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Checker Marathon, America's Generic Automobile

Posted on 18 April 2015

Oddly, one of the most famous automobiles in American history remains nameless for most people. It made billions of trips hauling millions of Americans over its 22 year production run, and outlived the Ford Model T by three years. It appeared thousands of times in countless movies, and if any American over twenty years old was asked to draw a taxi cab, they would likely draw a picture of one of these... even though they've been out of regular service since the early 90's. 

The car is the Checker Marathon. With a bulbous body, sparse trim, bumpers like building girders and ugly unbranded hubcaps, the Marathon is a real-life caricature of 1950's American cars. Its styling was dated and cheap looking even when new, giving it the feel of a Soviet Plymouth knockoff. The "design department" was actually just a corner of the factory that had been partitioned off with a couple of curtains. One might consider the Checker a truly generic American car.

The Marathon ran any number of engines, from Kaiser (as in Kaiser Permanente) inline sixes, to Chevrolet big block eight cylinders, to Oldsmobile diesels. Their running gear was also a mixed bag. They made their own bodies and some suspension parts, but many of their parts were sourced from other American auto manufacturers. By picking and choosing the toughest parts and making their one model in small batches, Checker somehow managed to make an extremely robust car while Detroit was busy making shoddy monstrosities. 

Though the Marathon is known for its ponderous, tractorish handling and a less than velvety ride, it was lauded by its drivers and riders for its ruggedness, spacious passenger compartment, large couch-like seats, and flat floors. They were largely used for commercial purposes by cab companies and police departments, but Checker even sold a few hundred cars a year straight to consumers.

Perhaps Checker Motor's greatest achievement was their record number of back-to-back profitable years. For the six decades following its 1922 debut Checker ended every year well within the black. The first year it took a hit was 1982, the last year the Marathon rolled off the production line. That's particularly surprising considering Checker's 1920's-built-by-hand production methods and incredibly low production numbers, rarely breaking more than 8,000 cars in a year. "Model years" were not a relevant concept at Checker. The cars only changed if required to by regulation or if parts availability demanded it. 

The Marathon died a slow death, with production numbers dwindling through the 70's as The Big Three's large flimsy sedans became too cheap for cab companies to resist. The end of the Marathon was not the end of Checker, but it was the end of their famous cars. Checker Motors lasted until 2009 stamping out body panels for Chevy. When they finally buttoned up their little factory in Kalamazo, it spelled the official end for independent auto manufacturers in the United States. Hudson, Nash, Studebaker, Packard, and AMC had all folded long before the little cab company went bankrupt. But they still live on, immortalized in every film about New York from the 60's or 70's.


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