl and windshield, trunklid and front and rear bumpers were the only stampings that remained unchanged.
A somewhat less noticeable change also occurred that year; the Checker Cab Manufacturing Company became the Checker Motors Corporation. Although Checker had offered consumer versions of their taxis for a number of years, it was not until 1959 that the fact was promoted in their advertising. In 1959 Checker established a small dealer network and one year later began marketing the A9 sedan to the public as the Supurba. Also introduced was the A9/Supurba Station Wagon, the first Checker since the Checker Utility of 1935.
In 1961 the Checker A10 debuted, which wasn’t terribly noteworthy except for the renaming of the top of the line Superba Special to the Marathon. The Marathon featured a redesigned grill and separate rectangular parking lamps placed just underneath the twin headlights. The Supurba continued to use the older grill with its integral round parking lamps. Additionally the Marathon also bore a chrome-plated spear that traveled from the front fender into the rear door that was not found on the Supurba.
Also introduced at the end of the year were the all new Checker nine and twelve passenger limousines. The cars were built using the station wagon’s tailgate and rear quarters mated to a 154½-inch or 189-inch wheelbase which included either three or four pairs of doors. Both Aerobus' chassis included one-piece side rails and were not spliced or sectioned like the chassis of most other airport limousines with advertising clearly stating that the Aerobus was “Not A Stretch-Out” -But “A Built-For-The-Purpose-Limousine.” A Chevrolet sourced 8-cylinder engine replaced the Continental six and most of the cars included a GM-sourced Turbo-Hydramatic automatic transmission.
The massive 8-door 12-passenger wagon had an overall length of 270 inches and still holds the record for the world’s longest regular production passenger car. The name Aerobus resulted from the vehicle’s adoption by a large number of Midwest livery services for transporting flight crews to and from the airport and it became the official designation for Checker’s six- and eight-door wagons in 1962.
When Checker went to a standard 120” wheelbase in 1955 they eliminated the few executive limousine customers that they had previously counted amongst their customers. Checker brought them back to the Kalamazoo fold in 1962 when they introduced their 129” wheelbase Town Custom Limousine.
Designated as the Checker Model 11E (E for extended), the vehicle’s generous rear compartment was created by widening the rear doors by 9” which provided room for two jump seats that unfolded into a bench seat, providing rear seating for up to six. The $7500 car was available with or without a rear divider and could be ordered with a variety of convenience options. Despite the fact that it cost as much as two base Marathon sedans, the long wheelbase E-car would survive into the 1980s under a variety of names which included Marathon Limousine, Marathon Deluxe and Custom Limousine.
Period Checker advertising boasted that the limousine was… "the perfect car for VIP pick-up and delivery, municipal and local government officials, livery, corporation, resorts and hotels, schools, funeral directors, religious institutions whenever and wherever superbly comfortable transportation without ostentation is required."
In 1963, Chicago Yellow Cab was merged into Checker Motors Corporation, and Yellow Cab Company became a wholly owned subsidiary of Checker Motors.
1963 - Of the nation’s 135,000 taxicabs, 35,000 are Checkers.
In 1963 the Checker A12 replaced the A10 which had debuted only two years previous. It would also be the final year for the Superba and from 1964 on, the Marathon would be the marque’s only consumer offering.
1962 was Checker’s best ever, and the small Kalamazoo automaker built a record 8,173 automobiles. During the 1950s and early 60s Checker produced an average of 6,200 cars per year which during the 1950s were almost entirely taxis. Checker’s passenger car business greatly expanded during the late 50s and in 1962 almost 3,000 cars were sold to the public. By the mid 60s that percentage decreased to less than 20% and by the mid 70s, Marathon sales had fallen well below the 10% mark.
Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and Happy Rockefeller (Nelson A. Rockefeller’s 2nd wife) were well-known Checker owners, and even the US Government owned a Checker - a 1961 Marathon sedan was purchased by the State Department for the US ambassador to Moscow, Llewelyn Thompson. Thompson had complained that his Cadillac Series 75 was “not suitable for the cobblestones and rough roads encountered in the Soviet Union.”
In 1964 Continental decided to stop manufacturing the Red Seal engines that had been favored by Checker for almost 30 years, so the automaker converted their chassis over to accept engines from the Chevrolet Division of General Motors. Most of the cabs used the 'stovebolt six', but two 8-cylinders were optionally available throughout the entire line, and a V-8 was included as standard equipment on the Aerobus which had previous used an overhead valve Continental six.
Checker specialized in offering specially prepared vehicles for niche markets and introduced a Hy-Rail railroad conversion package for the Checker wagon in the mid 60s. The package was available by itself or could be fitted to either a new or existing vehicle at the Checker factory. The Hy-Rail system was manufactured by Fairmont Railway Motors Inc. of Fairmont, Minnesota and had been available as early as 1961 directly from Fairmont.
During the mid-60s Checker took photographs of a wagon-based police car and ambulance that were fitted with the requisite emergency warning lights and badging. A few years earlier, a Checker catalog had included a picture of a sedan-based police car, so the later photos may have been taken to show possibilities rather than a production proposal.
By 1965, ICC was struggling to survive, when a buyer, Robert Vesco, promised to provide a much-needed infusion of cash.
In 1966 Checker introduced two lower-priced models, a Deluxe Sedan and a $4,541 limousine which was called the Checker 9-passenger 129” Sedan. Both vehicles were devoid of the Marathon’s side moldings and were noticeably absent from the following year’s catalogs.
During the 1960s a Swedish Checker distributor by the name of Patrick A. Seton sold Checker mini-buses that were built from stock sedans by removing the rear seats and replacing them with custom-fabricated child-sized bench seats, providing room for up to 13 children. Checker Wagons were also offered that featured two inward-facing bench seats in the rear quarters. Seton also offered a 6-door Aerobus that was modified to carry prisoners, a design that Checker Motors borrowed for the 1972 Checker Convoy. Seton also offered Checker-based ambulances and funeral cars that were built by Heinels, a Malmo, Sweden coachbuilder.
The Heinels funeral car was built using a Checker Sedan whose rear end was removed from the B-pillars rearward. The chassis was stretched by 35” then a glass-enclosed hearse body crafted onto the chassis. The back seat was removed and replaced by a raised platform upon which the casket rested. A row of occasional seats were installed just ahead of the casket platform which allowed 6 pallbearers to travel with the deceased to the cemetery.
Seton also sold three distinct Checker ambulances. The first was a standard wheelbase Checker wagon that included a bare minimum of first aid equipment and warning lights. The second was also built using the wagon, however the rear roof section was raised 8” starting just ahead of the B-pillar. The third ambulance utilized a stretched wagon that was fitted with a high-top roof and custom bodywork from the B-pillar back.
The Swiss coachbuilder deGeorgi built a trio of similar high-roof ambulances for a Zurich hospital in 1966. The vehicles were built using 6-door Aerobuses whose bodies were chopped off at the A-pillar and replaced by a high headroom aluminum van body that was built expressly for ambulance use. The vehicle featured extra-tall commercial-style glass in the driver’s compartment and a full-height attendant’s entrance on the passenger side of the vehicle. Patients were loaded via barn doors located at the rear, and the raised fiberglass roof included a molded-in backlit Red Cross medallion.
In 1968 Rowan Industries, a New Jersey-based petroleum exploration firm that had financed Alejandro DeTomaso’s takeover of the Italian coachbuilder Ghia, commissioned DeTomaso to design a prototype limousine that they hoped to sell to a US automaker (perhaps Checker?) to compete against the Cadillac Series 75 limousine. A Checker limousine was chosen as the donor chassis and Ghia’s Tom Tjaarda and Giorgio Giugiaro were pegged to come up with a design.
The resulting car, the Ghia Centurion, was a restrained, yet attractive Berlina that debuted at the 1968 Turin Motor Show and was subsequently displayed at the 1968 Paris and 1969 New York Auto Shows. The interior was trimmed in typical limousine fashion with leather in front and cloth in the rear and met with mixed reviews; David Burgess-Wise commented that the car “had been designed for people wearing top hats” and Car & Driver pulled no punches inferring that the “sinister” vehicle had been designed with the Dons in mind.
Checker was not involved in the project and the Rowan Industries project did not progress beyond the prototype stage. The prototype remained in New Jersey after the New York Auto Show and is currently undergoing restoration in Massachusetts.
Another Checker-based luxury vehicle was proposed by industrial designer G. Richard Thomas that was called the Summit. Thomas designed a new front and rear end for the Checker and began work on a prototype using a 129” chassis with a modified Checker greenhouse, but unfortunately the project was so under-funded he couldn’t even complete the prototype.
Checker amassed another first in US automotive history during 1968 when they became the first domestic auto manufacturer to offer a diesel engine. The long wheelbase Town Custom Limousine was noticeable absent from the 1966-1968 Checker catalogs however it was available on special order and could be ordered in less-expensive base trim. The Limousine returned as the Marathon Deluxe in 1969, the same year that Checker introduced its next niche product, the Medicar.
Starting in the mid 60s Checker had offered a medical transport option on their sedans and limousines whereby the rear seats could be removed and replaced by a raised solid floor which contained a ramp that exited the rear compartment via the passenger-side rear door, which could be opened a full 180 degrees, allowing the entire width of the rear door opening to be utilized during entry and exit. When the medical transport option was installed on the long-wheelbase limousine, the car’s spacious interior could easily accommodate either three wheelchairs or a single chair and ambulance cot with the front seat removed.
The main problem with the converted sedans was a notable lack of headroom, which was solved with the Medicar. Checker raised the roof by 10” creating a usable interior height of 55½”, the same height found in other competing medical transporters. The car featured a built-in ramp housed in the car’s rocker panel and included all of the features found on the previous Checker medical transporters and could also be retrofitted as a high headroom limousine. Most existing Medicars are painted black with a black vinyl roof although I’ve seen pictures of a blue one, so it’s possible other colors were offered as well. Records indicate only 50 (or 100?) Medicars were built between 1969 and 1971 when the car was discontinued, however the medical transport option - sans raised roof - was available through 1982.
What few assets remained of the Parmelee Transportation Co. were merged into Checker Motors Corp. in May 1969. It subsidiaries at the time included:
On July 7, 1970, Morris Markin passed away, leaving the nearly stagnant company in the hands of his son David who at that time was more interested in playing tennis than manufacturing automobiles. However, Markin eventually got himself in gear, and started looking for other sources of income, one of which was Checker’s special projects division which began to produce body stampings, truck boxes and sub-frame assemblies (Camaro & Firebird) for General Motors and others in the early 70s.
By the late 60s, the six-door Aerobus had few takers and the vehicle disappeared from the Checker catalog in 1970. In 1972, Checker introduced the Convoy, an eight-door Aerobus specifically designed for transporting prisoners. The rear passenger compartment included two inward-facing bench seats, a third forward facing bench at the rear and a rearward-facing bucket seat next to the driver for the prisoner’s minder. The entire prisoner compartment was boxed-in with a heavy welded wire cage with a single locking door at the front. Prisoners exited the vehicle via the second passenger side door, just behind the guard’s buck seat.
At least one prototype Convoy was built, however it appears that few, if any, were sold and none are known to exist. Sales of the Checker station wagon and eight-door Aerobus ground to a halt soon after and the both was noticeably absent from the 1975 Checker brochure.
Apparently a number of former Aerobus customers complained and a new Aerobus appeared in 1976. In a questionable move, Checker brass decided to build the vehicle using the rear end and jump seats from its limousine which gave the 8-door vehicle seating for 15 passengers, however that also meant that it lost 75% of the earlier vehicle’s luggage carrying capacity. Unlike its predecessor’s uniform door spacing, the door spacing on the new Aerobus looked awkward, and many thought it looked as if it had been cobbled together, and a number of operators complained that the body flexed so much that its door moldings popped off while rounding a corner.
The new Aerobus was not a success, and between 1975 and 1976 when the project was scrapped, only 107 examples were sold. The 76-77 Aerobus was clear evidence that Checker’s current management team was more interested in cutting costs than producing the solid vehicles that Morris Markin had built its reputation on.
Far more successful were the custom Checker limousines sold by Ft. Lauderdale’s Checker Southeast Corporation. Marvin Winkoff, the former vice-president of the nation’s largest Checker dealer, Checker Motor Sales Corp., of New York, moved to Florida in the early 70s and established the Checker Southeast Corp., of Ft. Lauderdale. Winkoff gave stock Checker limousines a more upscale look by installing vinyl landau roofs and oval opera windows in the cars blanked-in rear quarters. Winkoff’s creations were available in both wheelbases and could be outfitted as private cars or taxicabs. Two-tone paint, leather seating surfaces and built-in bars were available options and the small firm sold over 200 of the custom vehicles into the early 80s. After Checker went out of business, Winkoff became a successful south Florida real estate and insurance agent.
Checker’s bumpers took on a more substantial look on September 1, 1972 when Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 215, went into effect. The law called for passenger cars, beginning with model year 1973, to withstand 5 mph front and 2 ½ mph rear impacts against a perpendicular barrier without damage to certain safety-related components such as headlamps and fuel systems.
The government wasn’t done messing around with bumpers, and starting in 1979, Checker’s bumpers really began to look like guardrails due to a March of 1976 bumper standard that required passenger cars beginning with model year 1979 (1980) to withstand 5-mph front and 2½-mph rear impacts without damage of any kind.
In 1982 the law was revised and starting in 1983 the no damage provision of the previous law was dropped from 5-mph to 2½-mph. However, the 1982 revision had no effect on Checker as they already withdrawn from the cab manufacturing business.
During the mid-70s David Markin let it be known that he was looking for a partner who could revitalize the company. Edward N. Cole, a retired General Motors president and former engineer approached Markin with an offer he couldn’t refuse. Cole and Victor Potamkin, the metropolitan New York/New Jersey car dealer offered to purchase 50% of the firm for $6 million.
Markin accepted and in 1976 Cole became Checker’s chairman and chief executive officer and Markin was demoted to president. The additional working capital was to be used to help develop a more efficient downsized taxi that would put the firm in a much better financial situation.
Cole’s first project involved a downsized 6-passenger taxi, built using stretched Rabbits supplied by Volkswagen of America. Two prototypes are known to have been built and tested, however the scheme came to an abrupt halt when Cole died at the controls of his private plane in a crash that occurred while en route to Kalamazoo on May 2, 1977.
Another downsized taxi scheme was proposed in 1980 by Autodynamics, a Madison Heights, Michigan engineering firm. The car would be built using stretched Chevrolet Citations (X-cars) built using dent-resistant plastic fenders similar to those used by Saturn during the 1990s. At least one stretched Citation prototype was built and a 1995 visitor to the Checker plant recalled seeing it during his visit.
In 1981 Checker suffered its first financial net loss in almost 50 years. Although the $488,326 was small potatoes compared to the money that Chrysler was losing, it was significant amount for such a small manufacturer. During the 1970s, the firm regularly produced over 5,000 cabs per year, but during 1981, that number had fallen to 3,200 and the prospects for the following year looked even worse.
300 hourly workers were laid off during the winter of 1981-82 and Victor Potemkin divested himself of his Checker shares leaving David Markin to fend for himself. Markin tried to renegotiate a contract with the factory’s Allied Industrial Worker’s union, however they remained uncooperative, and in an April, 1982 letter to his employees, Markin announced that taxi production would stop that July.
The letter, which was printed in the April 8, 1982 issue of the Kalamazoo Gazette, hinted that the decision was linked to refusals by Local 682 of the AIW union to grant the automaker concessions. At the time an unnamed union official stated “We don’t know whether or not to believe the letter.”
However, Markin was a man of his word and on Monday, July 7, 1982 he sent out another letter to his employees announcing that the last Checker taxi would be rolling off the assembly line that Friday, July 12th. Although pink slips were given to 190 union workers, a further 600 kept their jobs as Checker’s profitable metal stamping division would remain open for the foreseeable future.
During the rest of the 1980s Checker focused on expanding their automotive part manufacturing business which supplied lift gates, chassis subassemblies, metal stampings, truck boxes, door skins and various other body panels to General Motors, Chrysler and Ford.
In 1989 David R. Markin and three other investors gained control of International Controls Corp. (ICC), a holding Company that also controlled Great Dane Trailers. ICC became CRA Holdings, and in 1995 CRA was reorganized into three wholly-owned subsidiaries: Yellow Cab (owned and leased 2,200 taxi cabs in Chicago), Chicago Autowerks (taxi-cab repair and other fleet services) and CMC Kalamazoo.
Other CRA subsidiaries include American Country Insurance Company, a provider of property and casualty insurance, Great Dane, (the largest manufacturer of truck trailers, containers and chassis), and South Charleston Stamping & Manufacturing Co., a former body stamping operation located in West Virginia that was purchased from Volkswagen in August of 1989.
ICC Reported sales of $909 million in 1993 the firm focuses on automotive stampings and the operation of its two main subsidiaries, Checker Motors and Great Dane Trailer.
During the 1990s CMC Kalamazoo – aka Checker Motors - continued producing various parts and body panels for General Motors, and their future looked bright. Markin’s CRC Holdings was eventually reorganized as Great Dane Limited Partnership, and the firm was sold to Chicago-based CC Industries in 1996 at which time South Charleston stamping was sold to the Mayflower Corp. subsidiary Mayflower Vehicle Systems.
CC Industries subsequently divested itself of its Yellow Cab and American Country Insurance holdings. Yellow Cab Chicago was purchased by Michael Levine and reorganized as Yellow Cab Management Co. and in 2006 purchased rights to the Checker Cab trademarks. American Country Insurance remained in business as a subsidiary of Kingsway Financial Services Inc., a large automotive insurance holding company.
Although CC Industries remained Checker’s parent company, Markin retained a controlling interest in CC’s Kalamazoo-based operations which continued to produce automotive castings, door skins and other body panels for General Motors into 2009.
A post-mortem blow to the Checker cab was delivered in July of 1999 when the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission declined to grandfather in the city’s few remaining in-service Checkers when stringent new emissions went into effect on August 1st of that year and the last in-service Checker Taxi was retired on July 26, 1999.
On January 16, 2009 Checker Motors Corp. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in US Bankruptcy Court in Michigan, citing high labor and raw material costs, as well as weak sales due to a decline in its customers' market share (see Checker Motors Corp, No 09-00358, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Western District of Michigan).
The filing stated that as of November 30, 2008 Checker’s assets were $24.5 million and its liabilities, $21.8 million. The company, which employed 246 at the time, said it had aimed to restructure voluntarily without resorting to bankruptcy and had been seeking to negotiate a concessionary labor agreement with its union for about a year.
Although the filing stated they planned to “reorganize its business and to bring its labor costs in-line with other similarly situated automotive suppliers”, the impending bankruptcy of two of its three major clients put an end to the optimistic plan and in late May they announced that they found a potential buyer.
On June 9, 2009, US Bankruptcy Court Justice James D. Gregg approved the sale of Checker Motors Corp. to the subsidiaries of two Canadian automotive suppliers, the Narmco Group of Windsor, Ontario and Van-Rob Inc. of Aurora, Ontario. Narmco paid $650,000 for Checker’s remaining General Motors contracts and Van Rob paid $950,000 for the bulk of Checker’s tangible assets.
On June 30, 2009 the remaining staff of 125 exited the Kalamazoo factory for the final time.
In July 2009, General Motors made a $1.5 million payment to Walker Tool & Die it order to remove a lien the toolmaker held on dies GM needed to stamp out body panels for the Canadian-built Buick LaCrosse which remained in limbo at the Checker facility.
The plant’s remaining assets were sold for scrap that fall and what demolition of the factory commenced in November 2009, leaving only concrete pads to mark the site of what was once the world’s largest manufacturer of purpose-built taxicabs.
David R. Markin remains an avid tennis player and supporter and was instrumental in the development and building of the Arthur Ashe Stadium, home to the U.S. Open, in Flushing Meadows, New York, and has served as chairman of the U.S. Davis Cup Committee and president of the United States Tennis Association.
Prior to his 2003 divorce from his first wife, Susan, Markin’s wealth was estimated at just over $100 million. More recently he re-married to noted Palm Beach jeweler Tracy Dara Kamenstein who on February 10, 2006 presented him with a large Checker Cab-shaped birthday cake in honor of his 75th birthday.
The final disposition of Markin’s large collection of Checker vehicles is unknown at this time, although two examples remain on loan to the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners, Michigan.
© 2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com with special thanks to Joe Fay