Death And Taxis

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Gunshots rung out one warm summer’s day at a pool room in Chicago. The year was 1923, and by the end of the afternoon about a dozen men had been taken in for questioning. One man, Frank Sexton, lay dead as a doornail. The next night, a bomb went off in the home of Morris Markin, a prominent businessman and Russian immigrant. Markin’s okay, but now he’s spooked. And his next move would eventually lead to one of the most iconic cars the world has ever seen. This is a 1976 Checker Marathon.

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We’ve done some talking in recent weeks about defunct American brands like Rambler and American Motors, but Checker might just be my favorite. Checker made a bunch of different cars over its lifetime, but by far and away the most recognizable is this: the Marathon, though to some it’s simply the “Checker cab.” Marathons ruled taxi lots in cities across the country for a long time, and nowhere was its influence seen more then in New York City. But before we talk about the Marathon, let’s get back to Morris Markin and the people trying to kill him.

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Markin grew up in poverty in Smolensk, Russia right around the turn of the 20th century. He emigrated to the United States in 1913 at the age of 20 after rising through the ranks at his hometown clothing factory. He wound up in Chicago, and it was here where his fortunes really started to take off. Morris, along with his brother, set up a clothing business that eventually won a contract with the US Army to make uniforms for soldiers in a small conflict known as World War I. After the war, Morris was rolling in dough, and was anxious to invest that dough into something that could bake him up even more bread. Enter Lomburg Auto Body Manufacturing. Lomburg was a supplier to Commonwealth Motors, which in 1919 was getting ready to launch a new cab called the Mogul Taxi. Lomburg was worried it couldn’t keep up with demand for the new car, so the company partnered with Markin, who invested fifteen thousand dollars in the venture. As the cookie crumbled, the Mogul flopped, and in 1920 Lomburg’s owners surrendered control of their company to Markin, who promptly named it after himself.

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The next year, Commonwealth itself goes bankrupt. Morris “Shrewd Move” Markin exchanges his (hilariously overvalued) shares in Lomburg for the assets of Commonwealth. He then merged the two companies into the Checker Cab Manufacturing Company. So that’s how we got the name, but why did someone try to blow up Morris Markin? Well, when you’re in the business of building taxis, you’re going to have to deal with taxi drivers from time to time. And in Chicago, that meant dealing with the city’s Teamsters, Chauffeurs and Helpers Union. It also meant dealing with independent cab drivers, and that’s where things got all Michael Bay. Frank Sexton, the guy who was shot in a pool room, was a union organizer, and the bombing at Markin’s home was largely seen as retaliation against anti-union guys. Markin refused to do business with union leaders, who he saw as violent mobsters. So, with the heat getting hot, Markin picked up his company and moved operations to Kalamazoo, Michigan. A little more than a month after the bombing, the first Checker rolled off the line.

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Which leads us, rather long-windedly, here. The plant in Kalamazoo pumped out taxis like it was no one’s business for much of the 20th century, but no one was prepared for the sheer conniption fit cab companies would have over the Marathon. In 1963, of the 135,000 taxis in the country, 35,000 were Marathons. And that was for a car that had only been introduced two years earlier. Why did cab companies take to the Marathon quicker than millennials took to S-Town? Well, it wasn’t because the Marathon was what you’d call “refined.” It was big, it was cumbersome, and for much of its life, it was underpowered. This is a 1976 model, which was during the period when Checker was sourcing their engines from Chevrolet. That meant you could have a Marathon with a 350 cubic-inch V8 developing 145 horsepower, or, more likely in this example, a 250 cubic-inch inline six developing 105 horsepower. And man were those horsepowers overworked. The Marathon’s titanic weight combined with its measly power output made for an over encumbered engine that scarfed down fuel like it was doing its best Joey Chestnut impression. Fuel efficient? Not exactly.

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What the Marathon did have was space. Oodles of it. The floors were flat, which made it easy to transport luggage. The roof was tall, and there were two jump seats mounted behind the front row, which meant you could cram seven people in this car if you needed to. The only sedan that can manage that today, so far as I can tell, is a Tesla Model S, which is a weird car to mention in the same breath as a Checker Marathon. In addition, the body panels were easy to remove and replace in the event someone decides to crash into you. That’s handy in New York City.

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Checker did sell cars that weren’t taxis, though never in any significant numbers. There was a long wheelbase version that was aimed at the limousine market, which I’m sure Uber would have loved had Uber, apps, cell phones, or the internet existed in the 1960s. There was also a station wagon. And, of course, there was the Aerobus: a stretched version of the Marathon designed for use as an airport shuttle (hence the name). Checker would also sell you a rail conversion kit, that allowed your Marathon to operate as a train should the need arise. And its here where the Marathon starts to make sense. No, it’s not as comfortable or polished as a Dodge Polara or Chevy Biscayne. But imagine you’re a contractor for a minute. You took cabs in New York City when you were rising through the ranks at your company and they seemed to work just fine. So when you’re looking for a large vehicle to transport your workers around a job site the Aerobus just seems to fit. And if it’s good enough for construction workers, then shuttling your family back and forth to the grocery store is child’s play for a Marathon wagon. And if some company men in suits are coming into town, why not toss them in the back of one of Checker’s extended-wheelbase Marathons? It’s not the best, but it is modular. And that allows it to be familiar.

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Though it went out of production in the early 80s, many Marathons soldiered on well beyond that. In fact, the last New York City Checker cab stopped collecting fares (in appropriately disgruntled fashion) in 1999. And I think that nicely outlines why the Marathon became such an icon in the Big Apple. Ask someone to draw you a picture of any taxicab and they’d probably hand you a napkin doodle that looked something like this. Tourist shops in Times Square sell scale models of these by the boatload. Stick drives a matte black one in Daredevil. New Yorkers like the Marathon because it reminds them just a little bit of themselves. Rough around the edges, and overworked most of the time, but tough. Unflappable under any situation, and adaptable to all of them. It’s an outsider- a Chicagoan, at that- but it found a home in New York just like so many others have. It’s brash, but it’s got character. It’s got attitude. It’s an icon for New York because it is New York.

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Additional Thoughts:

  • Checker experimented pretty hard in the 1940s (who didn’t, frankly?). Witness stuff like this rear-engined thing or this front wheel drive, transverse mounted six-cylinder prototype.
  • Though they never made more than 9,000 units per year, Checker made a profit every single one of those years. That is, until 1982, when the company posted its first loss. They stopped making cars that same year.
  • I mentioned the Aerobus was a stretched version of the Marathon, which is only partially true. Aerobuses ran on completely different architecture than normal Marathons, though they used the same body panels. This actually made them sturdier than conventional limousines, which adapted existing cars’ frames.
  • The police department of Kalamazoo, Michigan used Marathons as patrol cars for a time.
  • No discussion of the Checker would be complete without a mention of the sitcom Taxi, which, in addition to launching the careers of Danny DeVito, Judd Hirsh, and Christopher Lloyd, had one of the catchiest theme songs ever.
  • Work began in the late seventies on a Marathon replacement based on a modified VW Rabbit platform, but the project never saw the light of day.
  • Markin’s grandson still hangs on to what might be the rarest Checker ever. Here’s the full story.
  • New York City’s current cab of choice is the Nissan NV200: a small, ugly minivan that no one, including our mayor, likes very much. Not that it matters much anymore. But you can charge your phone in the NV200, so there’s that. In your face, Checker!
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