While a handful of early west coast automobile distributors; namely Cadillac’s Don Lee and Packard’s Earl C. Anthony remain well-known in today’s old car community, a number of equally important distributors have faded from memory, among them Buick’s Charles S. Howard, and DeSoto’s James F. Waters.
It’s common knowledge that Lee and Anthony operated their own in-house custom body departments, however few are aware that the San Francisco-based DeSoto dealer, James F. Waters, operated his own custom coachworks, a business so large that it required an assembly plant in Detroit to handle the business.
James Francis Waters was born into a large Waterbury, New Haven county, Connecticut family in 1895. His siblings included one sister, Josephine and four brothers John T., Robert A., William and Harry Waters.
After a public education Waters joined the war effort in the buildup to World War I as a US Army Air Corps. flight instructor. After the Armistice he moved to San Francisco ostensibly as an aircraft salesman, but the supply of surplus Air Corps aircraft far exceeded the demand so he tried his hand at selling used automobiles.
He proved adept at the task and his brother, John T. Waters, moved out west to join him. By 1929 Waters’ track record convinced Chrysler that he was the right man to head its new Northern California Plymouth-DeSoto distributorship.
Despite the onset of the Depression, Water’s proved worthy of the task and between 1930 and 1932 established satellite Plymouth-DeSoto agencies in San Jose, Burlingame and Oakland, California. By this time two additional Waters brothers, Robert A. and William, had joined their brother John T., in James F. Waters Inc., which was already the nation’s largest Plymouth-Desoto distributor.
Midway through 1933 Waters purchased 350 new DeSotos and Plymouths from the New York distributor. For publicity he elected to ship them via the Panama Canal, an event that was well-publicized by DeSoto’s Sales Office. Automobile Topics reported:
Waters subsequently purchased a Manhattan Plymouth-DeSoto distributorship, installing it the former General Motors Truck distributor located at 211-225 West Sixty-first Street, Manhattan. Waters West 61st St. facility was located 2 blocks west of Manhattan’s automobile row, between 10th and 11th Avenues (aka Amsterdam and West End).
In 1935 Robert T. Waters, manager of the West 61st Street distributorship, began negotiations with a well-financed Manhattan taxicab startup which was looking to purchase a fleet of 2,200 new taxicabs.
At that time the Police Department of the five boroughs of New York City mandated that taxicab operators use purpose-built vehicles that allowed five adults to travel comfortably in the rear compartment. DeSoto’s recently introduced 7-passenger S-1 Airstream sedan could be easily modified to meet the City’s ‘five-in-the-rear’ requirement and Waters submitted a prototype to the New York City Hack Bureau for approval.
Only two manufacturers, Checker and General Motors, were producing purpose-built cabs that met New York City’s requirements and Chrysler was interested in breaking in to the market. As Chicago and Los Angeles fleet operators generally used the same equipment as their Manhattan brethren, the potential profits for all involved were immense.
As Plymouth-DeSoto’s largest distributor, Waters was able to make a deal with Chrysler whereby he would convert stripped 7-pass. DeSotos into taxicabs at a metro Detroit factory, then offer them to taxicab fleet operators through his Plymouth-DeSoto dealerships.
If successful, the scheme would provide Chrysler with a share of the taxicab market without any risk or capital outlay, additionally Waters could offer the vehicles with a full Chrysler Corp. warranty. Although the original agreement involved taxicabs specifically built and designed for Manhattan’s Sunshine Radio Service, it was later expanded to include taxicabs or other large fleet operators such as William Lansing Rothschild’s Pacific coast Yellow Taxicab Co.
Executives of the Sunshine Radio System worked hand in hand with Water’s engineers to come up with an attractive feature-laden cab designed specifically for New York City service. The ‘Sunshine’ portion of Sunshine Radio referred to the oversize sliding rear panel that allowed the sun to shine directly on the occupants of the rear compartment. Some early versions of the vehicle also included a fixed glass panel over the driver’s compartment, which was deleted as driver’s found it to be distracting.
The roof featured a sliding body-colored steel cover that when drawn to the rear completely covered the large hole that was cut out of the roof over the rear seats. The cover rode on bi-lateral roof rails allowing it to slide forward, exposing the rear compartment to the elements and hopefully to either sunlight or an attractive view of the New York skyline. Numerous pictures show arms, head and other body parts protruding out of the rooftops of the first series Sunshine taxicabs.
Safety features included a signal light on the instrument panel which alerted the driver that a rear door was open and sturdy grab bars for the rear seat occupants who rode on comfortable leather cushions. Heavy-duty Pullman-style jump seats were fitted to the divider which also held the meter-activated tube radio, the signature “Radio” of the Sunshine Radio.
The DeSoto’s front bench seat was deleted in favor of a Waters-built driver’s side bucket and passenger-side luggage compartment fitted with wear bars. Later version of the taxicab included Waters-stamped hubcaps fitted in place of the standard DeSoto discs.
To meet the five-in-the-rear laws of places like New York City, DeSoto reached into its lineup and commercialized their seven-passenger S-1 Airstream trunkless sedan for taxi service by installing a partition, a front bucket seat, and heavy-duty floor mats.
At the time, most cabs were bigger than the standard Chevy-Ford-Plymouth models that made up most of the civilian market at the time, in part because of regulations in New York City and other cities that required taxicabs to carry five passengers in a separate compartment to the rear of the driver.
Waters organized a Detroit-based firm, the James F. Waters Motor Sales Corp., to manufacture the taxicabs and leased a small factory at 14431 Dexter Ave., Detroit, Michigan.
Throughout late 1935 and early 1936 new, 131” wheelbase DeSoto Series S-1 7-passenger trunk-less sedans were shipped in-the-white, without glass, from Briggs Body in Detroit to the Waters plant at Greenfield Road. The Custom series body-shell featured the one-piece laminated windshield found on the Deluxe line and was shared with DeSoto’s high-priced Custom Traveler and Limousine models.
Frances C. Cohen applied for a patent for the infamous Sunshine-Radio System roof light on July 13, 1936. US Trademark #344,971, serial #380,976, was issued for the Sunshine-Radio System name and logo on April 13, 1937. At that time Otto Gutfreund was secretary and general manager of the company.
The distinctive chrome-plated rectangular rooftop light featured a large central-mounted backlit sunburst that was flanked by two smaller back-lit sunbursts. Matching chrome plated availability lights were installed above the rear door, each bearing a miniature sunburst globe. The outboard edges of the chrome framework contained red occupancy lights that alerted potential customers as to the cab’s availability.
A sturdy chrome Sunshine-Radio Systems sunburst plaque was installed in the center of the rear doors, clearly displaying the identity of the cab’s operator to prospective customers. A chrome-plated luggage rack was installed atop the rear bumper as the Waters-built 1936 DeSoto Deluxe Airstream S-1 taxicab bodies were delivered to the Detroit plant without trunks, or trunklids.
Priced at $1,075 f.o.b. Detroit, the cabs were equipped with DeSoto’s 93-hp, 241.5-cid 6-cylinder engine and a heavy-duty suspension package with solid disc wheels and sever-duty tires.
As founded, the Sunshine Radio System Inc. was made up of 24 individual operators who each operated a fleet of approximately 100 taxicabs in the five boroughs of New York City. Although each owner was responsible for the operation and garaging of their respective fleets, the association negotiated with local vendors to provide its members with lower prices on fuel, insurance and tires.
The 24 members shared a common phone number and central dispatcher. The Sunshine-Radio System also offered its members special financing and fleet pricing on new taxicabs.
The taxicab association was not a new idea, and was loosely based upon the system pioneered by Chicago’s Checker Cab Co. in the early 1920s. The association’s advertising budget and operating expenses were split by the 24 members who paid a monthly association fee to Sunshine-Radio System Inc.
By keeping the fleets below 100 taxicabs each member qualified for discounted insurance rates, the theory being that smaller fleets got into fewer accidents and took better care of their vehicles.
The management of the Sunshine-Radio and Atlas-Liberty systems were connected, although the two firms used different hardware. Atlas-Liberty used General Motors-taxicabs while Sunshine-Radio used Waters-built DeSoto taxicabs. Surviving court records indicate that Otto Gutfreund was secretary and general manager of the Sunshine-Radio System, and his name is also mentioned when discussing the Atlas-Liberty system. Gutfreund was a longtime New York City taxicab executive, having served as treasurer and manager of the 20th Century Taxicab Association, Inc. in the years immediately following the First World War.
At various times the Atlas-Liberty System included the following individual operators:
At various times the Sunshine-Radio System included the following individual operators:
The 51 members of the Sunshine-Radio and related Atlas-Liberty associations hired out the taxicabs to the drivers under day-long contracts and considered the firm’s drivers as independent contractors.
Although some members were well-heeled and kept their cabs in enclosed garages, most operators kept their cabs out in the open, running their fleet from a small shack, similar in appearance to the prototypical used car lot, and despite that fact, all of the firms were called garages by the drivers.
With a life span of only two or three years, New York City taxicabs weren’t around long enough to get rusty as most fleet taxis only saw a garage when they were broken. Just as today, elderly fleet cabs with a little life left in them were purchased by small second tier operators in adjacent communities.
In order to obtain a hack license the prospective driver must undergo a rigid examination by the Hack Bureau of the Police Department of New York. This examination is based not only upon his ability to drive a car but also on his abilities to understand his duties as a cab driver. He is called upon to produce affidavits of his good character and inquiry is made into the question of whether he has ever been convicted of any crime.
When the independent contractor, aka cabbie or hack, arrived at one of the association’s garages he would be assigned a taxicab for the upcoming shift, a handed a fare card which contained the following instructions: “It will pay you to be careful” ; “Each card must be filled out in detail below: (there followed a listing of time, place of start, place of destination, and amount collected for each fare.)”; Warning, Lock your car”; Keep your car clean”; “Shut off Motor When not running’, etc.
The typical card also contained detailed instructions as to the method of running the specific make and model of cab, the condition in which it was expected to be returned, and what to do and who to call in case of an accident. The driver was free to go wherever he chose within the city limits to find passengers.
The cabbie’s behavior was kept in check during his shift by a third party, which in New York City was the United Taxicab Inspection Service. United Taxicab’s inspectors spent the day riding - supposedly incognito - around in their client’s taxicabs, making note of the driver, the medallion number and the condition of the cab.
Upon finishing his shift the driver deducted for himself 40 per cent of the total fares collected, as shown on the meter, and turn over the remaining 60 per cent to the garage manager.
The garage owners furnished the cars with gas and oil and kept the cars in repair. They also carried public liability insurance and workmen’s compensation insurance. In the event of a breakdown, the driver was to call the owner’s garage immediately, and a mechanic would be dispatched, providing he was available.
If the driver’s receipts were sufficient for the day’s run, the practice was to re-engage him again the next day. If his receipts were insufficient the dispatcher might tell him not to come back again the following day. Similarly, if the vehicle was not brought back in time for the next shift the dispatcher might refuse to permit the driver to take out a car in the future.
A review of Chrysler Corporation serial numbers reveals that 2,951 DeSoto taxicabs were built during the 1936 model year, 2,500 delivered through Water’s Long Island City dealership and 451 through its California distributorship.
On June 19, 1936 the first shipment of 200 Waters-DeSoto taxicabs paraded down Broadway to a special ceremony welcoming the Sunshine Radio System to Manhattan.
The welcome was short-lived as on August 28, 1936 Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia threatened to bring about the revocation of the licenses of the Sunshine Radio Systems’ taxicab fleet unless there was a “noticeable reduction” in the din of their horns over the coming week-end.
The Mayor was well-known for his intolerance of urban noise and as a result of his complaints a city magistrate set about determining exactly how loud a taxicab horn should be the following Monday. No further mention of the taxicab’s offensive horn could be located so it’s assumed the Sunshine Radio System replaced the factory-installed horns with quieter units.
At minimum of 20 new Sunshine-Radio System Desoto Skyview taxicabs were used in the final sequences of MGM’s 1937 Spencer Tracy vehicle, ‘Big City”, whose exterior chase sequences were filmed in Manhattan during 1936. The DeSotos were also prominently featured throughout the entire film as the fleet taxis of the mob-controlled Comet Taxicab Co. Tracey and his fellow independent cabbies drove a fleet of circa 1930 Yellow Cabs, a number of which were destroyed during the movie. The brand-new DeSotos were spared, save for a couple of dented bumpers.
The roll-tops, as the hacks called the sunroof-equipped DeSotos, were popular with tourists although the rear compartment had a tendency to fill up with exhaust fumes while idling.
During 1936 Waters built 451 taxicabs for W. Lansing Rothschild’s Los Angeles and San Francisco Yellow Cab Co., all bearing a custom grill bearing the Yellow Cab script and a V-shaped lighted sign in place of the Sunshine-Radio System unit found on New York-bound taxicabs. As no pictures exist of a DeSoto Yellow Cab equipped with a sunroof it is assumed that California-bound vehicles were built with them.
For 1937 the long wheelbase DeSoto S-1 was replaced by the similar appearing S-3 which featured a slightly longer 133” wheelbase and mildly revised body styling. Chrysler serial numbers revel only 225 series S-3 taxicabs were manufactured.
An existing picture of a DeSoto S-3 Deluxe 7-passenger sedan equipped with a custom-built sliding steel sunroof show the roof in its open position, exposing a glass pane fitted directly over the rear seats. Unlike Water’s primitive sliding roof, this version has no exposed roof rails, and the metal cover clearly rides on rails hidden beneath the surface of the roof, a feature found on the German-built Golde sunroofs that became popular in the 1950s. Although the assembly would have found favor with taxicab riders, it’s obvious the complicated assembly would be vetoed by the cost conscious fleet operators. The photo gives no indication as to whether the glass panel could be slid forward, or tipped upward for ventilation.
At that time most of the drivers of the 24 firm’s operating under the Sunshine-Radio banner were represented by the Transport Workers Union (TWU), one of two large unions that controlled the majority of New York City’s cab drivers.
With taxicab production at a crawl Waters set about offering its custom-built taxicab accessories to third parties via the Waters Equipment Co. a Detroit-based firm organized to supply the taxicab industry with rooftop lights and other taxi-specific accessories. The firm’s offset taxicab division could be fitted to any domestic long-wheelbase 4-door sedan for $175 f.o.b. Detroit. The price included the division, a single Waters jump-seat, as well as a Waters-designed bucket seat for the driver.
For 1938 the S-3 was replaced by the S-5, whose long-wheelbase variant now included a 136” wheelbase chassis. The headlights were now slightly recessed into the front fenders giving the car a slightly lower appearance. Records indicate only 372 S-5 DeSoto taxicabs were constructed during the model year.
Due to a combination of factors, some relating to the Transport Workers Union, others involving an investigation by Thomas A. Dewey, into Lucky Luciano’s ties with some of the firm’s fleet owners, the owners of the Sunshine-Radio System dissolved the firm reorganizing it as the DeSoto Sky-View System. The approximate 25 firms who made up the system remained the same.
Existing cabs were operated as is until they could be repainted with the new logo, while the cabs currently under construction in Detroit were modified as required. DeSoto records indicate that 1250 DeSoto taxis were built by Waters during the 1939 model year. In addition to the new logo and lettering, all-new roof-lights were introduced that incorporated the DeSoto-Sky-View name.
The 1939 Waters-DeSoto cabs featured all-new sunroofs that retracted into the roof of the cab rather than on top of it. In an attempt to reduce exhaust fumes the opening of over the rear compartment was much smaller than that found on the 1936 Sunshine-Radio cabs. The reduced size also allowed the moveable pane to be constructed from safety glass, providing increased protection for rear seat occupants from foreign objects. Another advantage to the new transparent panel was it allowed passengers an overhead view of the Manhattan skyline during inclement weather. Although one account states the mechanism was remotely controlled by the driver, surviving photos and most published accounts indicate it was manually operated by the rear seat passengers who could open or close it at will.
The new center molded-glass globe was mounted on a chromed base and featured the word DESOTO in small black letters at the top and a much larger SKY-VIEW below it. The bi-lateral occupancy lights were now separate and featured an amber glass globe mounted to a chrome base. Two duplicates were mounted above the B-pillar on the outside edges of the roof alerting potential passengers facing the sides of the vehicle as to it availability.
The Waters-built California-based Yellow Cabs featured identical lighting with the word Yellow substituted in place of the SKY-VIEW on the molded-glass globe.
The side door medallions found on the Sunshine-Radio System cabs were replaced by a simple hand-painted crest. A black lettered arched DE SOTO was placed above a small artist’s rendering of the New York City skyline, beneath it the words SKY-VIEW in lettering the same size and color of the DeSoto at the top, only in a straight line. The name was repeated in duplicate lettering immediately above the rear door drip edge.
This configuration would appear on all pre-war Sky-Views up until the 1942 model which offered an expensive neon roof light and matching backlit sidelights built into the roof.
For 1939 the long-wheelbase S-5 was supplanted by the S-6. Although the wheelbase remained the same at 136”, all 1939 DeSotos featured new fastback rear styling and an all-new wider grill and front end whose headlights were now completely recessed into the front fenders.
For 1940 the long wheelbase DeSoto S-6 was replaced by the 139½” wheelbase S-7. The front fenders now flowed into the grill, the expanse filled by bi-lateral grillwork.
John Waters, the head of the Manhattan operation passed away suddenly on January 22, 1940. The following obituary appeared in the San Mateo Times:
The June 1, 1940 New York Times announced Waters acquisition of a city block in Long Island City:
Water’s old West Sixty-First Street facility was subsequently torn down by developers who constructed a 4-story Art Deco office building in its place. Today the building is owned by the Gateway School and is home to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy and a number of well-known dance studios.
For 1941 the long wheelbase S-7 was replaced by S-8.The wheelbase remained the same, although the front end was revised once again, and included an attractive new waterfall grill and lowered alligator hood. DeSoto’s famous Simplimatic semi-automatic transmission debuted as well, although it’s doubtful any were fitted to Water’s taxicabs.
In an ironic twist, Waters delivered 550 new DeSoto Sky-View taxicabs to the Terminal Taxi Corporation, a firm founded by General Motors a decade earlier to try and put Morris Markin’s Checker Cab Mfg Co. out of business. The last General Motors long wheelbase five-in-the-rear taxicab was built in 1937, so when Terminal needed to replace its aging GM cabs DeSoto was an easier pill to take.
Terminal declared bankruptcy in the late thirties and its assets were purchased by Chicago native Daniel G. Arnstein, a friend and former employee of John D. Hertz. Prior to the start of World War II, Arnstein was sent to China by President Roosevelt to help straighten out the transportation nightmare popularly known as the Burma Road.
Another major Waters’ client was W. Lansing Rothschild, the owner of Los Angeles and San Francisco’s Yellow Cab Co. Rothschild had purchased some of Waters’ 1936 DeSoto taxicabs, and remained a good customer into the early 1950s. Water’s famous sun-roofs were deleted for Rothschild’s California bound taxicabs as the frugal businessman considered theme to be an unnecessary expense, considering the state of California’s skyscrapers at the time. The Sky-View name was also absent from California-bound vehicles which were all painted yellow and featured the now famous Yellow rooftop light and Yellow Cab Co. on the rear doors.
In early 1941 the business activities of James F. Waters attracted the interest of Time Magazine which included the following short biography in its April 7, 1941 issue:
James F. Waters the taxicab salesman was unrelated to James F. Waters, Chicago attorney, author and radio producer. The latter James F. Waters was the author “Ghost of Broadway” (1939) “Board Of Missing Heirs”(1941) and producer of the popular radio serial Board Of Missing Heirs (1943-1946).
Just as the public was made aware of James F Waters’ success story, tragedy struck the Waters family. The May 12, 1941 San Mateo Times reported:
Consequently Robert A. Waters was placed in charge of the Waters family various enterprises as announced in the May 12, 1942 New York Times:
For 1942 DeSoto pulled out all the stops and although the long-wheelbase chassis remained the same as before, the body of the aerodynamic S-10 DeSoto included Chrysler’s first concealed headlamps.
Waters introduced all-new rooftop lighting for the 1942 DeSoto Sky-View taxicabs that featured a rooftop light that spelled out the words “DeSoto SKY-VIEW” in what appears from a distance to be neon. Closer examination reveals the sign was made from a curved piece of clear plastic with the words DeSoto and SKY-VIEW embossed or molded into the lens which is affixed to the reflector with a chrome bezel. By careful placement of the bulbs within the reflector a neon-appearance could be obtained, a trick used in many of today's modern beer signs.
Similarly molded backlit sidelights were also found just above the rear doors that read “SKY-VIEW”. The expensive lighting system was only found on 1942 Sky-View taxis and did not re-appear when production resumed after the war. It is believed that all 1942 Sky-Views delivered in New York City featured the attractive new rooftop lights as all existing pictures of 1942 Sky-Views include them. The close-up picture at the left is an enlargement of the image below it, which is itself an enlargement of a high-resolution 1944 Manhattan street scene.
Waters activities during the war are currently unknown although it’s likely the firm’s Detroit plant was either mothballed or converted over to fulfill one of Chrysler’s numerous government contracts. The war-time shortage of metal was reflected by the fact that Buddy-L's normally all-metal toy automobiles were constructed of wood for the duration of the war. Pictured to the left is their wooden scale replica of a late 30s DeSoto Sky-View taxi.
Apparently taxicabs were considered to be a high-priority post-war project as Waters advertised that they were busy building 5,000 new taxicabs in November of 1945. In fact only 2,913 DeSoto taxis were built during the 1946 model year, however the following year (1947) the firm constructed a record 4,694 DeSoto taxicabs.
November 14, 1945
The pricey neon-look roof lights found on the 1942 Sky-View were noticeably absent on the post-war Waters taxicabs which utilized a chromed-base molded etched glass rooftop light that read Sky-View. Waters craftsmen created the attractive globes by sandblasting the interiors of the frosted white glass globes using precut masks that incorporated the logo of the customer. The small bi-lateral occupancy lights found above the B-pillars could also be logo-etched if required. Waters globe advertisements were prominently featured in the taxi trades during the forties and early fifties.
While almost all known Sky-Views were operated by large fleets in New York, Detroit, Los Angeles and San Francisco, an occasional small-city taxicab operator would purchase one of the expensive taxis for local use. According to the July 27, 1947 Lima, Ohio News:
In 1947 a handful of Waters ads were placed in the New Yorker Magazine, the text of which follows:
An existing 1947 DeSoto Sky-View taxicab recently displayed at a number of west coast automobile shows bears a non-original circa 1936 Sunshine-Radio System rooftop light. The large central sunburst globe included on the original 1936 unit is missing, although the two side lights remain intact. The central backlit nameplate also bears period incorrect (for 1947) non-hyphenated SKYVIEW lettering. The chromed sunburst globe equipped occupancy lights above the rear doors were also taken from a circa 1936 vehicle. The rear occupancy lights on a 1947 Sky-View should be miniature versions of the molded plastic main rooftop light.
Another inaccurate touch is the installation of the distinctive side stripes normally found on a Checker taxi. The pile carpeting found on the interior of the passenger compartment is also non-original as all Waters taxicabs were fitted with rubber floor-mats. While the current owner undoubtedly find the additions attractive, they only confuse the layman and force knowledgeable taxicab historians and enthusiasts to question the authenticity of the rest of ‘restoration’.
Although 1946-1948 long wheelbase DeSotos were designated as the model S-11, they were little changed from the pre-war 1942 model S-10, save for the elimination of the hidden headlights and the incorporation of longer front fenders that now extended into the front doors.
The all-new 1950 Sky-View Taxicab was introduced to New York’s Sky-View Taxicab association on August 5, 1949 in a special presentation at City Hall. In addition to the mild redesign shared with the DeSotos sedans, the 1950 Sky-Views included a new molded plastic rooftop light that replaced the chrome and glass lights found on the 1946-1949 models. The occupancy lights found above the B-pillars were similarly revamped.
The list price of the new 1950 DeSoto taxi was $3,100, roughly $500 more than the current model Checker although large fleets could get a $200 per unit discount on large orders. The 1950 Sky-Views were Waters' first New York City taxicabs to offered without the firm's signature sunroof and a circa 1949 view of an outdoor Manhattan Sky-View garage reveals that approximately 50% of the fleet’s livery was so equipped. As previously mentioned, none of the cabs built for Rothschild’s Yellow Cab Company included the sunroof although they too were referred to as Sky-Views.
Despite using the model designation of the actual model year (1949 S-13, 1950 S-14, 1951 S-15, 1952 S-15, 1953 S-18, 1954 S-20) the body shells of the 1949-54 S-11-derived 139½” long wheelbase taxicabs all shared the revised DeSoto S-13 bodywork introduced in 1949 which was also used on the limited production DeSoto 8-passenger sedan, limousine and Suburban. The S-13 taxicab’s front fenders were completely incorporated into the body and all traces of the tiny post-war running boards completely eliminated.
The S-11 derived taxicabs received a few minor tweaks during the ensuing years as follows. A slightly higher front fenderline introduced in 1951 necessitated a new larger windshield as well as new front doors to match the higher front fender line. The still separate rear fenders were changed in 1950 and again in 1953. 1953-1954 models all received a new one-piece curved windshield.
A 1953 ‘DeSoto Retailer’ article stated that seven out of every ten cabs in NYC were DeSotos, further stating that the Chrysler division produced approximately 2,000 DeSotos per year for the Waters Mfg. Co. of Detroit each year which were turned into taxicabs for the New York City market. The DeSotos shipped to Waters’ factory were made without trim, upholstery, seats, or even window glass, using the eight-passenger sedan body with a six cylinder engine and manual transmission. The 18 foot long 139½” wheelbase NYC cabs sold for $2,800 and averaged 70,000 miles per year.
In 1950 Briggs established a DeSoto-specific body plant on Warren Avenue that was previously used by the Graham Motor Co. Although Chrysler purchased the Briggs Mfg Co. in 1954, the acquisition was unrelated to the simultaneous elimination of the long wheelbase S-11 DeSoto chassis. By that time pending New York City legislation combined with steadily decreasing sales couldn’t justify the retooling cost associated with bringing the long-wheelbase sedans up to date.
The death knell for the long-wheelbase taxicab tolled for the last time on July 16, 1954 when the Police Department’s Hack Bureau rescinded the decades-old five-in-the-rear requirement and implemented a new 120” maximum wheelbase for all newly purchased taxicabs. Later that day three of the new, smaller taxicabs that met the new regulations began cruising for fares on the streets of New York.
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 (aka the five-in-the-rear law). 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.
On July 10, 1955, shortly after production of Waters DeSoto taxicabs ended, the sole remaining Waters brother, Robert A. Waters, passed away and control of the company passed to his son, Robert A. Waters Jr.
The following year, Waters’ Long Island City taxicab supply business, Waters Equipment Co., was sold to John W. Rollins’ Rollins Fleet Leasing Corp. in a $1.4 million cash deal in which he also purchased the Viking Transport Corp., Bronx, New York; and the Harrisburg Auto Rental Co., Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Under Robert A. Waters Jr. Waters Equipment Co.’s San Francisco operation entered the newly evolving fleet leasing business which was continued along with the Waters group of Plymouth De-Soto dealerships into the 1960s.
Waters also owned San Francisco’s DeSoto Sedan Service Co. which to the best of my knowledge never used any of Waters’ long wheelbase taxicabs as they didn’t want to compete against that city’s Yellow Cab Co., which was owned by W. Lansing Rothschild, a good customer of the firm’s cab manufacturing operations. DeSoto utilized Plymouth sedans throughout the forties and fifties and surprisingly remains in business today.
Waters’ flagship San Francisco dealership at 1355-1395 Van Ness Ave remains in use as a full line General Motors dealership operated by Ellis Brooks, a longtime Chevrolet dealer.
The Waters Equipment Co.’s Detroit plant was taken over by Chrysler who used it as an engineering facility into 1969 when it was acquired by the Industrial Controls Div., of Bendix Corp.
Sky-View cabs were featured in several hundred
motion pictures, with significant screen time in 20th Century Fox's
'Taxi' (1953), and MGM's 'Side Street' (1949) a Farley Granger vehicle
which includes a thrilling Sky-View chase at the end.
© 2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com
DeSoto Taxi Production based on published Chrysler Corp. serial numbers and published production figures:
Addresses of taxi-related Waters businesses:
Addresses of James F. Waters automobile dealerships:
January 1939 Union Poll, originally published in the Brooklyn Eagle on Friday, January 6, 1939:
© 2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com