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I want to be a cab driver

Checker Marathon (1979)

11/04/2013 07:01 |  Comments: 


Former car restorer, damper designer, rotary-engine guru and also an automotive engineer, but generally doesn’t talk much about his former activities. András is our mag’s Leatherman tool: when there’s a project no-one would poke with a stick, he’s the one usually assigned to carry it through. When he’s in Hungary, he works 16 hours daily, then every once in a while he disappears from the horizon. Last time he’s been seen in Auckland… Has a huge garage, lives with a girlfriend.

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Contributing editor

8 years of working for IBM have chiselled Balázs’s English skills to a level inappropriately high for this magazine, but did much to blunt his interest towards office work and computers. Earlier a reader and seldom contributor, also a deeply affected car maniac, he left IBM and joined us for a longer term as a journalist, but he’s back again to making money – at another IT company. Luckily he kept on writing for us and hasn’t dropped his love for photography either.

Everybody knows this car, has seen it in a myriad of American movies and recognizes it as “the” New York cab. When you drive out into the traffic, everybody points at it, saying: “Hey look, a... a....” let me help you. It’s a Checker Marathon.

I was awfully excited: I'm going to drive a Checker! The days before the big Thing were filled with boyish joy blended with ice-cold dread. I was eager to try a car I've been curious about for years, yet I had a dark anticipation that it was going to be a terrible disappointment. Like so many legends we know from the screen, but never have even come close to.

I must admit, I've had a weak spot for the Marathon for a long time. I was surfing the web for countless nights, sifting through weird Brooklyn sites, local papers in Arkansas and the Texas branch of Craigslist, considering seriously if I should book a seat for the next charter flight. Well, if the term “considering seriously” is appropriate for browsing over the ad of a thirty-something second-hand car at 2 o'clock in the morning.

One should try everything that one fancies. This motto might not be a universal wisdom at all, but I believe it's true for cars. I had to face so many disappointments when driving highly praised starships, I can't recommend strongly enough that one should try his or her vehicle of desire. Drive it, and probably you'll be relieved from the pain of yearning. Or not – then you're in deep shit.

In the case of the Checker, every hint pointed to the conclusion that the shiny yellow dream would melt away quickly with the test drive. An American battleship built in the 50's on a frame chassis is not exactly the ultimate in driving pleasure for Europeans like us. Most of them didn't even get a shabby Small Block: in this 79 Marathon, for example, a Chevrolet straight six is burning the petrol with 110 PS. And it has to deal with no less than 1.7 tons of Detroit steel, pressed into the shape of a 5.2 meter long swagger. To add insult to injury, the Marathon is built absurdly high in order to have a flat floor above the prop-shaft, just for the sake of passenger convenience. So it must be crap.

But we know that the Checker Marathon is a legend, and legends sometimes have true origins. The only trouble is that although everybody knows the car, there aren't many left. They may have built it for more than twenty years, from 1961 to 1982 without major changes, but at the peak of production in 1962, no more than 8000 units left the halls in Kalamazoo, and no matter how tough the design is, most of them were heartlessly worn out as cabs.

The few which escaped the shredder are in the hands of fanatics, so you'll find plenty of information about the Checker story, and loads of enthusiastic tales about specific cars, but you'll have a hard time finding a blunt opinion about how the Marathon behaves as a vehicle.

Tainted with all those preconceptions, but with a cleared mind, I finally met the Checker in a small street in my home city, Budapest. What a huge beast for a charming toy car! Since its proportions are more or less normal, you wouldn't think it's as big as an Audi Q7. Of course I knew that the Marathon is an eight-seater and I was prepared for an American-scale car, but the gracious face deceived me.

For a design out of the 60's, the curves are surprisingly modest. When you take a look at what they built in America during those years - just think about the Chevrolet Bel Air or the Oldsmobile 98 - you will find smug, fat ladies, sinking under tons of chrome. In contrast, the Checker was built with a functional purpose: the company owner believed his product would be successful solely for a cab. Later, though they sold some domestic versions as well, but the exception only proves the rule.

Functionality rarely leads to such a pleasant shape. Look at the London taxi, if you dare – it might be lovely for some, but in reality it's clumsy. The Marathon is proud to be born as a utility vehicle. He takes on his fate as a working-class boy: in between the two bulky, cast aluminium bumpers there is probably the most understated sedan of the 60's. From the twin headlamps to the subspherical lid squeezed up by the two headlights, every single curve reveals the date of the design, yet it's so massive and straight-forward, that you are tempted to believe it's younger.

Inside, however, the Checker welcomes us with the charm of a city bus. A huge, awfully rustic Bakelite steering wheel reaches up to the cabbie, the switches are gritted on the dash at random, on the central throne sits the taxi clock. To the right side, there's the holder for the ID of the driver, with two extra-bright bulbs, so the passenger can decipher the name through the half-inch thick partition glass. Thank you, I'd rather take a seat in the back.

For the passengers, the space is king size, you can stretch out, unless there's a need for the jump-seats. Like on a sofa, you can relax and sit out the worst of traffic jams on Fifth Avenue. On the thick seat, pushed back from the line of the rear doors, you feel as if you're in a theatre box, browsing lazily through the five-square-metre pages of the New York Times. However, if a party of five has to be squeezed in the cabin, don't go further than five blocks. If you hadn't been claustrophobic before, now you will be.

I still didn't have the guts to get behind the wheel, where generations of cabbies grinded away zillions of shifts, and who still get sentimental when talking about the Checker.

The taxi-icons of the US

While in Europe, always the contemporary Mercs of the given era had to take on the role of the taxis for decades, in the US, Checker dominated the market. Although the company existed since 1922, let's skip the ancient part and go straight to the 60's, when the Checker Marathon was introduced to the market.

While the older Checkers were truly exclusive to taxi companies, at the end of the day it was the Marathon that became the iconic cab – although it is the one having a consumer version. It was built for more than twenty years with a minimum of modifications, because its reliability and toughness was so highly appreciated. Just think about it, twenty years: that's as if the Golf Mk3 was in production today. The company promised they'd produce it as long as there is demand for it. 1982 was the year for the end to come.

Nevertheless, the Checkers remained the most common cabs until the end of the 80's- our test specimen, for example, still has the 1989 sticker, it was doing its job in New York until then. The last Checker in the Big Apple retired in 1999.

Since the company ceased production in 1982, there's no direct successor to the Marathon, but the next yellow cab icon became the bulky Chevrolet Caprice. It didn't monopolise the cab-ranks as massively as the Checker, but anyone who doesn't see the police car in the Caprice, will remember it as a cab. Anyway, in the 80's and 90's the Caprice was the common ride on the streets of New York City, and since then the yammering of the cab drivers hasn't stopped. The Checker was so much better they say.

This trend continued with the Ford Crown Victoria, the one which just recently went out of production - the cab companies are in deep despair now: what'll happen when they run out of the frame chassis dinosaurs. There are rumours that some of them are setting aside huge fleets, so they can survive at least the next few years before the Nissan NV200 takes over.

Just turn the key and the Checker starts building up your faith. No need for long hurdy-gurdy, blip the starter motor once, and the sound baritone of the six-cylinder emerges. Forget about vibrations – there is no match for a straight-six. I put the lever behind the wheel in D and the Marathon rolls out the Persian rug in front of your feet, you just have to tread on it lightly.

It starts off with strong determination. The silk-smooth automatic hardly lets the engine rev faster than idle-speed, unknowingly it switches into second, or is it already in third? Now you can release the throttle, the mighty body is rolling along with 45 kph, the engine burbles cheerfully, life's good. With infinite calmness, like an old wise man, it slurps the petrol through the carburettor; meanwhile hidden hands drag the scenery slowly by your windows – this is the Checker at its best.

So I sit back instinctively, turn a bit to the passenger with one hand resting on the wheel, and feel at once like a cabbie. “Madison Square? My mistake! Off we go to Heroes' Square.” After a few minutes, when my attention is not fully taken by becoming familiar with the car, I notice how comfortable the seat is. No nauseating, wobbly spring-mattress, but a solid, stuffed foam bench. The steering wheel is ugly, but it's where it should be, and you don't have to stretch for the pedals either. It's not an armchair in your living room, but I get a grasp why the drivers had mourned it for so long.

The atmosphere is a bit like in a lorry, but when we stop at the red light next to a BMW X5 and have to look down on it, I realise that the best analogy to a Checker is a taller type of pick-up truck. And it's not just the position of the seat, but how it moves and steers, the rumbling live axle, the toughness of the mechanical parts. This is not a fragile classic car, it's a monolithic block of steel that would survive two nuclear wars in a row.

There is some slack in the steering, sometimes you can hear a knock from the suspension, but there's no sign of the woozy ride and the dreadful brakes of the standard 60's cars. You set the direction with the truly American one-finger power steering, it leans on its elbow and actually turns in. What a surprise. All right, it's a bit harsh over potholes, but it doesn't flutter uncontrollably, you don't have to fight to stay in lane. Slowly, desire is creeping up my spine. I want it.

I admit it's not a drag racer with its 110 PS, but it's getting on well in the city with its incredible, perfectly tuned automatic. I didn't go faster than 80 kph, but there was no fear of suddenly running out of power. Don't go rallying with the Checker, but for its age and its height it's not so bad in corners, and its comfort is no worse than a recent pick-up truck's – it's an amazing design, I take my hat off to the Kalamazoo engineers.

Remarkably so, since this one is not a cherished vehicle at all. You can see the signs of ten years on duty in New York City, although we don't know too much about what happened to the car between 1989 and 2011. Leslie has bought the Checker just this year from a German company, which used it for advertising. By now, only some urgent welding jobs were done, so he could drive it to some classic car meetings. The restoration process will continue – there are still lots of details needing attention.

But that didn't hurt at all, as we cruised around in Budapest. You could call the battered Checker shabby – if xou don't mind being rude –, but I prefer the term charming. Hey, it's authentic for a taxi to have poorly repainted panels, possibly done during a night-shift, to have a shiny, worn steering wheel, scratchy bumpers, crooked door-panels. It was designed to be treated rough, to resist dozens of rides per shift, to eat up the miles under passengers jumping in and out.

Nevertheless I could imagine this car very well as a daily driver, if it wasn't a bit oversized for the European traffic. And of course, if it wasn't a bit too thirsty, because it does about 13 l/100 kms (18 miles per gallon), if you are careful. Apart from those minor things, it'd be an easy-to-maintain, extremely reliable classic car.

Only if it wasn't so rare. It happened because the Marathon is like a UFO not only in our region, but it also attracts much attention in its home country. And when there is a scarcity of something, its price goes up. You won't find a streetable Checker under ten thousand dollars; the ones meeting classic car standards in Europe are sold for about twice as much, but since there are no more than a few offers per year, it's hard to give exact figures.

So the Checker cabs must have severe identity problems nowadays. After hundreds of thousands of miles, seven-days-per-week shifts, zillions of short stops in their bearings, suddenly they find themselves in a dark garage, from where they can only be unchained at weekends, for parades. I don't envy them, but if we are about to preserve some of those incredible machines, which tell us more about America than burgers and the Statue of Liberty, we have no choice. But please, if you are the lucky one who has a Checker in your garage, take your friends for a ride, let the Marathon remember the good old days.

Taxi on the screen

The Checker Marathon is a bit like Brian Dennehy. Good for one role only, but they excel in it. Their name isn't very well known, but their face is. Even though you won't even remember the titles of the dozen or so films they have played in. To make matters worse, none of them ever got a major role in any blockbusters. Taking all this into consideration, it's quite strange that in the movie FX2 Dennehy, who's playing a private investigator, drives no other car than a Checker Marathon.

NYC's legendary cab became the protagonist only in a memorable TV-series. Maybe some of you remember the comedies called Taxi. The series started in 1978 and continued for five seasons and 114 episodes, with actors who are certainly familiar to you.

The dispatcher of the Sunshine Cab Company was Danny de Vito. One of the drivers, the prior hippy priest is Christopher Lloyd, a.k.a. Emmet Brown in Back to the Future. Also worth mentioning is the ex-boxer cabbie, played by Tony Danza, sitcom star of the 80's.

But for us, the Checker Marathon plays the most important role, especially in the episode, Memories of Cab 804.

Of course, you'll find endless pages of roles for the legendary taxi on IMCDB, ranging from TV-films to Hollywood movies and cartoons. But the only real protagonist will be Cab 804.

Box by Balázs Rézmányi

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