The Historical Checkered Past of Kalamazoo’s Checker Motors Company
The NSRA Street Rod Nationals North show was in Kalamazoo recently, and part of it featured a Kalamazoo staple to classic cars - The Checkers.
A line of cars made right here in Kalamazoo, and most famously known for their Cabs. BUT... they were much more than just a cab company.
Of course, we've all heard of the "Checker Cabs," or the Checker Taxi Service. They're very famous, and made in Kalamazoo.
That iconic shape of the headlights, the rounded curves of the cars with that traditional yellow and black checkered design. Sometimes, with the traditional Chicago Green color accents. It's hard to mistake a Checker cab for anything else.
But, the Checker Car isn't just relocated to being a cab. They were a legit motor company in Kalamazoo - Checker Motors Company - and did MUCH more than make cabs.
A Checkered Past
Checker Motors Corporation celebrated its 100th anniversary of its founding last year. It was started in 1921 after Kalamazoo man Morris Markin acquired Commonwealth Motors with his Markin Automobile Body shop.
During that acquisition, there was a contract to honor with the Checker Taxi Company in Chicago. Markin fulfilled the order with his first model of Checker Car, and slowly, through all of the 1920s, acquired the Yellow Cab Company.
Checker Motors Corporation, and the True Checkered Cab was born.
Checker Trailers in WWII?
For the next 15 years or so, Markin grew his company on the backs of creating, designing, updating, and producing cabs. But in the 1940s, when it came to WWII, rumor was, the company melted down all of the casts, body tools, and dies for the War Effort. Checker, along with dozens of other automobile manufacturing companies, used their materials and work force to manufacture the B518 Ben Hur Trailer. (Seen above)
Those trailers proved to be a very important tool for the newly created Jeep to haul soldiers, supplies, food, water, and weapons through European and Pacific theaters.
But the war would eventually end, and in 1947, Checker needed to re-enter the domestic market, and get to rolling out cars again. They also needed to expand beyond cabs, and dipped their toes into the Passenger Car Market.
Post-War and More than a Cab
Checker Motors had to rebuild new dies and casts for their vehicles after the war, and entered into the passenger car business in 1947 on a limited basis. By the late 50s, the company further expanded into consumer automobile sales. Regular citizens across New York, New England, and the Chicago area could now buy their own Checker Car.
In 1956, Checker created the body and car design that most of us would recognize today as the quintessential "Checker Cab." Small changes were made over the years, but this would prove to be the car body that made Checker Motors a big deal.
Through the 1960s, they were selling 6-7,000 cars a year, and in 1962, production topped 8,000 vehicles. Most were still taxis, but four-door sedans and now Station Wagon models were being advertised to individual customers in upscale publications. They even produced an Aerobus vehicle that served as a novelty ride, and an extended cab to pick up large parties at airports and vacation resorts.
The Downfall of Checker Motors
Sadly, sales stagnated with little design updates to the car in the 70s, and in March of 1977 - seven years after founder Morris Markin died - former GM president and a car dealer Victor Potamkin bought into the company to try and re-energize the company.
Their idea was to buy partially completed Volkswagens from Pennsylvania, cut them in half, and insert a section in the middle to lengthen the car, raise the roof, then sell them as reconfigured taxis.
The project was scrapped after it was determined Volkswagens weren't great cars for taxi service.
The End of Checker Car Manufacturing
The final Checker Car rolled off the manufacturing line in Kalamazoo in July of 1982 - An A11 Taxi, painted in Chicago Green and Ivory Livery.
Checker was now out of the automobile manufacturing business.
HOWEVER, they were still the only holders of dies, casts, and stamps for THOUSANDS of active Checker cabs on the streets of major cities. So they began stamping and manufacturing parts for the cabs, as well as parts for trailers, and other car services. They operated primarily as a subcontractor for General motors up until the 2000s.
The Final Goodbye to Checker Motors
On January 14th, 2010, Checker Motors announced they were folding - one of the last independent automotive companies to hold out through the 2009 recession, with no bailout.
There were about 125 Checker workers in Kalamazoo that continued to make parts until June 30th, before all orders and operations were transferred to Canada.
Mike LaCourse was one of those workers, and the last supervisor to step off the line in Kalamazoo.
"I 'bout cried when it happened. Those cars were so important to me and this city, and so many other people."
New Life After an End
But all is not lost for the Checker community, because groups like the Checker Car Club of America exist to preserve the culture of Checker Motors, and obviously, there's a chapter in Kalamazoo.
As for Mike...
"For years I wanted one. I'd see them at the shows, and just lay my hand on one. Nearly brought tears to my eyes every time."
Mike recently got his chance to own one of those cars so special to him, and even that car was a special Checker car.
"I had the chance to buy one, and got it. It was emotional when I got it... It's a Station Wagon model, the 50th Anniversary with the Gold paint on it. Now I have my own piece of Checker history."