From its inception in 1922 Checker Cab Manufacturing Company, Checker Motors Corporation after 1958 was an empire built on niche markets. Initially the cars were built to a purpose like a hammer or other tool and as a result, the name Checker became synonymous with cab. As the cars were designed to meet the specific needs of the taxi industry, they soon garnered a well-deserved reputation for durability, ease of repair and low cost of operation. A late 1925 industrial survey noted, “It is said that originally the life of this Kalamazoo cab was estimated at 200,000 miles, but investigation shows that the first Checker Cabs ever manufactured are still on the streets of Chicago, many of them having traveled approximately a quarter of a million miles.” Taxis may be what the company is remembered for but there were other specialty markets that were too small for large manufacturers that when combined were quite profitable for Checker. As early as 1928 the company built, on a limited basis, stake bed trucks on heavy duty taxi chassis largely for transport of luggage and similar items from railroad stations to hotels. Another intriguing and even more fascinating vehicle is the MU6 Suburban Utility introduced in June of 1931. Promoted as the ultimate in multi purpose vehicles the MU6 could be used as a nine-passenger limousine, station wagon, panel truck or even a hearse with no modification other than pulling slides over the side windows and folding the seats in a manner similar to that of a modern mini van. Then there was the Jeep prototype of 1940. In appearance and primary mechanical components, it was the prototype built by American Bantam for testing by the United States Army. The Checker twist was this model featured four-wheel drive as well as four wheel steering! However, the most successful and most memorable of all the non-taxi vehicles built by Checker has to be the Aerobus. Many associate this “stretch” station wagon with the last years of the company when in actuality the Aerobus story began in 1935 with the introduction of the Lycoming eight cylinder powered Y8 series. Built exclusively for the Parmelee Transportation combine were extended wheel base Y8 models in six-door configuration. There is evidence an eight door version was also produced. The next chapter in the history of the Aerobus begins in December of 1954 with the introduction of the A-8 series. On special order, standard model A-8’s were shipped to Armbruster-Stageway of Fort Smith, Arkansas were stretched to accommodate eight doors with comparable seating. As the mechanical components were not modified from the stock 226 c.i.d., six-cylinder Continental engine coupled to a three speed transmission the additional weight made the vehicles performance worse than anemic. While this was a detriment in the United States where highway improvements were resulting in higher speeds in other countries the almost truck like attributes of these stretched Checker’s was ideal. The majority of this generation Aerobus was shipped to Middle Eastern countries, most notably Turkey. The association with Armbruster-Stageway would continue through 1961. With the addition of more powerful engines, the Aerobus steadily increased in popularity so as a result in that year the decision was made to improve profitability of these vehicles by building them entirely in house. The Kalamazoo Gazette for June 21, 1961 noted, “…a completely new line of vehicles – the Checker Aerobus. Produced in both six-door, 9 passenger and eight door, 12 passenger models…” For 1963, a larger Continental six-cylinder engine rated at 141 horsepower became an option in the basic Checker sedans and station wagons and standard in the Aerobus. For most companies an order for seventy-two units would have been laughable, for Checker an order for that number of Aerobus by the United States government that year was seen as confirmation that targeting niche markets was still the companies’ strong point. Even though the sales of the Aerobus in the United States were on the increase, the cars were still the spearhead of the companies’ penetration into foreign markets. A few importers took a page from the Checker playbook and began modifying these vehicles to local niche markets. Perhaps one of the most notable entrepreneurs who staked their fortune on such markets was Patrick Seton who opened the first Checker dealership in Sweden during the mid 1950’s. The first endeavor involved the modification of a six door, 152.5 inch wheel base Aerobus into a prisoner transport vehicle for the Swedish prison system. His second was to replace the seats in a similar car with smaller ones and then selling the cars to school systems in Sweden as school busses. In 1966, de Giorgi, a Swiss coachbuilder began modifying the Aerobus into several different configurations including ambulances. Though the idea was a sound one, only three were built; two were sold in Switzerland and one in France. For 1968, Checker greatly expanded the list of engine options to include a Chevrolet built 230-c.i.d., 140 horsepower six cylinder, 200 horsepower 307-c.i.d. V8 and a 275 horsepower 327 c.i.d. V8. In the late summer of that year a Perkins diesel, the first diesel engine available in an American passenger car, also became available. In spite of these overdue improvements, overall sales at Checker stumbled with Aerobus leading the decline. As a result, in 1970 the Aerobus became available by special order only. A redefined version of the Aerobus with standard sedan trunk rear rather than station wagon made its debut to a tepid response in 1976. After the production of only 107 units, the Aerobus was unceremoniously dropped with almost no notice from the press or the motoring public. Six years later, all production ceased and one of the most unique chapters in American automotive history drew to a close. For those who march to a different drummer the Checker, more than twenty years after the cessation of production, still presents an irresistible draw. Though the Aerobus has yet to show similar popularity with the resurgence of interest in station wagons how long can it be before they too are resurrected for the ultimate bring the crowd along vintage cruiser?
*click on photos to enlarge/photos courtesy of Hudson-Essex-Terraplane Club, Inc.
What does this photo of an Essex panel truck, a Hudson pick up truck and the 1916 Hudson race car with Ralph Mulford have in common? Well, several things.
They represent the diversity of a legendary automaker that fans and aficionados will be celebrating at a wide array of centennial celebrations in 2009.
They are also a sneak peak at what readers will discover in the March issue of Cars & Parts, a special issue celebrating 100 hundred years of Hudson. My contribution will be two features, one profiling the legend that is the first generation Super Six and another that introduces readers to the array of “other” products and vehicles built by Hudson.
In future postings I will keep you updated on events and celebrations that will commemorate this historic centennial.
So, you want to be a writer. Well, before you quit your day job let me give you a quick look into the life of a “successful” writer.
As I have a full time job most evenings and weekends in August were spent finalizing the text for Ghost Towns of the Southwest and correlating a source file for illustrations in an effort to meet the September 1st deadline. I also met the deadline for submission of my monthly column, The Independent Thinker, for Cars & Parts magazine.
September was a bit of a blur as in addition to the monthly column I initiated promotion of Route 66 Backroads, due for release at the end of October, and the second printing of Backroads of Arizona scheduled for release at the same time. This included updating this blog, my blog on Amazon.com, discussing the book on numerous forums and laying out a battle plan for October. In my spare time I gave a sermon in Peach Springs, attended a birthday party and all of the other things that make up the day to day life her on planet earth.
I kicked off October with a romantic interlude to celebrate our 25th anniversary and reward my dear wife for her patience, her support, her prayers, and her encouragement that played an important part in the completion of another book. The only thing better than having an uninterrupted weekend with my wife is having an uninterrupted weekend with my wife in a place like Bisbee interspersed with long drives through some of the finest country in the southwest.
The remainder of the vacation week was spent sending out press releases, putting out fires at the office, granting interviews to the Jackson Citizen Patriot, Esquire, the local television stations About Kingman program, and the scheduling of book signings.
To say I have been blessed in these endeavors would be an understatement. Next week I have an interview on AM Arizona. Plans are afoot for a holiday signing at Hastings Books & Music in Kingman, another at Auto-Aero Books in Burbank, California, the week of the Los Angeles Auto Show in November, and another at the Barstow Route 66 Mother Road Museum the following day.
Along the way I have discovered some great sites, wonderful folks, and some inspirational people. In the latter category is Ralph Teetor, the subject for the February, 2009, installment of The Independent Thinker.
This amazing man obtained the first patent for an automatic transmission, for cruise control, and dozens of other things. He started a scholarship program and spearheaded educational initiatives. Incredibly he accomplished all of this and more even though he was blinded in an accident at the age of five!
There is a country song that sums it up quite well, I believe part of the lyrics note this is a crazy, magic, sometimes tragic, awful wonderful life. I must agree.
At this rate I may really fulfill that childhood dream and become a writer when I grow up!
Here are a few links for delightful internet detours discovered in my adventures during the past few months.
Veloce Publishing publishes a wide array of interesting books such as the recent biography of Virgil Exner. However, as they are a British publishing house the books to a large degree target European interests.
As my knowledge of European automotive history is embarrassingly anemic I have come to really appreciate their books. From that perspective this title fills another gap in my education.
Additionally as a truck kind of fellow I tend to think of those mechanical workhorses from a truly American perspective. It was for that reason I found this delightful little volume so entertaining.
These little trucks are almost comical in nature. Still, the text is so well written and the photography is of such a professional quality I can honestly recommend this title for those interested in the obscure or the collector who needs to take a walk on the lighter side of the hobby. For more information about this or other titles offered by Veloce Publishing check out their website – www.veloce.co.uk
It would seem I am not alone in my fascination with the diamond in the rough that is the colorful old mining town of Bisbee, Arizona. Among the notables who have stopped by, stayed awhile or discovered the pleasures of dining here are Senator John McCain, John Wayne, Stephen King, William Shatner, and a host of equally notable celebrities.
Some months ago as I began contemplating a suitable location to celebrate twenty five years of marriage to my dear wife, Bisbee began to dominate my thoughts. By early September those thoughts were made manifest with reservations at the legendary Copper Queen, a true gem.
Our adventure began as a tinge of pink illuminated the eastern horizon. Before the sun had cleared the mountains the mini van rented for the occasion was loaded and we were rolling south on I40 into the foothills of the Hualapai Mountains.
The drive from Kingman to Phoenix is a scenic one and often reminds of the old days on Route 66 – road construction, traffic, impatient drivers, slow drivers, and small towns such as Wikieup and Wickenburg where the highway is the main street. Still, though there are signs of new development scattered along the way and the highway is fast becoming a four lane there are more than enough vestiges from the past to provide that feeling little has changed in the forty plus years I have been running this old highway.
Phoenix is another story. The freeway system has negated the nightmare that was traversing the city via Grand Ave, an endless string of traffic lights. Still my feelings are that Phoenix has to a large degree mortgaged its pioneer spirit and frontier heritage to become a suburb of Los Angeles. Suffice we ran the gauntlet and survived.
The traffic between Phoenix and Tucson is steady and heavy. Adding to the fun was extensive construction that had many exits closed in Tucson.
As always my dear bride knew exactly when the pressure relief valve was about to blow so at her suggestion we stopped at Ihop in Casa Grande. In true adventurer spirit my wife opted for the pumpkin pancakes while I indulged in an omelet.
Shortly after clearing Tucson we turned south towards Tombstone, Bisbee, and Douglas. I love this drive.
With the exception of Tombstone the small towns such as St. David and the pastoral landscapes hearken to an earlier, less rushed era when the term generic had yet to be coined to describe almost every aspect of American society.
Tombstone is an interesting blend of historic, historic recreation, fanciful, and down right hokey. The popularity with tourists for places such as this has always amazed me. Attesting to that popularity a new Holiday Inn Express now dominates a hill to the north of town.
Still, there are two attractions that really are worth seeing here. One is the courthouse, the smallest state park in Arizona. The second is the Rose Tree Inn.
The latter is a very informative private museum housed in an historic building. Among the surprises awaiting discovery are artifacts from the Doolittle Raid in World War II.
The Macia family has owned this property for many years. Col. James Macia was a navigator on one of the bombers in that historic raid.
However, the most amazing find here is in the backyard, the worlds largest rose bush spread over an arbor covering more than 8,000 square feet. The bush has grown from a single root imported from Scotland and planted in 1885.
My wife’s family has a long association with Tombstone. In addition to being related to the Macia family, her father was born here. His father was the sheriff in Cochise County during the early 1920s. He also owned an old hotel that burned in the late 1930s. The drive south from Tombstone across the rolling high desert plains and into the Mule Pass Mountains is a pleasant one. Then, abruptly, the maw of a tunnel seems to swallow the highway as it crests a hill. The completion of this tunnel and construction of a highway above Bisbee in 1958 eliminated the nightmare of traffic on the narrow streets of the old town.
On my first visit to Bisbee in driving through the tunnel I was stunned to pass from a desert landscape into a true time capsule from 1910 dusted with snow. I suppose that is why for me the tunnel is viewed as a portal to another world.
As this was my wife’s first visit since she was an infant it was a delight to see the look on her face as we exited the tunnel and turned from the modern highway to the old one that winds though town in Tombstone Canyon.
Fueled by closure of the mines in the 1970s the old town has dwindled from a peak population of almost 25,000 to about 6,500. Still something like 98% of the historic district remains intact.
Our goal was the Copper Queen, a vintage hotel that was, and still is, the crown jewel in the treasure box that is Bisbee. The hotel has been refurbished to Motel 6 standards, in other words it has been updated from the original configuration in several key areas, most notably all rooms now have a private bath rather than a shared one at the end of the hall. Another change is that an elevator was added in 1940.
The result is the ability to enjoy a few modern conveniences in an atmosphere little changed from when this hotel represented the height of modern sophistication for 1905. To a large degree the hotel, the saloon, and Winchester’s restaurant are as they were when Teddy Roosevelt stayed here.
When I made the reservation inquiries were made as to special packages. Even though I was informed there were none available the staff and management exceeded expectations and surprised me. Upon arrival we found a small bottle of campaign on ice, two chilled glasses, and a polite note of congratulations in our room.
Dining choices in Bisbee are varied and range from a four course dinner in a restaurant that is consistently awarded a four diamond rating to the usual fare of burgers. We chose to dine at Wichester’s in the Copper Queen and were not disappointed.
The food was superb. The atmosphere quaint with an historic touch of class and the staff was most courteous.
Sadly, my schedule prohibited more than a two or three day trip and as Bisbee is four hundred miles south of Kingman the next morning it was time to begin the run home. We decided that we would add a couple of hundred miles to the return trip in an effort to avoid the nightmare of driving through Phoenix and to see some of Arizona’s finest landscapes.
So, we drove west across the San Pedro River at the old town of Fairbank, site of the shoot out between Jeff Davis and Three Finger Jack in 1905 and across the flower dappled fields near Soniata, the heart of Arizona’s wine country. As an historic foot note the wineries in this part of Arizona predate those in California.
This is a gorgeous drive that ends with startling abruptness at the border town of Nogales. Here we turned north towards to Tucson but made time for stops at Tubac, San Xavier del Bac, and the ruins at Tumacacori, remnants from the Spanish colonial era. We battled our way through Tucson and headed north toward Oracle, Winkleman and Globe. This is one of many overlooked scenic drives in Arizona, something I hoped to remedy with Backroads of Arizona.
From Globe we continued north past Roosevelt Dam to Payson, and down the mountain to historic Camp Verde. By the time we made Payson dusk was fast becoming dark, not something I relish as the woods that border the road are a haven for deer as well as elk.
On our trip to New Mexico last year I had a close call with several elk standing in the middle of the road in the early morning hours when rounding a curve. This year the near misses included a large peccary near Globe and a couple deer in the hills above Camp Verde.
We ended our adventure with a great, late dinner at the Pine Country Restaurant in Williams, one of our favorite places to eat and one I highly recommend for the Route 66 enthusiast.
Suffice to say it was a whirlwind adventure – 1,046 miles in two days. I learned long ago that it is the company, not the sites, sounds or attractions that make a great drive. On this trip I had the best company a man could ask for. I also have a new box of memories including the glow of my dear wife’s face in the candle light as we watched the lights come on in Bisbee far below.
As the song says I feel sorry for anyone who isn’t me.
One final unrelated note. I received an advance copy of Backroads of Route 66 today and must say I was quite impressed, and this isn’t because I wrote it.
My hope is you find it as exciting but of even more importance I hope that as with Backroads of Arizona (now in its second printing!) you find it an invaluable resource for discovering the secrets on the road less traveled.