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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?
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