Although the last regular Checker cab disappeared from New York’s streets in 1999, Checker Motors stopped making cabs in 1982 and the Kalamazoo factory finally packed up in 2010 after its bankruptcy as a parts-supplier to the automotive industry, there still is a great mystique to and love of the Checker Motors brand. Not only because of Travis Bickle/Robert DeNiro 1976 Taxi Driver film, shot by Martin Scorsese, but mainly because of the immense popularity of the bulky Checker cabs in the years they drove through Manhattan. Until the mid-‘70’s Checker cabs made up half of the yellow fleet in the Big Apple.
Jim Garrison, president of the Checker Car Club of America told the New York Times that passengers loved Checkers because of “the big, round, friendly design and for the sense of safety and comfort they offered.” No other cab represents the feel of New York so much as the A11 does.
The roomy Checker A8 (a 1956 design) and the later tank-like A11 with the double headlights offered so much space between the classic tip-up seats and the rear seats, that a stroller, bikes or tons of luggage easily fitted in. A great difference with today’s cramped New York cabs, in which two passengers –especially taller customers- can’t even ride comfortably.
Taxi operators loved the Checker Cab for their sturdy design. Everything on a Checker could easily be replaced. Anything that would easily dent in an accident came off in minutes to be replaced in a jiffy. Many operators kept stacks of replacement fenders and bumpers in their yards. At the same time, the cab was not made for durability. Its body is particularly rust-prone. No wonder the number of well-preserved Checker cabs is dwindling.
That’s why it was a joy to see so many Checkers from all parts of the USA in New York. On a sunny Friday-afternoon June 21, over 50 gleaming Checkers of different ages and sizes lined Brooklyn’s Box Street in Greenpoint. With its semi-industrial feel not exactly Manhattan, but close enough… “What’s better than Checkers and Brooklyn?”, someone was overheard saying. The Checkers made the street look like a filmset. The Box Hotel hosted the event and had lined its walls with great taxi paintings by Columbian artist Gloria Gonzalez Gallego. Yes indeed, related to Al Gallego of New York’s Taxidepot.
Some enthusiasts had driven from as far away as California, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Washington and Ohio for this annual gathering of the Checker Car Club of America, attracting some 120 members of its 275 national members. Ben Merkel from Middlefield, Ohio, once dubbed ‘The Chancellor of the Ex-Checker’ by New York Magazine for his large collection of Checker vehicles (now reduced to a mere 15), had driven to Brooklyn in his stretched 6-door 1967 Checker Aerobus.
“The main reason I love my Checker is the human connection”, George Laszlo, who headed the convention committee, told the Times. “It’s a people magnet that allows me to have really fascinating conversations. Nobody walks up to a Hyundai Sonata with a yen for a soulful conversation.” Laszlo had brought his 1973 Checker Aerobus limo to welcome the crowds.
One of the record-holders at the show and one of the leading lights in the Checker world, is Joe Pollard from Chatsworth, California,, who owns a 100 Checkers. The Californian climate is kind to the vehicles, which, according to Ben Merkel “were never put together very lovingly or with an eye for detail. They were true work horses.”
• Carol Schenkman made a photo-impression of the Checker event.