OF THE AMERICAN AUTOMOBILE
Rise of an Empire - (The story of Checker Cab)
By Jim Hinckley
The taxis produced by Checker are similar in nature to Route 66. Both
are American icons, both have an extensive fan base and technically,
neither one officially exist any longer. The decertification of
occurred in 1985, and the last Checker rolled from the Kalamazoo factory
In regard to history, myth has overshadowed fact with both Checker and
Route 66. Few enthusiasts are aware that the origins of Route 66 are
firmly rooted in the bicycle mania of the mid to late 19th century, and
even fewer are aware that the foundations for Checker were laid by John
Hertz of rental car fame.
As exciting as the stories about these icons are, they pale in
comparison to the tales pertaining to the struggle for dominance of the
taxi industry by manufacturers, by franchised companies, and independent
operators. These are stories of mergers so complicated and murky that
they garnered the attention of federal investigators, and of blood in
Consider this fact; in the 1920s and early 1930s few cities regulated
the taxi industry. As a result, fast buck artists, alcoholics, desperate
men trying to feed their families, and gangsters became taxi drivers,
and competed for a very limited market.
1982 Checker A-11 Taxicab, painted in traditional green and cream with
trademark checkerboard trim, was the very last Checker automobile
produced. It rolled off Checker's Kalamazoo assembly line on July 12,
1982. It now resides at the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners,
Michigan. Photographed 2 September 2007 by Kevin S. Forsyth.
They drove financed Checkers and well worn used cars, refurbished wrecks
and even stolen cars, family sedans and military surplus vehicles. They
used home made signs, lit signs, and hand painted signs on the doors.
They drove five hours, ten, and even twenty. Their fares were
competitive and when that proved unprofitable, they eliminated the
study conducted in 1931 evaluated 23,000 motor vehicle accidents in the
city of New York, 21,000 of which involved taxi cabs. An article
published in the August 1931 issue of Literary Digest detailed another
investigative report and noted that, "Differences are now settled with
fists, rocks and clubs. The Bronx became famous for these affairs of
honor. In one of them, the peacemaker was knocked down with a brick
while another driver jumped into a cab and drove over the body."
The chaos and mayhem at the corporate level was just as vicious. In 1928
through a series of shrewd stock manipulations, Morris Markin, founder
of Checker, was removed from the position of president and a syndicate
of auto executives and major stockholders assumed control.
As Markin battled for control of his company he was also working to gain
control of taxi companies and major metropolitan fleet companies. The
first step was creation of the National Transportation Company roughly
modeled after a similar endeavor initiated several years prior by John
Hertz in an effort to create a market for his Yellow Cab taxis.
By years end Markin controlled more than 1,000 taxis in New York City
through the National Transportation Company, and had acquired partial
ownership of Chicago Yellow Cab Company owned by Hertz through the
outright purchase of Parmelee Transportation Company, which had
purchased a percentage of Hertz's company several years prior. Things
became even more confusing when Markin acquired Yellow Cab Company of
Pittsburgh and Yellow Taxi Company of Minneapolis through National
Transportation Company, and then folded this enterprise into the
Parmelee Transportation Company.
Morris Markin, founder of Checker Motors. Photo
In Depth", Ronnie Schreiber
The hinge pin for Markin's new empire was Chicago Yellow Cab Company.
This was also a holding company with its own insurance company and large
With a solid dominance of the taxi business in several major
metropolitan areas, Markin turned his full attention toward regaining
control of Checker. Kalamazoo Gazette, August 16, 1933, "The move by
which E.L. Cord obtained control of Checker is understood to have
centered around Markin, removed as president of the company. Markin held
options on sufficient stock to gain control of the company. The options
were about to expire when he was removed. Markin sold the options to
Cord who exercised them just before they were to expire and gained
control of the company and the directors who voted for his removal have
been replaced by Cord men."
Not mentioned in the article was the complex arrangement that made this
take over possible. Cord, owner of Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg, and primary
stock holder in Lycoming, an engine manufacturing company, became
chairman of the board and a director at Checker.
Cord then transferred the manufacture of the Saf-T-Cab, a commercial
line of the Auburn division to Checker. Lycoming that supplied engines
for Cord, Duesenberg, and Auburn, would now also supply engines for
Further complicating the transaction were arrangements for the sale of
Saf-T-Cab vehicles. They were still marketed through Auburn but sales to
taxi companies were through the Markin controlled Parmelee
Transportation Company taxi division in Cleveland.
It was an innovate arrangement. It was a curios arrangement. It was a
lucrative arrangement. Apparently the Securities and Exchange Commission
thought so as well.
In the Bill of Complaint on charges of stock manipulation filed on
August 7, 1937, Cord is listed as chairman of the board, a director, a
member of the executive committee of the Cord Corporation; chairman of
the board and a director of the Checker Cab Manufacturing Company, and
director of the Auburn Company. Markin is listed as president of the
Checker Cab Manufacturing Company and its major stockholder.
The bill also noted that Checker Cab Manufacturing controlled a
syndicate that included Parmelee Transportation Company, the subsidiary
to which and through Auburn sold Saf-T-Cabs powered by Lycoming engines,
a Cord controlled company, and the major contractor that supplied
baggage delivery from railroad stations to hotels in numerous cities,
and Chicago Yellow Cab, Incorporated.
Chicago Yellow Cab was also a warren of interlocking enterprises. The
largest manufacturer of taxi equipment such as meters was controlled by
Cord. The products were sold through a division of Chicago Yellow Cab.
This company also had a finance division that allowed operators and
franchise companies to purchase Saf-T-Cabs or Checkers on the
installment plan, and a specialty insurance company for taxi fleet
owners or operators. It was also the only authorized repair facility in
Chicago for Checker built vehicles.
Even though both Cord and Markin were indicted, the charges were dropped
and the investigation fizzled. The primary reason was that the
collapsing Cord empire led E.L. Cord to liquidate a wide array of
holdings including his share of Checker.
Markin now controlled the largest manufacturer of vehicles built
specifically for taxi application, dominated the taxi fleets in several
major cities, and the sale of taxi equipment. One can only imagine his
delight when cities initiated campaigns to stem wildcatting and violence
by dictating that only purpose built vehicles could operate as taxis.
The Morris Markin empire never equaled that of Henry Ford or Walter
Chrysler. Checker never was able to compete with General Motors or
Chrysler. It did, however, create an American icon that lives on long
after the company ceased operations.
Hinckley, Legends Of America, January 2014
1930 Checker Taxi Cab Parmelee. Flickr photo
About the Author:
Jim Hinckley is an award winning author and photographer, and an
official contributor to Legends Of America through a partnership developed
in October 2012. Hinckley is a former Associate Editor of Cars and Parts
Magazine, and author of multiple books, including several on Route 66.
His latest "The Route 66 Encyclopedia" is available with autograph via
Route 66 Chronicles, Jim's blog.
on Legends Of America
History (main page)
Hinckley's America (Photo Print Gallery)
<< Previous 1 2 Next >>
From Legends' Photo Shop
Print Shop - Travel the trails of
American History with our many
photographs! Just take a look at
our galleries or purchase
downloads at very reasonable prices! Here, you'll see
roadside stops, and lots more. We also provide
vintage images that can be used for personal or