The design of the Checker Marathon Cab is generally accredited to Russian born Morris Markin (or more accurately Морис Маркин, that’s if you can read Russian) . Markin born 1893 in Smolensk, Russia worked in a Russian clothing factory, at the age of 19 he was promoted to supervisor and his thoughts turned to bigger things. He soon decided to emigrated to the United States, landing at Ellis Island, New York, speaking no English and not even with enough money to pay the bond to enter the country – thankfully a janitor at the harbour lent him the $25 for the bond.
Markin made his way down to Chicago to live with his Uncle, here he worked a string of low paid part time jobs until a tailor took him on and provided him with a trade, his fortunes had started to change! When the tailor died Markin bought the business on credit from the tailors widow and made a success of it, enough of a success to bring his 7 sisters and brothers over from Russia and instantly expanded his workforce. As World War I broke out, Markin and one of his brothers opened a factory specifically to make trousers for army issue, this contract ensured the company went from strength to strength.
1921 and 1922 proved to be big years for Markin, in these two years he moved into the car industry, at first by chance and then by acquisition. He had once loaned $15,000 to an engineering company, as they couldn’t pay him back he chose to take over the failing company instead. From there he then bought a failed automotive company Commonwealth Motors, the perfect outlet for an engineering company. With what seems now to be a goal in mind, he continued to acquire businesses, he bought the defunct Handley Knight Motor chassis plant and the Dort Motor Car Company body plant, and if that wasn’t enough he picked them all up and moved them from Chicago to Kalamazoo, Michigan a distance of 147 miles.
At that point I would’ve had a rest! But not Markin, at the end of 1922 he formed the Checker Cab Manufacturing Company and formed an alliance with Checker Taxi, then a taxi drivers’ association. His plan to manufacture and operate taxi’s, inspired by John D. Hertz was almost complete, but it would take him a further 7 years before it was mission accomplished.
So why yellow? The now iconic yellow colour was actually first used by John D. Hertz, who read a study published by the University of Chicago in 1915, the study determined that yellow was the easiest colour to see at distances. Hertz who had formed a cab company in 1914 created by recycling used cars, decided to get an edge on the competition and painted all his cabs bright yellow. During it’s early years the company was involved in considerable illegal activity relating to mobsters and in particular to the Chicago Outfit (also known as Chicago Syndicate, Chicago Mafia, Chicago Mob). Yellow Cab became involved in a bitter rivalry with Checker Taxi at the time which led to a number of shootings, deaths and firebombings.
Unperturbed by all of this, in 1929 Markin bought Yellow Cab from Hertz. Markin now had all he needed to make, sell and operate taxis across the United States. Hertz concentrated his efforts in the car rental arena – incidentally the yellow colour idea remained with him, still to this day the Hertz logo is almost the same colour as the Checker Marathon Cab.
The Chequer Cab Company was soon introduced to New York by Chequer Taxi’s distributor Henry Weiss, fare war broke out, with Checker Taxi Co and Terminal Taxi Co staff fighting it out in New York City. To end the dispute, New York Mayor Jimmy Walker created the New York Taxi Cab Commission, which ruled that all cabs in New York had to be purpose-built cabs, not consumer car conversions. This ruling alone played right in to the hands of Checker Taxi, they made purpose-built cabs!
The car itself, The Marathon is one of those machines that was designed mainly for it’s function rather than it’s form, however because of it’s iconic status it’s hard now to call it ugly. It is, what it is and has oozed it’s way into the minds of millions over the years as the iconic symbol of an New York Taxi. Cobbled together from an array of parts it’s the circa 1956 model that has become the icon of today, with a number of variants along the way the cab had a 229-cubic-inch (3.8 liter) V-6 engine, automatic 3-speed transmission, and 23 gallon fuel tank capacity and an unladen weight of 1.7 Tons. With an average of 19 miles per gallon it’s amazing to think that the same model remained in production from 1956 until 1982, with the last one retiring in 1999.
Today New York Taxis are still painted yellow, they may have lost the chequer line graphic and the model has changed, but for all it’s quirks the Checker Marathon Cab still remains the iconic New York Taxi.
On a final twist to this story, the Checker Marathon Cab was a ‘big ole gas guzzler’ and not at all suited to the eco friendly, fuel efficient 21st Century … but way back in 1897 the first New York taxi was …. electric! Yes electric! Developed and operated by Samuel’s Electric Carriage and Wagon Company. Funny how things are often ciclical.
Some useful links:
- 1982 Checker Marathon Taxi Cab