Forgotten Checkers

Winkoff custom Checker

Stylish 1930 Checker Model M
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Forgotten Checker

By Jim Hinckley

For most automotive manufacturers a special products division built vehicles to the demands or specifications of a single customer, as publicity for the company, to highlight advanced components or as a display for innovative styling. In this Checker was unique as niche market vehicles and special orders were an integral component in the companies’ annual production. There is a plethora of enigmatic chapters in the history of Checker but these special projects present the most intriguing stories.
One of the more fascinating of these was built in 1931 on a Model M chassis for Samuel Insull. Though the car, with the exception of the blacked out side windows, appeared to be a standard model there was nothing standard about this car built to Insull’s specifications.
The body was lined with saw steel and gun cotton that would allow the car to be almost bullet proof, likewise the one and one half inch thick windows. As the finished product weighed in excess of 1,500 pounds more than a standard Model M, and the engine and transmission were the same as that used on standard production models, heavier suspension as well as special gear and axle rations were added to compensate for the additional weight.
The reasons for Insull selecting Checker or for commissioning the building of such a rolling fortress are unknown, as is much of his early history. Insull, a British immigrant, had since his arrival in the states served as personal secretary to Thomas Edison and as vice president of Edison General Electric.
Shortly after taking delivery of the custom Checker charges of violation of bankruptcy laws, fraud and embezzlement were leveled against Insull. Somewhere between fleeing to Europe and his extradition back to the United States, the Checker disappeared.
Another lost Checker, or Checkers, dates to 1925. Even though the company was only three years old, its reputation for the construction of rugged, durable taxis was already firmly established. Frivolity was not the companies’ forte and its cars were as utilitarian as a truck.
Yet an advertisement in the Automobile Blue Book for 1925, an automotive route guide of that period, shows a sporty Checker roadster with “Automobile Blue Books Official Car” on the doors. The accompanying advertisement reads, “The maker of Checker Cab, a vehicle with over a billion miles of performance recorded, is a transportation organization in the Automobile Industry that compares to any leader in other fields of transportation. A car must be sturdy, long lived, economical on upkeep and performance, also easy riding to do Blue Book road drafting all over the country and the Checkers are giving satisfaction.”
Throughout the lean years of the Great Depression the company remained solvent, largely the result of special product construction. In 1935, utilizing the Model Y chassis, the company built extended six and eight door models for the Parmelee Transportation System. In 1937, the company expanded this side business by supplying commercial bodies for Hudson, small trailers sold through Sears & Roebuck and cube van boxes for Ford, Dodge and International chassis.
Repeatedly the management at Checker found ways to modify their vehicles, with little expenditure of precious capital, to meet the needs of a small market. While a few met with a hint of success, others missed the mark and were doomed to obscurity, even among enthusiast of the stalwart Checker.
An article from the March 16, 1969, Kalamazoo Gazette, noted, “The unit converts into an ambulance with little effort, leading Markin (the companies founder) to note that such conversion possibilities make the Medicar available as low cost emergency vehicles for police, fire, civil defense, and other governmental agencies. In the ambulance configuration, the car can accommodate one stretcher and one wheel chair, while it can be converted into an eight passenger family car when not needed as an wheelchair car or ambulance.”
The short-lived Medicar made its debut in 1969. Built on the extended “E” chassis this vehicle was standard Checker sheet metal with the exception of the roof that had been raised ten inches and modified rear door hinging that allowed for them to be swung open a full one hundred eighty degrees. Components specific for the Medicar included ramps in the rocker panels and wheel locks in the rear floor where the seat was in standard models.
Inspired by the companies’ niche market creations Marvin Winkoff, a former regional sales manager for Checker, relocated to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in the mid 1970s and founded Checker Southeast Corporation. Under his direction new Checker sedans received dramatic face lifting that included stylish rear quarter windows, vinyl roofs, two tone paint, chrome trim accents and richly appointed interiors. The Winkoff custom Checkers are a prized commodity among enthusiasts of the Kalamazoo built cars.
Today the cars produced by Checker are rare, treasured icons. However, the true gems are the specialty models that made Checker the king of the independent manufacturers.

Editorial reviews

Texas Driver, November-December 2005″…an old-fashioned family vacation…kitschy, informative…a whole lot of fun. Well-written, entertaining…can keep you browsing for hours.” Review
Road & Track, May 2006
“Satisfyingly more than a pictorial pot-boiler, these 320 oversized pages show signs of thoughtful research on everything from the Lincoln Highway (Route 66 for an earlier generation) to Earl Scheib (‘I’ll paint any car any color for only $29.95’).”
Hemmings Classic Car, June 2006 (circ.: 36,000)
“More than a few books chronicling the American road have passed through our inbox and been reviewed in these pages. When this one arrived, we groaned reflexively, figuring we’d found yet another volume joyously recounting the kitschy glories of Route 66. We were pleased, however, to learn that in this large-format paperback … the authors fire a quick-shot series of features at literally all things automotive, or at least auto-related.

“The brisk writing and reader-friendly style make this a good one-shot volume of what our hobby’s all about.”
Auto Aficionado, March/ April 2007 “The Big Book of Car Culture: The Armchair Guide to Automotive America turned out to be thoroughly engrossing and entertaining. It is well researched, unearthing some information that is usually not found in print, and delightfully illustrated.” Classic American (UK), Winter 2006“If you’re looking for a good all-around book about American car culture, then this is it! Beautifully illustrated with period color (where possible) pictures.”Scotland Daily Record, November 2, 2005″It’s a power-packed paperback on the weirdest and wackiest wheels ever seen in the U.S.” Book DescriptionFor readers who love cars and the open road, heres the ultimate fun armchair compendium to automotive Americana. Illustrated with hundreds of photos, period ads, postcards, gas-station giveaways, and more, this whimsical collection of nearly 150 roadside icons features all the old chestnuts, like drive-in restaurants, service stations, Route 66, and tail fins, as well as off-beat and less obvious sides of roadside America, like the Weinermobile, the breathalyzer, and even Earl Scheib, who built an empire based on $99 paint jobs. Written by Route 66 denizens and veteran Americana authors Jim Hinckley and Jon Robinson. About the AuthorJon Robinson and Jim Hinckley are veteran writers who specialize in topics related to the American automobile and roadside culture. Robinson is the author of MBI titles such as Route 66: Lives on the Road and Classic Chevrolet Dealerships. Hinckley is the author of an exhaustive history of the Checker Cab Company and a forthcoming travel book on his native Arizona. Both authors live in iconic Route 66 towns: Robinson in Victorville, California, and Hinckley in Kingman, Arizona.

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