Taxicabs have long been a common sight in American cities. By providing on-demand transportation to destinations of their passengers’ choice, they serve as a vital mode of public transport, especially in larger cities such as New York City and Chicago. During the years following World War II, a number of large American four-door sedans saw service as taxi cabs. However, during the second half of the twentieth century, there was one taxicab that stood out from all of the rest: the classic Checker Taxicab. In the course of its long and distinguished career, the classic Checker served as the taxicab of choice in cities throughout the country and in the process of doing so, became an icon of postwar urban America.
The classic Checker Taxicab was a large four-door sedan built by Checker Motors Corporation of Kalamazoo, Michigan, a company which specialized in the manufacture of taxicabs. Unlike most of the other large four door sedans with which it competed, the Checker was a purpose-built taxicab. It was specifically designed in response to New York City taxi laws, which specified that taxicabs could not have a wheelbase of more than 120 inches. When it first hit America’s streets in 1956, it found immediate acceptance with both cab drivers and passengers.
Checkers were much beloved by cab drivers for their durability and ease of repair. In order to withstand a rough life on the streets, they were equipped with heavy-duty frames, brakes, suspensions, and exhaust. Their body shells featured easily removable two-piece doors and bolt-on fenders. Checkers were also mechanically simple and employed easy-to-obtain components sourced from a number of manufacturers, including but not limited to, Continental, Ford, Chevrolet, and Bendix.
Checkers were equally popular with passengers. Their large and uniquely styled body shells made them easy to spot on the street and in taxi stands. Checkers were also exceptionally roomy and comfortable, featuring generous head and leg room. When equipped with jump seats, they could hold as many as five passengers in their rear passenger compartment. They were also equipped with extra tall and wide doors that eased the entrance and exit of passengers.
The classic Checker Taxicab experienced an extraordinary long production life, lasting from 1956 to 1982. Three incarnations of these cars were built: the A-8 (1956-1958), the A-9 (1958-1962), and the A-11 (1963-1982). Throughout its production run, the Checker’s basic design remained the same, but a number of evolutionary changes were made. The most notable exterior change was a 1958 facelift featuring dual headlights and an egg crate grille, which resulted in the classic exterior most familiar to the general public. Mechanically, the most significant change occurred in 1963, when the Checkers’ original Continental six-cylinder engines were replaced by a choice of Chevrolet six-cylinder and V-8 power plants.
The last classic Checker Taxicab rolled off the assembly line in 1982, but many remained in service for a number of years after production ceased. The last Checker Taxicab in New York City was retired from service in 1999.
Checker Model A-9, No, Better Than Ever, Checker: Trade Catalogs: Fleet Vehicles: Taxi Cabs, 1948-1981, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
“Checker Motors Corporation”
Presenting two all new Checker Taxicabs: The A-8 Standard…The A-8 Driv-er-Matic Special, Trade Catalogs: Fleet Vehicles: Taxi Cabs, 1948-1981, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Wilgoren, Jodi, “Last New York Checker Turns Off Its Meter for Good”, New York Times, July 27, 1999.
Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.