ASCII by Jason Scott

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A Checkered Past —

A brand of car came back into my life again. May I present my newest car:

This is a 1980 Checker Marathon, more commonly known as a New York Taxi, or “Holy God, That Thing Is Huge”. Over 20 feet long, comfortably seating nine adults (thanks to collapsible jumpseats) and sporting an 8 cylinder engine, this workhorse of a vehicle is just the right addition to my life in the midst of a gas crisis. (To be honest, it gets about 16mph, which is not untenable considering the 4 thousand pounds it hauls around.)

When I was in my late 20′s, I was looking around for a new car, having utterly destroyed the old one in an ironic car accident (I smashed a Japanese car into a World War II veteran’s monument). I was looking to make my mark, and some crazy possibilities entered my realm, including an ice cream truck, hearse, and fire truck. I was redirected, however, by an ad in the local paper for a Checker Marathon being sold down the road.

Checker Marathons are basically built to be taxis. The version that most people are familiar with was prominent in the 1960s and 1970s, and the design was maintained, with very few modifications, for 20 years. This is part of the reason that you look at one of these and start thinking it’s a lot older than it is; the lines, the length, all point to an era far before 1980. The one I met previously and purchased was built in 1978, was pure white, and I just loved it. I still remember the abject, spinal-based terror I felt driving it around for the test drive; it was like guiding a speedy and nimble battleship. Take your average Volkswagen of the modern era, park it next to a Checker with the headlights side-by-side, and the back of the Volkswagen won’t go past the back seat of the Checker.

I loved my old Checker and drove it around for years; ultimately, however, rust and decay overcame it and that was the end of it. I contributed it to the collection of a collector who used it for parts and trade for other Checkers to live. By talking with previous owners and tracking its history, I found out my car had traveled nearly 500,000 miles in its lifetime.

(Some people have asked why I didn’t restore my old Checker. Well, it had been a real taxi for years and with that came all the bumps, bruises and oh yes, massive T-bone collision it had suffered along the way. It had been repaired in a shop whose guiding principle was to get the car back on the road more than to care for future generations. As a result, the engine mount had a 4-inch spacer on the right side to make the engine level. This may not strike some folks as much of a detail, but I assure you, an engine which has to be mounted on a frame that requires four inches of slack to stay level is an engine mounted on a destroyed frame. The car would have needed to be stripped down to the frame and completely re-engineered to come back to usable form.)

Why now? The previous owner is a very close friend, who acquired a Checker some years after I did, perhaps inspired by me, and he now finds himself primarily living out of the country, with his Checker being left under a tarp for months or years at a time. It was time to move on, although he has visitation/driving rights, so he can still enjoy himself in this beast of a vehicle. I was proud to become the new owner.

I could fill these pages with stories and thoughts on these vehicles, but I suggest the initiated simply visit the Checker Taxi Stand, run excellently by the newest generation of Checker owners.

Fair Warning: The car needs some post-sitting repairs, meaning you are given at least 30 days before you must fear the roadways of New England.


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6 Comments

  1. Flack says:

    You are right; the car’s lines obfuscate its age. I would have guessed it was twenty years older.

    I also didn’t recognize it because I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one on the road. Caprice Classics are the taxi of choice here in the midwest.

  2. bayard says:

    Classy machine. That’s true love to buy her now.

  3. Jason B. says:

    s/mph/mpg/???

  4. Trent says:

    I drove a Checker cab in Omaha for about three years, in the early 80s. They were set up to run on propane, and you ‘leased’ the cab, for a monthly payment, then, after paying for gas, oil and whatever inspections and maintenance was needed, everything you made was yours. Before the days of GPS and automated dispatching, we had our characters, both in the office and on the road. I was in my mid-20s and loved to drive, and it was pretty good fun for awhile…..no future in it, of course, but for a footloose and single guy, not too bad, especially since the cab served as my personal car, too. Any time, day or night, I could turn on the radio, see if fares werre poppin, log in to the area I was, and take a few calls, make 30-50 dollars in an hour, then go do something else. I had a brand new Yellow Cab, number 319 (I wrote Country song lyrics about it), and drove it till I decided to try something else. It didn’t pan out, so I went back to driving, sometimes with a partner, sometimes not, until a driver got shot in an early-morning robbery-hostage situation. He was the roommate of our early-morning dispatcher, and that hit too close to home…..I got paranoid, and after a harmless but scary incident with a fare, decided to quit the biz altogether, but I’d love to be able to afford one of the few restored cabs out on the roads today. Good memories, good times.

  5. Trent says:

    Forgot to say, I noticed you have one of the rarer ‘extended’ models. The back door was even longer than the regular ones, and they had rectangular jumpseats instead of the common round ones. If you use the back a lot, watch for problems with your door hinges, they weren’t meant for that extra length and weight. Good luck.

  6. ben st pete says:

    Hi Jason!

    Enjoyed your Checker tale. I bought an A12 Marathon new in Aug of 1972 and I still use it every day. I had the Chevy 5.7 V8 installed when new
    it lasted 28 years about 300k miles.

    I then had a 2000
    version of the same
    engine installed and
    it is humming along
    in 2009!

    This amazing car has
    no rattles no rust and and still shines.

    I really enjoy the questions so many people ask!

    Keep on enjoying !