Pawel Litwinski, courtesy of Bonhams
  • Last working Checker cab in New York City
  • Preserved in “as-retired” condition
  • Over $12,000 in recent service
  • Six-cylinder engine
  • Three-speed automatic transmission
  • Coil-spring front and leaf-spring rear suspension

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1978 Checker Cab
Years Produced:1960–82
Number Produced:About 100,000
Original List Price:$6,419
SCM Valuation:$7,000–$15,000
Tune Up Cost:$200
Distributor Caps:$20
Chassis Number Location:Upper firewall
Engine Number Location:Front of engine block, stamped in pad in front of passenger’s cylinder head (SBC)
Club Info:The Checker Car Club of America
Alternatives:1953–57 Chevrolet 150, 1955–56 Dodge Coronet, 1952–56 Ford Mainline
Investment Grade:D

This car, Lot 259, sold for $7,700, including buyer’s premium, at Bonhams’ Greenwich Concours d’Elegance sale in Greenwich, CT, on May 31, 2015.

The universal taxi

In all the history of the automobile, there are few more recognizable models than the venerable Checker Marathon. If you rode in a taxicab in the second half of the 20th century, chances are good you rode in a Checker.

What’s even more interesting is that you couldn’t easily tell if the Checker you were riding in had been built in the 1960s, ’70s, or the early 1980s — the cars simply never changed very much. Like a shark — or maybe a cockroach, depending on your point of view — the Checker Marathon was perfectly evolved to survive in its environment.

As a car company, Checker was always an anomaly, producing anywhere from 1,000 to 8,000 cars per year. In comparison, that was just about one day’s output for Chevrolet in that era. Checker had produced taxis since the 1920s, and after the Marathon went out of production, the company continued producing body panels and parts for other automakers until the economic downturn in 2009 shut their doors. The Marathon and its related models were produced, essentially unchanged, from 1960 to 1982.

One area where the Marathon did change over time was in its engine. At the start of the production run, Checker bought both flathead and overhead-valve straight-6 engines from Continental Motors Company, ranging from 80 to 140 horsepower. But in 1965, the company changed to Chevy engines, offering the good ol’ 230-ci inline 6-cylinder engine and the small-block V8. Over the years, Checker kept pace with Chevrolet, offering current 6-cylinder and V8 engines through 1982.

If you’re ever shopping for a Checker Marathon, note that the 1969 model with the 350 V8 offered up to 300 horsepower if you got the 4-main L48 engine equipped with a 4-barrel carburetor. That’s by far the most powerful Marathon ever made.

The last Checker cab in NYC

This particular Checker Marathon has been verified as the last working Checker cab in New York City. It was retired from service in a Times Square ceremony in July of 1999. The independent cabbie who had owned the car claimed that in the course of almost 21 years, this Marathon had carried celebrities including Jacqueline Onassis, Muhammad Ali, Elizabeth Arden and Walter Cronkite.

Overall, the car’s in pretty good shape, considering its age and mileage. For a car that worked its way through 21 New York winters, it has remarkably little visible rust. Sure, there’s some bubbling up around all the usual places, but the car is far from a rust-bucket. The bumper overriders have been mashed in, but that really just adds to the authentic “as-retired” patina.

The interior seems to be in good shape, right down to the optional rear-facing jump seats in the passenger’s area. And the car comes with its working fare meter. All in all, this is a solid car and a good choice for a collector.

But there’s a lesson in this car and its auction listing, and that lesson is for buyers to do their own homework.

Here’s why: Bonhams listed this car as a 1965 Checker Marathon, but according to the VIN and build plates, it’s a 1978 model. They also said the car has four-wheel drum brakes. According to the VIN plate and the big vacuum booster visible on the brake master cylinder, the car has power front discs.

Bonhams says the engine is a 230-ci inline 6-cylinder rated at 140 horsepower, but a 1978 Marathon came with a 250-ci straight 6 at 105 or 110 horsepower. Further, the engine bay photos clearly show a V6 under the hood. The listing does state that this Checker is on its third engine, but Bonhams should have noticed the difference and mentioned something in their catalog copy.

Fair market price

Most Checker sales in the past five to 10 years have hit a price somewhere between $7,000 and $15,000. But there are plenty that change hands at less than $5,000 and very few that sell higher than $15k. One that sold for $35,000 is reputed to be the very cab that Lee Harvey Oswald hailed after shooting President Kennedy in Dallas (ACC# 162914), and a Marathon that had been carefully restored sold for $25,000. Those are the true outliers. This Marathon sold at a market-correct price of $7,700, given its condition.

What makes this sale interesting is that just after this car was decommissioned as the last Checker cab licensed to operate in New York in 1999, it sold at auction for $134,500. Read that again — I didn’t add any zeroes. The car changed hands privately in 2006, and we don’t know what that price was, but it sure looks like at least one seller took a major haircut on this car.

So what’s the bottom line? Collectibility is in the eye of the beholder, and owning the very last Checker cab to ply the streets of the Big Apple apparently doesn’t count for much. In the end, this is just another Checker cab, and if the 1999 buyer thought it was something special, he was wrong.

(Introductory description courtesy of Bonhams.

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