News

New Checker Vehicles Are Still Coming in 2018

checker-pickup-1

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.

checker-sedan-side-view

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.

checker-pickup-rear-view

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.

14 Comments

  1. PrincipalDan says:

    El Checkero. Can I get the Diablo package? (Like a GMC Caballero.)

  2. OldManPants says:

    The Checker is absolutely automotive OldManPants!
    I hope for a Fred Mertz Edition in olive drab Grumpy Green with the No Floo-Floo gray burlap upholstery.

  3. krhodes1 says:

    They were the ultimate Panther – rugged above ALL else.

  4. Lou_BC says:

    Make a lifted 4×4 version. That would be too cool.

  5. FreedMike says:

    Somewhere in hell, Travis Bickle is smiling…or is he?

  6. JustPassinThru says:

    With meticulous care any vehicle can be made to “run forever.” Just be prepared to replace all wear parts periodically…little stuff, like bearings…ball joints…engines, transmissions, rear axles.
    That, and avoid road melting agents, and your Checker, or your Rambler Classic, or your Ford Pinto, will make it to Classic Car status, easily.
    I grant you that heroic rebuildings of an old Checker taxi would still be cheaper than one of these low-volume special-edition new ones.

  7. GeneralMalaise says:

    Checkerlove?

  8. highdesertcat says:

    “could explain why some families, who aren’t Texans, use crew-cab pickups rather like a four-door sedan.”
    Yup. That’s why 4-door pickup trucks were so designed; to replace ye olde 4-door sedan like the Crown Vic, Mercury Marquis and Chevy Impala.

  9. PrincipalDan says:

    “person of size” – that was much of Checker’s civilian market. I believe it was over on Curbside Classic that someone posted a story about a neighbor that drove a Checker and weighed somewhere around 400 lbs. It was a sad day for that man when he couldn’t buy a new Checker anymore and tried to squeeze into a GM B-body.

  10. lon888 says:

    I’m 55 so I remember riding in them quite vividly. They all “smelled funny” and had cold vinyl seats that seemed indestructible. I was fascinated with the Aerowagons.

  11. SailorHarry says:

    Cool concept. I’d have thought that if you’re making a six door sedan and the two door ute, it would be little additional effort to make the four door sedan as well. But they probably know their market better than I do.
    Regardless the ute’s styling needs a little work. The way the side trim ends at the door is all wrong, either continue it thru the rear quarter or leave it off. And the sail panel is too bulky looking, either slim it down or use the final gen El Camino trick of filling it with glass. That’s my two cents worth of styling analysis.

  12. 30-mile fetch says:

    I want more of this, modern car exteriors are so plasticky.
    The six door looks ridiculous, I’d rather see a standard 4 door sedan.

  13. SCE to AUX says:

    Since we’re friendly with Cuba again, I’ll be that island country has more than enough parts to supply Checker.
    Then they wouldn’t have to pay for expensive tooling for just 200 cars/year.

  14. I was thinking Cuba as well… you beat me to it.
    They could build these in Cuba, and sell the excess production to the islanders. The Checker would be right at home in downtown Havana or along the Malecon. And when it doesn’t want to start any more, a carburetor from a rusty Lada will somehow bolt right on.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*