Vintage Checkers Return to Brooklyn
For a few hours, Box Street, a semi-industrial thoroughfare in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, seemed a whole lot like Kzoo.
Kzoo is the city-endorsed nickname (and its approved spelling) for Kalamazoo, Mich. — a place that Checker automobile enthusiasts know as the home of the beloved, boxy taxicabs that toiled in New York and other cities in their heyday from the 1950s until production ceased in 1982.
So here on a recent afternoon, at a rare free exhibition of more than 50 gleaming Checkers, was Benjamin Haber, age 3, crawling about the cavernous front seat of a radiant yellow 1978 model, a former New York City cab. He was ecstatically blowing the ahooga horn from a Model A Ford that had been installed near the steering wheel.
“Want to see me blow it again?” Benjamin asked.
“Sure,” said Victor Coiro, who has owned the retired Checker cab since 1990. The horn blasted out “ahooga!” once more. Mr. Coiro smiled and placed a metal toy Checker replica into the boy’s hand as a gift. Benjamin beamed, then promptly blatted out another “ahooga!”
Mr. Coiro had driven only from Staten Island, but other owners had herded their Checkers to Greenpoint from as far away as California, Florida, Maine, Michigan and Washington state for the privilege of schmoozing and preening at the Checker be-in. The gathering was part of the Checker Car Club of America convention, held this year for four days in New York City, attended by some 120 members of the 275-member club based in, yes, Kalamazoo.
Jim Garrison, president of the Checker Car Club, said passengers loved Checkers because of “the big, round, friendly design and for the sense of safety and comfort they offered.” The club publishes a quarterly newsletter, maintains a website and organizes the annual conventions.
New Yorkers, especially, still love Checkers because “it’s bagels, it’s pizza — it’s New York,” said Michael Angelich, a Checker historian from Huntington, N.Y.
Ben Merkel, who owns 15 of the cars and had driven from Middlefield, Ohio, in his stretched 6-door 1967 Aerobus, said that “seeing Checkers, younger people feel they missed something, and older people feel nostalgic.”
That was true of Judy Rubin, who grew up in New York and now lives in Huntington Woods, Mich. “These Checkers look so cartoony, and they bring back so many memories,” she said, strolling the show with her son, Ari, who lives in New York.
“I love that these Checkers don’t have that TV screen blaring at you until you find the off switch,” Mr. Rubin said.
Another visitor, Arthur Szu, owner of a body shop in Amityville, N.Y., sauntered down the row of parked Checkers and said: “I would love to own one. I’d like to rebuild one.”
The tanklike Checker still has an outsize reputation 32 years after the last one came off the assembly line. Checkers were so embedded in American culture that Travis Bickle, the antihero of “Taxi Driver,” the 1976 Martin Scorsese film, drove one. The workhorse vehicles of the 1978-83 sitcom “Taxi” were Checkers as well.
Although Checker Motors had been building taxis for decades, many of which were in service on New York streets, it was the slab-sided, legroom-liberating Checker A8, introduced in 1956, that won many riders’ hearts, along with later models like the A11. These two-ton behemoths could just as easily accommodate bicycles and umbrella strollers as squalling siblings, and their mystique was enhanced by their celebrated folding jump seats.
After New York authorized smaller vehicles as taxis in 1954, cabbies began switching to cheaper cars. But Checker worship persisted, and in the 1970’s Checkers still were nearly half of the city’s taxi fleet.
But by the early 1980s the assembly line succumbed to rising gasoline prices, new safety regulations and other challenges. The last fare-collecting Checker cab retired from New York streets in 1999, and the company sold off its assets in 2010, a year after declaring bankruptcy.
Mr. Garrison, the club president, who still lives in Kalamazoo, was a Checker tool-and-die maker for 32 years and met his wife, Gwen, when she also worked there. Is she 100 percent behind his hobby? “Well, I’m 75 percent behind it,” she said, laughing. “Let’s say I’m tolerant.”
Checkers are such celebrities that drivers are even waylaid by officers of the law. “The first time I was stopped by the police, I thought they were going to give me a ticket, but they just wanted a picture with the cab,” said Michael Pincus, who arrived in his 1981 Checker taxi, which had once roamed New York City. “Then it happened twice more.”
Mr. Coiro said of his 1978 Checker, “I have to keep the back doors locked when I drive it around the city because people try to open the doors all the time — they think I’m looking for fares.”
He said he gave the toy Checker to 3-year-old Benjamin because “when I was his age, my grandfather took me to a vintage car show and let me sit in an old car, and I really got into it — so I wanted the boy to remember this.”
Mr. Angelich, the historian, estimated that more than 100,000 Checkers were manufactured and some 1,000 were still running. But Mr. Garrison, the club president, put the total at 250,000 and the working number at 600 or so.
“The main reason that I love my Checker is the human connection,” said George Laszlo, head of the convention’s host committee. “It’s a people magnet that allows me to have really fascinating conversations. Nobody walks up to a Hyundai Sonata with a yen for a soulful conversation.”
Another great reason to own a vintage Checker is that “they don’t have recalls,” said Ron Leatz, a retired fire chief from Dowagiac, Mich., who had driven his 1979 Checker to the show.
Joseph Rabbene affectionately patted his 1970 Checker Marathon and explained how, at age 10, he traveled from Malverne, N.Y., with his next-door neighbor on her trip to buy that very same car at the dealership in midtown Manhattan. Returning home, “I was the first passenger who ever was driven in it,” he recalled, and as a youth he used to polish it. “So she left it to me in her will in 1994,” he said. “I’ve always loved it, and I hope my grandchildren will drive this Checker.”
At dusk, as the car show was waning, Mr. Laszlo estimated that 500 people had visited the 51 Checkers on Box Street, which included Mr. Laszlo’s 8-door, 12-passenger, 24-foot-long Checker Aerobus.
The Checker-owner record-holder at the show was Joe Pollard, who has 100 working Checkers in Chatsworth, Calif., and has rented them for film shoots including “Anchorman 2,” “Saving Mr. Banks” and most recently “Jersey Boys.” He manufactures Checker parts “because for a lot of them, you can’t cannibalize anymore,” he said.
These days, as both Checkers and owners have gotten older, club membership has declined a bit, Mr. Merkel said, adding, “It’s getting down to the die-hards now.”