Being a non-conformist used to mean driving a German or Japanese car. For those who really wanted to make a scene, Sweden was more than happy to provide a quirky Volvo or Saab. Well, that strategy is out. Everything’s just too mainstream.
What’s an individualist to do? Electric cars have become too commonplace, and regulations make building your own car too much of a hassle. Enter Checker, which tentatively plans to build two offbeat versions of an already offbeat classic starting next year.
Checker Motor Cars, based in Haverhill, Massachusetts, is the indirect descendant of the Kalamazoo, Michigan company that cranked out odd but iconic Marathons from 1961 until 1982. Those boxy vehicles, which looked old even when the model debuted, populated taxi fleets from coast to coast and earned the Marathon a cult following. The original company officially bit the dust in 2010 after leaving the auto manufacturing business in 1982. Now, a reborn Checker services and restores those earlier vehicles.
Original parts are dwindling in number, but Checker always made do with components sourced from other manufacturers, most notably, engines from General Motors and suspension parts from Ford. The new company has devised a million ways to keep old Marathons running and on the road. Hell, they’ll drop the old body onto a new frame if need be. What the company can’t do, however, is manufacture a new body for surviving relics, or offer a whole new vehicle.
Well, that could soon change. When Checker released a series of conceptual drawings back in 2015, the company said it hoped to build new cars in limited numbers by 2018. Now, the company is confirming it. With fingers crossed, Checker plans to take advantage of the recent Low Volume Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Act and build two models, a two-door pickup version of its classic sedan (called the Sport Pickup Cross-over), and a six-door, 12-passenger version, similar to the old Aerobus airport hauler. The company says it’s making headway, with a host of suppliers lined up.
Under the new law, a car manufacturer can produce up to 325 replica vehicles per year without worrying about modern safety and crash test standards. Builders can apply for an exemption from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, but still have to meet Environmental Protection Agency emissions standards.
“By no means do we expect to produce thousands of these,” Checkers CEO Steve Contarino told TTAC. “These are boutique-type vehicles.”
The company plans to assemble the vehicles in work cells, forgoing an expensive and unnecessary assembly line. Using as many available parts as possible, a Checker tradition, should keep costs down. Contarino knows the company isn’t catering to high-end clientele, as hotels, tour companies and smaller businesses that want to make a visual statement are expected to make up the bulk of the volume. Of course, it would be great if private buyers show up, he said.
Owners of restored or used Checkers buy the vehicles because they like the old design, and that’s what Contarino wants to offer. Because building bundles of replica Marathons is out of the question, he says it makes sense to instead build small numbers of unusual variants. Production isn’t expected to exceed 200 per year.
As the six-door would require a longer wheelbase, the company plans to source a basic frame with an unboltable center section for use in six-door models. The shortened version would underpin the pickup, as well as vintage models in need of restoration. A GM flex-fuel crate engine will offer the necessary V8 power and be EPA compliant.
No old parts will go into the new Checkers, and not just because the shrinking supply of original components.
“I’d rather use today’s technology than something from the 1980s,” said Contarino. “We’ve got the designs, but it’s a matter of feeling comfortable with making the commitment. We don’t want to make (the models) for just one year.”
While sourcing bumpers and manufacturing the iconic front clip isn’t a problem, a question mark surrounds the body shell. At this point, Checker isn’t sure what material to use: steel, fiberglass and composites are all in play.
“We have proposals for all three,” said Contarino. “There’s advantages to each.”
Right now, there’s a key unknown that could hold up the company’s plans. Essentially, the problem lies with the NHTSA, which oversees replica vehicles built under the new law, and the potential limitations it could place on low-volume manufacturers.
“Right now, there’s no requirements or guidelines for a replica automobile,” he said. “Will they say that you just need seatbelts, doors and four wheels, or will they hold us back? Without any guidelines on body integrity, where do you go with that? You can make the vehicle, but at the end of the day we don’t know what the NHTSA might want to change.”
Contarino has written to the regulator in the hopes of finding some clarity, but hasn’t heard back. He claims that, like himself, other potential low-volume producers are just “waiting to see who builds the first car” under the new law. The reborn DeLorean Motor Company could be that company, he added.
As for his own company’s production target of late 2018, Contarino claims the timeline hinges on body shell development and a timely go-ahead from the NHTSA.